Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Monday, May 31, 2021

The Catbird's Seat

Gray Catbird 

On Saturday I was telling my husband how hard it would be to come up with a Top Ten, or even a Top Twenty, list of my favorite birds. I recounted a bunch of favorites off the top of my head, but then on Sunday morning, a catbird proved my point. I hadn’t even thought to include catbirds with my favorites, but one singing in the shrubs next to my front porch (listen to it here) made me remember so many splendid encounters with catbirds over the years. Was my favorite the very first one I ever saw, putting the species on my lifelist? That one was mewing in some dense shrubbery on the Michigan State campus, sounding very cat-like but somehow not a cat. Without ever having heard one before, I knew it had to be a Gray Catbird. I searched through the thick foliage, and voila! That most cooperative bird not only let me see his solid gray plumage with distinctive black cap and long, black tail, but also his one splash of color—the deep rusty crissum, or undertail coverts where the belly meets the underside of the tail. Unfortunately, that was May 11, 1975, the same day I saw my first warblers, which I’m afraid eclipsed the poor catbird. 

Throughout that spring I got good at recognizing not just the mews but the catbird’s song—a long string of imitations and cool notes, given at what seems like a leisurely pace yet managing to sound energetic and vibrant. Catbirds may not top the color charts, but their large, innocent eyes, so black against that soft gray face, and their slender form give them an elegant loveliness. 

Gray Catbird

Catbirds usually nest fairly low in tangles of dense shrubbery, but manage better than most birds to duck in when no one is watching. Many times in autumn after leaves are gone I’ve found a catbird nest where I’d had no clue that they were nesting. Cowbirds are much better at finding their nests than we mere humans are, but catbirds are one of the few birds that recognize cowbird eggs and eject them from the nest.  

Soon after I moved to Duluth, I met Koni Sundquist, who seemed to know everything about every kind of bird. She’s the one who told me about setting out jelly for orioles and catbirds. Catbirds are just as likely to nest in yards with no feeders as ones offering grape jelly. They eat plenty of insects as well as berries and other fruits, and they feed their nestlings a protein-rich diet based on insects, so they thrive in yards that enjoy benign neglect, especially regarding pesticides. But the easiest way to see them out in the open is with jelly feeders.  

Gray Catbird

When my daughter Katie was three, she went to half-day Montessori preschool. When the weather finally got pleasant in the spring, she always wanted to have what she called pic-i-nic lunches. She liked eating out there alone, so I’d go back in with her baby brother, but after a few days, she told me she had a new special friend who liked eating pic-i-nic lunches with her. He wasn’t exactly invisible, but wouldn’t come anywhere near unless Katie was alone. He’d be nowhere in sight when I set Katie up with a sandwich, fruit, and a glass of milk in the middle of the picnic table. I’d retreat indoors and peek out the window, and sure enough, Katie’s friend would fly in, straight for the orange bowl of grape jelly in the corner of the picnic table.  

Through the end of May and throughout June into July, Katie’s little friend would fly in as soon as she was settled at the picnic table and I’d gone inside. This little catbird and my little daughter seemed to be having a most companionable pic-i-nic lunch. I always wondered why that catbird was not scared of Katie, and even more puzzled that it so consistently flew in the moment she settled at the picnic table and I'd disappeared. Whenever I hear the expression “in the catbird’s seat,” I always think of Katie and her catbird friend dining together on our pic-i-nic table. Of course there must be a catbird seated on my Top Ten List Favorite Birds. 

(You can hear a few recordings of my most cooperative catbird, singing very close to my microphone, on my Gray Catbird page. I have species pages for most birds, and if I have any recordings, they will show up.)

Gray Catbird

Sunday, May 30, 2021

Chickadee Worries

Black-capped Chickadees nesting in yard

Having chickadees nesting in my dead cherry tree where I can observe them a lot of the time turns out to be far more stressful than I’d ever imagined. As a mother when my children were their most vulnerable, and now as a grandmother, my natural overprotectiveness for my own young could be focused on childproofing the house and researching and acting on best practices for keeping a baby safe and happy. But how on earth can one childproof a backyard? As much as I’ve studied chickadees and done everything I can to make my yard safe for them, it’s impossible to foresee what bad things might happen to them.   

Starling taking over

During their nest-building stage, my trail cam caught a European Starling sticking its head way into the cavity. Chickadees excavate a deep cavity, and there’s no way the starling could have reached it or any eggs within, but it freaked me out. Any nestlings up near the entrance hole could have been killed. And then the starling showed up at the cavity just last week, when starling nestlings are needing more and more protein. Fortunately, the baby chickadees aren’t yet at the stage where they are up by the entrance looking out, but that should happen any day now.   

Black-capped Chickadee--fledging day!

House Sparrows are known to destroy eggs and kill young to steal cavities. These chickadees excavated this hole themselves, which makes it too tiny for sparrows to enter, and House Sparrows don’t live in my neighborhood anyway. But House Wrens are also known to take over occupied cavities, and they’d easily fit in the entrance hole. Wrens are just starting to arrive in this late migration, giving me one more thing to worry about.   

Adult Blue Jay feeding fledgling

Two of my favorite birds, Blue Jays and Crows, will feed their young baby birds of just about any species except their own, and one jay and one crow seem to be keeping track of my chickadee nest. It takes a lot of protein for these large birds to successfully rear young, and tiny songbird nestlings have the exact same moral significance to a parent corvid that caterpillars have for a parent chickadee, but that’s a very hard concept for me to wrestle with. Those little songbird parents grasp the concept of predation completely, putting all their energy into ensuring that their young will not be among the eaten, but those same parents quickly move on and renest if the worst happens. I am not capable of that Zen-like acceptance of how the universe works.   

Of course, it isn’t just predation that birds must take in stride. Parasites, dangerous weather events, diseases, and simple freak accidents take a toll, too. It’s not that birds don’t know about these things. They may not understand them in the detail some of us humans do, but they certainly must understand them in the elemental way that that pre-educated cultures did, with or without the superstitions that members of our species attach to scary phenomena we don’t understand or know how to predict.   

Most birds, like most people, do everything in their power to protect their young and, like people, sometimes fail. Walking through centuries-old cemeteries, we can see the tragic childhood mortality rates of pre-vaccination eras even when people were eating all-natural diets and enjoying healthy immune systems.   

Being all-too-human, I understand the grief people feel when we lose our own loved ones. We often dismiss the grief other human beings suffer in losing their loved ones, especially if those other human beings belong to other cultures, so it’s no mystery why we also dismiss the grief that birds and other wildlife suffer in losing their young. They get on with their lives almost instantly, but that isn’t a choice—it’s the only way they survive. But objective measures of grief in other species, in terms of behavioral and especially physiological responses, turn out to be pretty similar in the species we’ve taken the time and effort to measure.   

My backyard chickadees recognize me—I know this because they often fly to the window the moment they see me there, and don’t seem skittish when I’m photographing them at their nest or as they collect food to bring back to the nest. But I very much doubt that they feel any kind of bond to me, certainly not in the way I feel bonded to and protective of them. So as they continue doing their best to keep their young alive and thriving in the only way they know how, I’ll continue doing everything I can, imagining worst-case scenarios, and worrying. I’m only human. 

Black-capped Chickadees nesting in yard

Friday, May 28, 2021

Pesticides: Just Say NO!!

Chickadee with Baby Food

Now that my backyard chickadees are in a frenzy finding tiny insects, especially larvae, to feed their nestlings, I’ve been thrilled to notice just how much food my backyard affords them. The adults stop by my home office window a few times a day to take a few mealworms, but those apparently simply provide quick meals for parents on the go. They gobble them down in the spruce tree by my window, and then head back to the other trees to search for tinier, more tender offerings for their tiny, tender offspring. They spend much of their hunting time in my crabapple tree, and then head to the nest with several insects in their beak. They dive into the nest hole directly most of the time, so my photographs at the nest don’t show what they’re carrying. But en route, they usually stop briefly in my still-living cherry tree, where I’ve grabbed a few photos showing the insect food.   

Black-capped Chickadees nesting in yard

I’ve never considered using insecticides in my yard, even before my rehab experiences when I took care of one tragic Blue Jay fledgling that was found with horrible neurological problems by a woman whose yard was sandwiched on either side and behind by lawns treated by one of the national lawn services. A lot of people think they’re only getting rid of the dandelions, and don’t consider how bad herbicides can be. And those lawn applications invariably include dangerous insecticides as well, on the off-chance that a given lawn has cutworms. No pesticides are “approved” by the EPA—getting registered does not require them to pass any lab or field testing to ensure that they can’t harm birds. And even if some pesticides were safer than others, what those national companies use are proprietary secrets anyway, so their customers have no way of evaluating their safety.  

Oddly enough, this week I’ve heard of two different situations, one up here in northern Minnesota and the other in Washington, D.C., in which Facebook posters have blithely told others to solve an insect problem with insecticides. The Northland one was when someone posted a photo of a cluster of native forest tent caterpillars  in a fruit tree. Immediately, people were posting about how ugly they are, and how they should spray the entire tree, or set the cluster on fire, before the caterpillars travel to other trees. The defoliation that native caterpillars sometimes cause is mainly an issue of aesthetics—trees, especially native species, usually survive because they evolved with those native species of insects, which tend to be cyclic, giving the trees plenty of time to recover between outbreaks.   

Black-billed Cuckoo

Meanwhile, those very caterpillars are a critical food source for Black-billed Cuckoos, whose populations trace the same cyclical rise and fall as their prey. Bacillus thuringiensis, or “Bt,” an alternative to chemical pesticides, is a bacterial agent that kills young caterpillars and is not toxic to birds, but it’s indiscriminate about which caterpillars it kills—all lepidopteran larvae are vulnerable, meaning someone spraying my apple tree to defend against one kind of caterpillar would eliminate virtually all the food my chickadees are depending on. The complexity of both natural cycles and large communities of plants and animals is more than many people want to consider.  


The other situation in which I’ve heard people clamoring for insecticides is where cicadas are emerging this year. I was in Elmhurst, Illinois, the epicenter of a 17-year cicada emergence in 2007, and I can attest to how ungodly loud they were. I was visiting my sister, who lived in a house close enough to O’Hare that all the doors and windows have to meet a soundproof code. We’d be talking inside and one of my nieces would walk in, and the moment the door opened it was impossible to hear anything but the roar of the cicadas. I’ll certainly admit that it was more fun to visit during the emergence than to live day by day through it, but it’s a unique part of nature, lasts for a few weeks and is over, and provides abundant food for birds. And other than the noise, cicadas don’t hurt anything. And it’s impossible to eradicate them without hurting a lot of other wildlife.   

Anyway, this year’s cicada emergence in the Washington D.C. area coincides with a disturbing outbreak of birds dying from some sort of neurological problems that include blindness. No one knows what is causing this—it’s never been seen before, and so far no one has been able to figure out if the cause is bacterial, viral, or exposure to a toxin. Some people are afraid that the birds are succumbing because so many people are using pesticides to deal with the cicadas. Birds being picked up dead and dying seem mostly to include grackles, Blue Jays, mockingbirds, and bluebirds, all of which are species that feed on cicadas and might indeed have been poisoned from pesticides killing cicadas.   

In an age when people don’t know how to deal with the fellow human beings in our own communities, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that we have trouble dealing with our fellow creatures of other species, including those who have lived in our communities for millennia before we entered the scene. But it’s tragic that the only species on the planet whose members include rocket scientists have so much trouble understanding the simplest concepts of ecology—that what we do to any species has a ripple effect on a great many other species including our own, and that keeping those other species healthy is good for us, too. The very first day of my very first ecology class, my professor, Bob Hinkle, wrote a simple sentence on the board: “Diversity equals stability.”  Whether we’re talking about ecological or social science, that simple principle has stood up over time.  

Black-capped Chickadee--fledging day!

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

The Last of the Evening Grosbeaks?

Evening Grosbeak

On May 15, John Myers wrote a front-page article in the Duluth News-Tribune about the feast of Evening Grosbeaks that had been visiting my yard since April. John interviewed me a few days earlier, and my talking about it for a newspaper article turned into the Kiss of Death—after the interview, my flock immediately dwindled from 75 or more to just 40, and the day the article came out, it dropped to 30; the next day it was only 15. On the 18th, I had two males and two females, but then didn’t see or hear a single one on the 19th or 20th. I figured they were gone for good, but then saw a couple on the 21st and 22nd.  The article was headlined, "An irruption of grosbeaks comes to Duluth, but will they stay?" The answer was apparently "no."  

Evening Grosbeak

A few days before the numbers dropped, I’d noticed that the grosbeaks were being less cooperative in the feeders. In April and early May, I’d seen as many as 13 in a small window feeder. Sure, some of them were less tolerant than others of birds invading their personal space, but overall, they were working well as cohesive flocks. 

Evening Grosbeaks in my window feeder
The most I got a photo of in this window feeder is 12, but a couple of times I saw 13 in it. 

Now more and more individuals were defending more personal space, striking at others sitting within reach, and the most I was seeing in that same feeder was 2 or 3. By that time, the grosbeaks seemed to be spending far more time in the trees than at the feeders. I observed them eating buds in our maple and boxelder trees. 

Many birds spend part of their lives, especially during fall migration and winter, as flocking, social species and part, during the breeding season, as territorial pairs keeping everyone else at bay. This is pretty much the progression American Robins make as they transition from their winter flocks to territorial birds. One day you’re seeing a big flock pigging out peacefully in a crabapple during a spring blizzard, and the next day, the robins are not just squabbling but outright attacking each other. That’s when flocks break up and males start claiming a territory. 

Although few Evening Grosbeak pairs have been observed during the breeding season, the consensus is that they’re far less territorial than robins. One 1947 study reported at least ten nesting pairs in a loose colony in Ontario, and a 1968 study indicated that the grosbeaks tolerate other Evening Grosbeaks in their nesting tree, something American Robins would never, ever be able to deal with. 

I only saw anything close to courtship behavior one day during the time my Evening Grosbeaks were here, and that was still in April, when one male fed a female, and a moment later a second male approached that same female in what appeared to be a courtship dance, his tail and bill raised and wings lowered as he sidled toward her on a branch. His pose reminded me of the courting dance of male Purple Finches. There were too many branches in the way to get a photo.

Evening Grosbeak
This adult male is between a young male (left) and a young female (right). This photo was taken on August 13, 2011.

There are no records of Evening Grosbeaks nesting in Duluth, though that certainly doesn't mean they haven't. Their nests can be hard to find, and people tend to pay most attention to the birds in their feeders rather than up in the trees. But Evening Grosbeaks had to be nesting close to town in the 80s and early 90s because I frequently saw adults feeding fledglings in summer and early fall.  

On August 4, 2011, a small flock comprised of family groups of Evening Grosbeaks turned up in my yard, the young birds still begging from their parents. The group stuck around so that I could see them every single day for over a month. I don’t know where they came from, but they couldn’t have nested too terribly far away. So I’m hopeful that some Evening Grosbeaks might nest not too far away this year, and that some of the adults will remember my boxelders and come back with their young when the seeds are ripe. Of course, even if some families do show up this summer for the first time in a decade, I won’t have any way of being certain that they are the same birds that visited this spring. But one thing’s for sure—if any do turn up, I won’t be talking about them to the Duluth News-Tribune, which apparently is all it takes to send them on their way.  

Evening Grosbeak in box elder tree

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Wood Thrush!

Wood Thrush

One of the many highlights of having an apartment in Ithaca, New York, when I was working at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, was being able to hear Wood Thrushes just about every day in spring and early summer. The song is splendid—rich and fluty, a spectacular example of what the supremely evolved avian syrinx is capable of.  We mere mammals have a simple voice box, more properly called our larynx, which is a set of muscles set within our trachea. We may be capable of a variety of vocalizations, but except for some gasps and wheezing sounds, we can only vocalize as we exhale, and cannot harmonize with our own voice in real time. Birds have a song box, their syrinx, where the trachea branches into two bronchial tubes. The muscles span the trachea and both bronchial tube branches, so they can produce completely different sounds simultaneously. Also, birds can produce and control sounds both as they inhale and exhale.

Thrushes have an extremely complex syrinx, which is why for a long time many taxonomists placed them at the very end of checklists—they thought that avian evolution reached its pinnacle with the most complicated syrinx. And listening to the luscious tones of a Wood Thrush, it’s hard to argue. The three-parted song begins with soft, almost inaudible notes, then rises to the flute-like ee-oh-lay, and ends with a complex, high-frequency trill. Each bird sings unique versions of each song part; individual males may sing over 50 distinct songs.  

Wood Thrush

Wood Thrushes nest in deciduous and mixed forests from easternmost Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska through all of Iowa, much of forested eastern Minnesota, and even up the forested bottomlands of the Missouri River through South Dakota; the range extends east to the Atlantic coast from New Brunswick and Nova Scotia south to northern Florida. 

But the Wood Thrush population dropped a full 60 percent between 1970 and 2014. As forests are fragmented by harvesting, urbanization, road cuts, power lines, and other development, cowbird parasitism increases, along with predation by domestic cats and natural edge species such as Blue Jays, crows, and raccoons. If all that weren’t bad enough, we’re discovering that they’re also suffering from thinning eggshells, which has been linked to acid rain. Acid dissolves calcium, leaching it from the soil, reducing what's available for the invertebrates Wood Thrushes eat for their own calcium supply. In particular, ground snails, a staple of the Wood Thrush diet, have been dwindling where acid rain is a problem.

 So Wood Thrushes have disappeared from marginal habitat and are growing less common even where good habitat remains. The Minnesota DNR designated it a Species in Greatest Conservation Need, and the Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative calls it a species of State Special Concern. 

In the 40 years I’ve lived on Peabody Street in Duluth, I’ve never ever seen or heard a Wood Thrush from my yard until just last week. On May 18, when I went to the backyard to get my recording equipment at 8:48, I was thrilled to hear the exquisite song. It was singing in the tiny woodlot behind my yard, so instead of bringing in my recorder, I moved it to a better spot, and made a 3-minute recording before a neighbor started talking on a cell phone—that wouldn’t have sounded good on a natural recording even if the bird kept singing, but it quieted down. I had run in to get my camera, but only got a momentary glance at the bird. That night when I went through the photos on my nest cam, imagine my delight to have captured a photo to go with this recording

Wood Thrush

When a wonderful bird shows up during spring migration, it’s fun to see it as a hopeful sign. But even if it’s just one bird who took a wrong turn at Lake Superior, it’s still a gift. This one brought my yard list, the list of birds that I've seen or heard when either I or the bird was touching my property, up to 171. That’s just a number. Statistically, I’m averaging slightly over 4 species per year, but this is not the kind of situation in which the numbers are evenly distributed over time—I added over half of those species in just the first two years I lived here. But thanks to the pandemic, this is the third new yard bird I've added in 2021—I had a calling Wood Duck fly over on April 20, and on January 10, I finally saw a flock of Common Goldeneyes fly over. Ducks obviously don't nest in my neighborhood, but I’d bet over these 40 years, plenty of different species have flown over, so you’d think over all these years I’d have noticed these two common species before now. It’s also quite likely that Wood Thrushes have visited my yard before this, and even sung away of a mid-May morning. But this was the first I’d ever seen or heard one here, and it’s made me very, very happy. 

Saturday, May 22, 2021

Red-headed Woodpecker!

Red-headed Woodpecker

On Sunday, May 16, I was talking to my friend Erik Bruhnke on the phone and gazing out the window when what to my wondering eyes should appear but a Red-headed Woodpecker. Lots of male woodpeckers have conspicuous red on their heads, and in the Pileated Woodpecker and Red-bellied Woodpecker, both male and female have a lot of red on their heads. But in only one woodpecker species do both the adult male and female have a completely red head, from the face to the crown, and from the throat to the nape—just one solid red head. Luckily, that is the woodpecker named for that feature. The body of the Red-headed Woodpecker is black and white, with absolutely no spots or speckles or stripes—the bird’s entire upper back, most of the tail, and the upper and outer wings are solid black while the lower back and rump, entire underside, and inner, lower quadrant of the wings (where the secondary wing feathers are) are purest white. The white on the wings and rump stand out both when the bird is in flight and when it is perched with the wings closed. So there was no mistaking this bird. I told Erik, “Gotta go—Red-headed Woodpecker!!!” and hung up. 

I ran for my camera and charged outside, but the bird kept its distance. I saw it a few more times that day and got a few photos, but never got any closeups.  

It was easy to identify my lifer Red-headed Woodpecker!

The Red-headed Woodpecker was the very first woodpecker I ever saw—#20 on my life list when I saw my first near Baker Woodlot at Michigan State on May 3, 1975—and I saw them a lot in both East Lansing, and then in Madison, Wisconsin. They were quite common in the Midwest in the 70s, so I'm afraid I took them for granted, but the population has always fluctuated dramatically. Historically, Red-headeds profited mightily from both chestnut blight and Dutch elm disease, feasting on the insects that in turn were feasting on the dead and dying trees, and also using the dead trees for nesting. 

But even in the 70s, Red-headed Woodpeckers faced plenty of problems, too. They fly between stands of trees in a swooping flight pretty much precisely at windshield height; car collisions certainly contributed to their decline. Thanks to their abundance, their dramatic plumage, and the magnitude of the problem, I recognized a lot of their mangled bodies on roadsides during the 70s, and less so during the 80s, as there were fewer left to be killed. European Starlings have also posed a serious problem, aggressively appropriating their nest cavities. 

Over their entire range since 1970, the cumulative decline of Red-headed Woodpeckers has been about 67 percent. In some parts of their range the decline has been fairly  small, and in parts of the East and the Plains, they’ve actually increased. But their losses have been scary in the Upper Midwest, most especially in Minnesota. Since 1967, Minnesota’s population has suffered an annual decline of over 6 percent, representing a cumulative loss of 95 percent since the Breeding Bird Survey began. 

The authors of Minnesota’s superb Breeding Bird Atlas conclude that habitat loss is probably the root of their problems here, noting that the oak savanna habitat where Red-headed Woodpeckers are most found in Minnesota is located in the deciduous forest belt extending from southeastern part of the state to the Park Rapids area, precisely where the human population is densest, and the problem is growing as communities outside the Twin Cities continue to grow and expand outwards. In one Subsection, the oak savannas that comprised 54 percent of the region’s habitat in the 1890s were reduced by 1990 to less than 1 percent. 

My Red-headed Woodpecker never came close enough for great photos, and had vanished by the next day, as many outliers during migration do. With the heavy clay soil of my neighborhood, oak trees just aren't part of the local habitat, so I feel lucky that it stopped even for a short while and allowed me to take a photo, even a distant, highly cropped one, as a memento of a wonderful day. 

Monday, May 17, 2021

Thar Be Babies!!

Spying on the chickadees nesting in my dead cherry tree turns out to be trickier than I expected. I keep a trail cam trained on the entrance hole 24-7, swapping out the memory card and checking the photos every two days, but chickadees can come and go quicker than trail cam technology can freeze the action. I think most of the time the motion detector notices them, but there’s a split-second time lag between the motion sensor detecting movement and the camera shutter taking the first photo, giving a chickadee plenty of time, if it’s returning to the nest, to be entirely or mostly in the hole before the photo gets taken, or if it’s heading out from the nest, to be out of range of the camera by the time the first picture is taken. Once in a while, though, the chickadee will alight at the entrance for a second or two or look out the entrance hole for a bit before taking off—those are the photos my cam gets.   

I know it’s missing a lot because every few days, I was setting out a good camera on a tripod and making half-hour videos. That doesn’t miss a moment, and explains why even after the chickadees had started producing and then incubating eggs, they were fine-tuning the entrance hole—it’s so perfectly smooth and round that half the time they don’t alight at all—they just bullet straight in. Sometimes the chickadee within looks out for a bit before leaving, but stays inside the entry. From the angle my cam is set, it can’t detect any movement until the head actually emerges.   

I was watching the birds excavating—going into the hole and carrying out big mouthfuls of wood chips—through April 22. The only day I actually saw them carrying in nesting material was April 23, and then it snowed on the 24th. There was much less activity at the nest, and on April 28, I watched a starling investigating the hole. I started thinking the chickadees had abandoned ship. But that must have been the point at which they were producing eggs. A chickadee lays one egg a day, and doesn’t start incubating until the second-to-last egg is laid so all the babies will hatch out together. I of course had no way of seeing into the nest to know what was going on inside.   

I have to stand at the window in my office to see the nest, but wasn’t usually seeing activity. When I did start seeing more activity at the nest late last week, I thought it might just be lucky timing. Just to see for sure what was happening, on Saturday afternoon, I set up my good camera to catch a bit of video. 

And when I checked it out, lo and behold, one of the parents was carrying in a tiny green caterpillar into the nest! That’s when I knew baby chickadees had hatched. I’d made that video in midafternoon. Sunday morning, I thoroughly I checked the cam footage, and sure enough, the first cam shot showing a bird carrying food into the nest was Sunday at 1:31 pm.   

Black-capped Chickadees nesting in yard

So thar be babies! Only once did any of the grubs I’ve seen in the stopped video or photos look like it might have been a tiny mealworm—all the others have been green, very soft caterpillars, and exceedingly tiny. I’m eager to see how things change as the babies grow and spring advances, making larger caterpillars available.   

The tiny, tiny insects emerging on newly opening buds are the ones that fuel warbler and vireo migration and are essential for new baby songbirds. Growing native plants and not using insecticides except for spot spraying as a last resort is essential if we want to keep our tiny songbirds well into the future. Just looking at that little hole in a dead cherry, I’m finding myself more heavily committed to environmentalism than ever. Holding my grandson and imagining these tiny hatchlings that can’t be seen but are as warm alive and dependent as baby Walter gives me a renewed sense of my obligation to keep this world safe for babies.

Saturday, May 15, 2021

Spring Update

Evening Grosbeak

Ever since early the morning of April 25, I’ve awakened every day to the lovely music of Evening Grosbeaks. Dozens, and sometimes well over a hundred, come to my yard for their all-stop shopping—my spruces, maples, and especially my three boxelder trees are major attractions, my two roofless platform feeders are kept full of sunflower seeds, I have several birdbaths, and my neighbors have a lovely backyard pond. 

Evening Grosbeaks at my birdbath

The birds start out the day here, but sometimes they head somewhere else at midmorning or midafternoon. They often come back, but sometimes I don’t see them again all day, so I keep thinking they’ll be moving on, but day after day, first thing in the morning here they are again.  

It’s been thrilling having them here, bringing back the lovely days when my children were little right when my little grandson is just big enough to enjoy seeing them out the window. Back then, I vaguely remember the birds not going far when I went out to fill the feeders, returning the moment I walked away. Now that I’m specifically paying attention, I know they must be familiar with how feeding stations work because they return to the outside platform or the window feeder before I’ve hardly stepped away. Three pairs of starlings have been hanging out here, and when I see them at my window feeder, I wave my arms to chase them off. The grosbeaks sometimes leave with them, but usually at least one or two, and sometimes all of the grosbeaks, stay on the feeder. If they do leave, they come right back while the starling stays away for a good half hour. 

My little dog Pip seems intrigued with all the bird activity. My office windowsill is just 18 inches above the floor, and a couple of times, Pip has stood up on her hind legs, paws on the sill, to watch the activity. The birds don’t seem to mind.  

Pip looking at grosbeaks out the window

So much grosbeak activity is at least softening my disappointment at how slow migration is this year. I’ve seen single orioles and hummingbirds starting on Monday, and a Rose-breasted Grosbeak on Wednesday. I heard my first Rose-breasted Grosbeak song on the 13th, and starting on the 12th, a Baltimore Oriole has been singing away. A Brown Thrasher sang a few times from nearby from May 7 through 10, but that was it. 

Meanwhile, the pair of chickadees nesting in our dead cherry tree have reached the incubating stage now. The female is so quick at darting in and out of the nest hole that the trail cam focused on it can’t get a picture in the split second between it detecting movement and the bird disappearing. I’ve gotten some good video by setting my camera on a tripod and leaving it to record for half-hour stretches. Out of a whole 40-gigabyte file, I end up with just a few seconds of action.  Fortunately, the coming and going doesn’t vary from day to day—she’s on the eggs, then off for a bit to eat, get a drink of water, and preen and back again. I’ve also gotten a few cute videos and photos of her just peeking out the entrance. 

The videos will get really interesting when the eggs hatch. I hope I can get video or photos of parents carrying eggshells away so I’ll know for sure when the babies hatch. At first the female will spend most of her time in the cavity keeping the brood warm while the male comes in with food and carries fecal sacs away, but as the chicks’ feathers grow in and they’re increasingly able to keep their own bodies warm, their hunger will also be growing, so soon both parents will be coming and going frequently. 

I’m hardly going to be making any discoveries about chickadees, but it’s been fun noticing things like just how fast the female comes and goes, apparently to keep nest predators from discovering the nest. Already I’ve seen a crow and a Blue Jay sitting on the fence waiting to see the chickadee emerge or fly in. They couldn’t possibly get eggs or chicks inside the nest, but I’m sure both of them want to know when the babies fledge. Last year my Blue Jay family feasted on innocent baby House Wrens on their first day out. Much as I love Blue Jays, I’ll definitely be on high alert on chickadee fledge day. 

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

The Price of Getting Older

My home office window.
Me taking a photo out one home office window
as my sound recorder takes a recording out the other. 

As someone who has already been given more years on this planet than my grandmother, father, godfather, older brother, or younger sister were given, I feel very lucky to be pushing 70. But getting older comes with a cost—my senses are just not what they used to be.  

This is hitting home a lot right now on both the auditory and visual fronts. I set out my sound recorder every morning to capture the dawn chorus. When I listen with headphones on the computer, my software shows the spectrograph and waveform graph as I listen. I don’t miss anything in the low- and mid-frequency range, but the spectrograph shows a lot of high-frequency sounds my ears simply cannot pick out.  

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

This week, Ruby-crowned Kinglets have been singing away. I don’t have any trouble picking out the rich warble at the end of their 3-part song, and I can often hear the higher-frequency middle part. But the song starts out with some very high notes which I always used to be able to hear but cannot pick out anymore, though the spectrograph clearly shows that the birds are still singing those notes. The high-pitched sounds I do hear sound much quieter to my ears than they really are—I can see that in the intensity of color on the spectrograph and in a more straightforward way because the waveform graphs the actual volume. 

This is a stereo waveform and spectrograph of the Ruby-crowned Kinglet song. The green waveform is directly above the spectrograph--the thicker green sections are of louder volume. The red arrows point to the highest frequency first part of the song, yellow is for the middle, and blue is for the liberty, liberty, liberty part.  

It wasn’t until a kind listener of For the Birds told me a few years ago that the bird sounds at the beginning and end of the program were too loud that I realized I could no longer trust my ears to match the volumes of bird songs to my voice to produce this program. Now I have to trust technology to match the levels. 

My hearing aids help a lot, but they can’t make my ears young again. My hearing officially sucks, but ever since I had my cataract surgery at the end of 2019, my vision is much better than it was for decades. I see distant details much better, and colors are much more vivid and true. So what’s the problem with that? 

How my cataract distorts color
The cataract surgery for my two eyes were done two weeks apart. After the first eye was done, I took the chickadee photo on the right and used Photoshop to make the left one look the way it did to my left eye (the one that still had the cataract). I'd never realized how dingy and brown everything looked until one cataract was gone and I could compare!

In the past few months, I’ve been going through photos I took during my 2013 Big Year. That year was so intense that I never had time to properly vet the photos, usually just pulling out three or four of the hundreds I’d taken that day to post on my blog. Reliving that wonderful year via photos is joyful, except it’s hitting me that many of the photos I did pull out to post on my webpage in 2013 are over-processed. Without my having any idea of it, my cataracts were so dulling my vision and giving everything a slightly yellowish-brown cast that I was making the colors a little too saturated and the contrast a little too high, in the same way that, before cataract surgery became common, many older women used to tint their hair blue because their cataracts made their white hair look dingy and yellowish. My camera was doing a much better job at capturing true-to-life colors than my cataract-clouded eyes were. 

At every age, we humans seem to think we know more than people of other ages. I remember when I was a young birder not so much dismissing older birders but certainly not trusting their skills because they needed so much help to see Le Conte’s Sparrows or Blackburnian Warblers that were so easy for me to hear and find. But back then, I didn’t have the experience I do now helping me recognize regional dialects and subtleties of call notes that I didn’t have a clue about back then—I wonder how many things those older birders knew that I’ve still never figured out. 

It’s unfair that the more experience we have, the less our senses can actually experience what we know, and as much as I love my hearing aids, they can’t restore my hearing the way cataract surgery restored my vision. But then I think about how bird eyes can see a much wider spectrum than even the youngest, most acute human eyes can, and bird ears can hear a wider frequency range, and I don’t whine about that. My mind’s ears can still "hear" some high notes when I see them on the spectrograph, and when I’m puzzled about a sound I can see but not hear on one of my recordings, I pester a couple of young birding  friends to help me figure it out. If losing a bit of my hearing is the price of pushing 70, when I wake up to yet another new beautiful dawn on this lovely planet, I know it’s worth it. 

Evening Grosbeaks in my window feeder
Even with somewhat dampened senses, waking up to this every morning for the past couple of weeks is just one more thing making me glad to be alive. 

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Our Far-Flung Correspondents: Pam's Chickadees

Black-capped Chickadee

I recently did a program about chickadees trusting us, quoting a listener's story about chickadees getting the attention of a person to deal with a snake. On May 5, I heard from a blog reader named Pam with an exciting story about a pair of chickadees who needed help. She writes:  

We have a Chickadee house hanging from the front overhang of our house and accidentally bumped it in the dark of the evening.  We closed the garage door and went to bed.  The next morning we were up and my husband was looking out the kitchen window—the nest house is near the little tree by the kitchen window.  He saw a Chickadee fly from tree to garage window near tree and he kept this up going back and forth, rather panicky my husband thought, so he took a close look. In the garage, caught between the window and the blinds, was a little Chickadee (probably the female).  We believe they had eggs or babies in the nest house. She might have been sitting on the nest when the house was bumped, and she flew out and into the garage and was there all night. The male was trying to figure out how to get to her and he could not. My hubby went to the garage and gently put his finger near the Chickadee who landed on it but flew at the window when he tried to set her free—she must have seen the tree through the window. He gently pulled up the blinds farther and kind of scooped her toward the open garage door and out she flew.  We were upset because she had been in the garage on a very cold night and she was unable to sit with her babies/eggs.  

The chickadee flew between this tree and this window. 

If the one Chickadee had not kept up his panic flying from tree to garage window and back, we would not have known she was there and who knows what would have happened to her and the babies/eggs.  We are very careful now.  We really love watching our Chickadees everyday as they nest and feed the babies.  It is so neat because sometimes they both get food and bring it back to the tree and then fly into the birdhouse.  We can see the worms or whatever hangs from their little beaks.  Sometimes the female stays in the house and he brings food to her and she puts her little head up to the hole and we see her beak and head.  Sometimes one will be in the tree and flutter his/her feathers.  They are so special. 

Pam has an excellent strategy for keeping House Sparrows away from the nest box. She said:

When I see a House Sparrow in the tree, I go outside and talk to my Chickadees. They stay in the tree but the Sparrows usually fly off.

Black-capped Chickadees welcome into their feeding flocks not just chickadees but other species, such as nuthatches and warblers. It makes sense that a bird with such an open mind about other species would have an open mind about our species, too. It’s not that they’re wimps—they peck and bite fiercely when grabbed against their will, as bird banders can attest. But if they come to recognize us and we don’t violate their trust, they are surprisingly open to our assistance when needed. That open-minded sense of community is the secret of chickadee success. Human communities could learn a lot from them. 

Statue of Liberty

Monday, May 10, 2021

Song Sparrows

Song Sparrow

Last month, I read a wonderful letter from 9-year-old listener Aleda. She wrote mostly about chickadees, but also mentioned that one of her favorite birds is the Song Sparrow. I promised I’d do a program about them today. 

Why May 11, specifically? On May 11, 1935, one of the world’s seminal bird researchers, Margaret Morse Nice, spent the entire day, from midnight to midnight, following one particular Song Sparrow near her home in Columbus, Ohio, and recording every one of his behaviors. The little bird, whose color band made recognizing him easy, was nicknamed 4M. On that day, he spent roughly 10 hours singing, 9 hours roosting, and 5 hours eating and doing other miscellaneous Song Sparrow activities. During those 10 hours of song bouts, he sang 2,305 complete songs.  Some of Nice’s earliest papers were too rich in detail and scope to be suited to the norms of American ornithological journals at the time and were published in Germany instead. Her 2-volume work, Studies in the Life History of the Song Sparrow, which set the gold standard for meticulous work on any single species, was originally published in the Transactions of the Linnean Society of New York. My copy is a Dover reprint. 

The Song Sparrow is one of the widest ranging of all our songbirds, breeding across the northern and most of the central states and up to Hudson Bay in Canada, spanning all of British Columbia and coastal Alaska to much of Quebec and a chunk of Newfoundland and Labrador. Some populations live year-round in Mexico.  

Song Sparrow

Having such a broad range gives the Song Sparrow quite a range in body size, with the largest, found in beach grass in the Aleutians, having 150% of the body mass of the smallest, living in California salt marshes. Both these Pacific Coast populations show extreme site fidelity, often defending their territories year-round. This limits each individual’s choices of mates compared with populations that migrate and wander as the landscape changes over time. So those coastal populations become rather isolated, developing some unique differences from most Song Sparrows whose populations move about, undergoing more genetic mixing over time.  

Song Sparrow
This Song Sparrow was photographed in Vancouver in British Columbia.

Song Sparrow songs also vary enormously, both geographically and individually, in the same way that English-speaking Americans and Canadians have regional accents and dialects. Wherever I’ve traveled, I’ve thrilled at the differences in Song Sparrow local dialects. I’ve always been able to recognize their songs, though when I’m in any unfamiliar area, I try to track down as many singers as I can just in case there’s a species that sounds enough like a Song Sparrow that I might not realize it isn’t. They virtually always start with two or three identical notes at the start and then break into a jumble. Song Sparrows perform in the background of a lot of the soundscape recordings I 've made; I've also made a few recordings specifically of them. All of them are linked on my Song Sparrow species page

Song Sparrow
Laura not only photographed this individual Song Sparrow on Audubon's Hog Island in Maine, she recorded an 11-minute singing bout in which he sang 48 songs from start to finish. You can listen to the recording (with the ocean and a lobster boat, and an airplane, in the background) here

Song Sparrows arrive fairly early in spring, often with or soon after the first juncos and before Fox Sparrows. Mine had been singing up a storm for a few weeks, but now I think they’re busy nesting. I never ever look for their nests—I’m afraid my scientific curiosity is completely overpowered by my fear of giving away the nest’s location to predators. In my own yard, my crows and Blue Jays fly in whenever I go out, hoping for peanuts, so no way could I look for nests here. 

Baby Song Sparrow at Picnic Point
I came upon this fairly recently fledged Song Sparrow in Madison, Wisconsin.

The only nest I’ve ever tracked closely in my yard has been this year’s chickadee nest in my dead cherry tree, and because it was excavated by the chickadees, the entrance is just too tiny for even the smallest Blue Jay to access. Open nests are much more vulnerable, so I’ll have to continue my long standing track record of being lackadaisical, rather the polar opposite of my hero Margaret Morse Nice. I’ll sit around in my lazy way, watching and enjoying my Song Sparrows whenever they choose to let me.

I hope Aleda is enjoying her Song Sparrows as much as I'm enjoying mine!

Song Sparrow

What IS a Warbler?

Northern Parula
Northern Parula

Every year when May rolls around, I start waxing euphoric about warbler migration. My Zoom presentation at the start of this month was about them, and I covered every warbler species that regularly occurs in the United States and Canada, but at the end of my talk, looking at questions in the chat box, I realized I hadn’t addressed the most basic question of all—what IS a warbler? How exactly are they set apart from every other little songbird?  

Magnolia Warbler
Magnolia Warbler

Warblers are tiny insectivorous birds belonging to a big family limited to the Americas. They were unknown to European naturalists until explorers started shooting them and sending the carcasses back to Europe for cataloguing. Two of our warblers, the Northern Parula and American Redstart, were included in the 10th edition of Linnaeus’s Systema Naturae published in 1758. Linnaeus placed the redstart in the genus Motacilla, which now, in 2021, is limited to what we call “wagtails,” mostly Eurasian species, but in 1758, it was a big, amorphous genus that also included our bluebird. 

American Redstart
American Redstart

I’d always been curious about the similarity of the chickadee family name, Paridae, and the warbler family name, Parulidae—it was all because Linnaeus mistook the Northern Parula for a European tit and placed it in the genus Parus

Northern Parula
Northern Parula

Linnaeus had codified the binomial system, giving each species of plant and animal a unique Latinized scientific name, in 1735. Placing birds in families took longer and working out logical ways of classifying birds is still a work in progress. Understanding relationships among birds is as tricky as working out family histories for humans. Someone who could easily pass for your sibling might have ancestors from an entirely different part of the world than yours. Relationships between warblers and other birds took a long time to sort out and is still in flux. The family as we know it now was defined by Alexander Wetmore in 1947. (Before that, wood warblers were placed in Mnilotiltidae.) The name common nickname “warbler” came from the European warblers, who actually do warble—most of our species have thin, buzzy songs that couldn't be described as warbles, and most of our species are much more colorful. So what defines the family, making them actual warblers?

Our warblers are all small, from the tiniest, the Northern Parula and Lucy's Warbler, which are only 4 1/4 inches from tip of beak to tip of tail, to the biggest, the Ovenbird and Louisiana Waterthrush, which are 6 inches long.  


It's easy for both beginners and experienced birders to confuse kinglets, gnatcatchers,  and vireos with warblers, and wrens, creepers, nuthatches, and even chickadees can confuse beginners. Our Ovenbird and the Northern and Louisiana Waterthrush spend time on the ground and look a LOT like small thrushes, a problem that is exacerbated because the Ovenbird and waterthrushes aren't much smaller than thrushes. Over the years, I've several times confused, at first glance, a young or female Orchard Oriole or female tanager with a warbler, and when I was starting out, I mistook goldfinches for warblers until I got better at paying attention to the bill thickness and posture. 

Yellow-rumped Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler

Warbler bills are slender and straight—thinner and longer than those of chickadees, without the curve of a Brown Creeper’s bill or the hooked tip of a vireo’s, and longer than the bills of kinglets. Paying attention to such subtleties becomes second nature with experience. When I was starting out, I thought of warblers as yellow, but so are goldfinches and female orioles and tanagers, and many warblers have no yellow at all.  Some warblers have oval spots on the underside of their tail tips which are, I think, a unique warbler trait, but many common warblers don't have those.  

Black-throated Blue Warbler
Black-throated Blue Warbler

Our warblers all have 9 primary wing feathers, but so do some small songbirds from other families. Back before DNA helped work out relationships, scientists used various morphological structures, such as the syrinx or songbox, various muscle groups, and other structures we can’t possibly see when we’re looking at a tiny songbird and just want to know where to find it in our field guide. 

Too bad birds can't each wear their 23andme results on conspicuous wing tags. Of course, birds don't have 23 pairs of chromosomes—most songbirds have 40.  Not knowing anything about genetics when I started birding, the way I learned my warblers was to spend a lot of time birding, and a lot of time with my field guides. I read both the Peterson and Golden Guides from cover to cover, but just a tiny bit actually stuck. What really helped was keeping the field guides out in our apartment, one next to the bed. A few times every day I'd open one at random and read a page or two. Little by little, my brain started absorbing the information in a way that became accessible in the moment I was actually seeing those birds. 

I did two things to master bird songs. First, when I heard anything, I'd track it down--the intense search helped cement the song in my head. Also, when I was in the kitchen, or ironing (back when I actually did ironing), or doing homework (I was still a student), I'd listen to recordings. My brain would drift a lot, but doing it so often, some of it started to stick. I'll never forget when I went out West with my sister-in-law in 1979 and heard my first MacGillivray's Warbler. I swear I could hear the nasal voice on the Peterson record, in my brain say, perfectly clearly, "Page 254 (or whatever page it was), MacGillivray's Warbler."  That moment made all the hours of listening worth it! Plus listening over and over sealed into my brain the songs I was getting more familiar with outdoors. 

It's fun and easy to get out there and see warblers. Figuring them out is the challenge. But try not to get frustrated. Life is too short and warblers too wonderful to let mere issues of identification stop us from enjoying them!

Blackburnian Warbler
Blackburnian Warbler