Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Of Nighthawks and Kind People

Common Nighthawk

Yesterday, I got an email from someone named Dan who was in the middle of a nighthawk emergency. I virtually never give out my home phone number, but I made an exception because he sounded very nice and very anxious. And a few minutes later, my phone rang. 

Dan lives in Jackson, Wyoming, where he had hit a nighthawk with his car. It fell, wings outstretched, on the road. A vehicle was approaching from the opposite direction but simply straddled it, so Dan turned around to check the poor thing out. It couldn’t fly, but didn’t seem to be wounded, so he brought it home and placed it in a small safe enclosure. 

Not many rehabbers deal with nighthawks, and most of the ones that do handle only nestlings. This species is uniquely high maintenance because in the wild, once young birds fledge and for the rest of their lives, they eat only flying insects on the wing, their huge gaping mouth ideal for scarfing down moths, mayflies, winged ants, and other flying insects. A nighthawk flies into the insects at such a fast speed that the insects go down the opened throat without any effort at all. The nighthawk's vestigial tongue is just too tiny to get in the way. Its beak is tiny, too, and rather loosely attached to its huge mouth, so a nighthawk has no way of picking up food items, much less getting them to its throat to swallow.  When a nighthawk has even a minor injury that grounds it, it’s pretty much doomed to starvation. 

All baby songbirds and many other kinds of birds, including nighthawks, are fed by their parents, and in a rehab situation, they usually open their mouths readily to be fed by a rehabber. Adult birds usually can feed themselves as long as provided suitable food. Flycatchers and swallows usually take their meals on the wing but have no trouble picking up mealworms, crickets, and other insects when in captivity. Adult nighthawks simply cannot do that, and they also don’t have a clue that there is any other way of getting food in. When I’ve rehabbed them, it took time and patience to get them to open their mouths willingly—until then, I’d have to very gently tease open the mouth. And even then, with the food in their mouths, adults, especially males, had trouble swallowing it. Females are the ones who feed the young, so they still have working muscles in the back of the mouth and the throat which they use to regurgitate the food into their waiting babies. Adult males haven’t needed to swallow like that since they were chicks. For at least a couple of days and sometimes a week after they were eagerly opening their mouth to be fed, I’d still have to stroke their throat over and over to help them get the food down. 

Fred the Common Nighthawk

On top of this, nighthawks have fairly fragile wing and tail feathers but very short legs. In the wild, they can keep their feathers in good condition, but in captivity, the tips of those flight feathers often get frayed without protective sleeves over the tips. And care has to be taken to protect their feet—they can’t perch on normal bird perches, so care must be taken to keep whatever substrate they’re kept on clean, especially because at least once a day they produce a very liquid and caecal dropping which is quite messy. Rehab facilities are usually much too short-handed to be able to devote the time and attention, day after day, to that kind of high maintenance. 

Anyway, Dan in Wyoming had called the nearest rehab facility which said they could just hold it for observation for a couple of days and then would have to have it euthanized. Dan googled nighthawk care and came upon a long blog post I’d written about it in 2012, which is why he emailed me. 

Because this is nesting season, he was concerned about more than just this one nighthawk being lost if it was taking care of babies. Knowing only the females feed the young, I asked him if it was a male or a female, and told him he could tell by what color the throat was. He said it was brown, with some white on both sides. I focused on the brown and said it must be a female, but I should have realized that male nighthawks also have a brown throat—the white bib is not part of the upper throat area—so the bird was probably a male. But both of us thinking it was a female made us both even more concerned about what to do. 

He said the bird seemed a lot more perky now. Sometimes it was spreading its wings on the bottom of the enclosure, but when I asked, he said it was holding them symmetrically, wasn’t listing to one side, and both eyes seemed fine. 

Since the only realistic choices were to see if the bird could be released or to take it to the rehab center, he wondered if it would be worth driving back to the area where he’d hit it to let it go. It was 20 miles away, which meant a 40-mile round trip for nothing if the bird couldn’t take off, but if the bird was okay, he wanted it to have a chance to find its nest easily again. He was worried because he wasn’t sure of the exact spot, but said he could find it within five miles or so. I figured that should be plenty close enough for a bird that covers a lot of ground hunting. So that’s what he did.

Almost exactly an hour later, my phone rang again. Dan told me that when he let go of the bird, it fell on the ground, but he let it get its bearings and then prodded it gently a moment, and voila! It took off, circling higher and higher in the sky.  

I haven’t rehabbed birds in over 20 years now. Many of the birds I took in were hopeless, and it grew more and more painful watching yet another one die from massive internal injuries after a cat attack, or after suffering extensive neurological damage from lawn pesticides. It was thrilling to hear about a happy ending right when I’ve been so sad and scared about how rapidly climate-change-related weather patterns have accelerated and how rapidly the COVID-19 Delta variant has spread. Yes, this was just one nighthawk, not a population, and won’t even begin to reverse the downward trend the species has suffered in recent decades, and certainly won't help with any other problems either. But Dan’s going to such lengths to help it made a huge difference in this nighthawk’s life, and in the lives of its mate and young, and that is something worth celebrating.   

Fred the Common Nighthawk

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Of Heat, Rain, and Particles in the Air

Young chickadee

I’m writing this on July 18, 2021, at my place in Duluth, Minnesota. There’s not a cloud in the sky, but the sky isn’t blue—more of a murky brownish gray. I can’t smell smoke today but I could yesterday, making us reluctant to open our windows last night—it’s hard to sleep when the inside temperature is 80º F, but even harder to sleep when you think about your baby grandchild, his tiny lungs still developing, breathing in dangerous particulates. 

This year’s dry June and July are the worst northern Minnesota has experienced since the Dust Bowl. Exacerbating the situation is the smoke from fires associated with the heat and drought in Canada and the West. Here in Duluth, we’ve had air quality warnings for weeks now.

I’m taking this situation very personally because of Baby Walter, but he’s hardly the only baby out there, and hardly the only baby I’m personally concerned about. We human parents and grandparents can at least minimize our children’s exposure to dangerous outdoor conditions, but what can my backyard Blue Jays, chickadees, wrens, and robins do to minimize their own and their babies’ exposure to this ever-present smoke?  

Baby Blue Jay begging from parent

Last week, the smoke from those distant fires wasn’t the only source of particulates in Duluth’s air. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture sprayed parts of Duluth and outlying areas, including my neighborhood, for “gypsy” moths. These invasive, non-native moths have caused billions of dollars of damage to Eastern forests since the mid-1860s, when Étienne Léopold Trouvelotin, a French artist who had immigrated to Medford, Massachusetts, brought egg masses from Europe in hopes that he could breed a hardy silkworm by raising them in the forest behind his home. The first recorded defoliation by these moths in the United States was in 1889 of the street trees in Trouvelot's own neighborhood. The moths have also been brought in less intentionally—they arrived in New Jersey in 1920 on blue spruce trees imported from the Netherlands. Little by little the moth has worked its way west and south. 

Spraying for it in recent decades has mostly involved what’s called BtK, the variety of Bacillus thuringiensis that targets lepidopteran larvae. Apparently little or nothing else is harmed by it, but it is utterly indiscriminate in which moth and butterfly caterpillars it kills. 

Great Spangled Fritillary
Caterpillars of all moths and butterflies, including this Great Spangled Fritillary, 
are killed by BtK


The Minnesota Department of Agriculture is still using BtK here and there this year, including in St. Louis County, but the spraying this week in my neighborhood was a species-specific pheromone bound to a polymer matrix. Assuming the pheromone is as safe as it’s supposed to be, I’m still uneasy with polymer matrices—it's just more particulate matter mingling with the smoke until it settles on the ground, where it's supposed to draw male "gypsy" moths away from the females to reduce reproduction. The polymer matrix is ostensibly inert, just as plastic microbeads are, but how do we know that its accumulation in our water and soil won’t eventually be just as bad as other plastics? It’s not considered an “active ingredient,” so its effects on human or avian lungs before it settles on the ground haven’t been studied at all. All this to kill an invasive exotic pest that got here in the first place thanks to people. 

This year, even with the serious threat from these moths, the north woods seems in far more danger from new weather patterns. Many of our conifers and birches are in jeopardy from so many 90º days, not even counting the lack of rain. Foresters need to be planning for changes in species composition in the northern forest, because these warming trends are getting worse. 


Connecticut Warbler
This Connecticut Warbler was easy to photograph this June because the roadside ditch along the sphagnum moss-covered ground is usually knee-deep with water. This year it was distressingly dry.


Thinking about my family and backyard birds and northern trees is sad enough, but then I think about the children and birds living in the huge swath of land where the fires are burning. When fires are small, at least some and often most birds and other animals can escape, but the size and duration of fires has been growing in recent decades. During the Dust Bowl, when conditions were as bad as people then could imagine, we were not yet spreading pesticides over the landscape, invasive species hadn’t taken over so much of our forests, prairies, and other habitats, and many of the other ways we've been developing and degrading habitat now make it even harder for a landscape to recover after a drought, even without a fire. 

A half century ago, when I was in college, I learned about the serious threat of climate change, along with a huge host of other environmental dangers caused by burning fossil fuels: Power plants where coal or oil is burned release nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, mercury, and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere along with small amounts of toxic metals such as arsenic, cadmium, chromium, and nickel, and we have to deal with horribly toxic oil pits and coal ash disposal sites, oil spills, and pipeline leaks—the list goes on and on. We knew with the gas crisis in the 70s that our dependence on fossil fuels was also an issue of national security. 

Oil companies have long understood the implications of climate change, but even as they started planning ways to exploit Arctic oil supplies as the icepack melts, they've suppressed public information about climate change and ridiculed people talking about it, taking rather the opposite tack of Margaret Mead, who said, “I was brought up to believe that the only thing worth doing was to add to the sum of accurate information in the world.” 

Think of the decades we’ve squandered doing so little to find clean alternatives! And now my baby grandson, and those baby chickadees I’ve so treasured this year, can’t play outside without breathing in toxic particulates. 

Yes, I’m bitter and my sense of despair is growing. But just yesterday, my friend Karen posted a poem by Wendell Berry that calmed my soul, at least for a moment. He wrote:

The Peace of Wild Things 

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free. 

Baby W

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Winter Wren

Winter Wren

Of the thousands of bird songs in the world, if I were pressed to choose one favorite, I’m pretty sure it would be the Winter Wren's. This long, silver-threaded song is so exuberant and lovely that it fills me with joy whenever I hear it—it’s the sound I use for my cell phone’s ringtone and alarm clock. Somehow I can hear it from a couple of rooms away, but even in a restaurant or other public place, it doesn’t seem to annoy anyone. Outside, I can’t hear Winter Wrens as far away as I used to, but that gives me more incentive to wear my hearing aids when I’m birding.

When I started birding, the species that American ornithologists called the Winter Wren was the same as the one that European ornithologists simply called the Wren; that species also included the population found along America’s Pacific Slope up into Alaska, from which the Eurasian population originally reached Asia and Europe. Ornithologists have now split those two groups into separate species.  

Pacific Wren
I photographed this Pacific Wren in British Columbia in 2014. In terms of size and plumage, it's just about identical with the Winter Wren. The species are told apart by song (and range, though there is some overlap in the far West.)


Intriguingly, the songs of both the Pacific and Eurasian Wrens include pretty much the same notes as our Winter Wren but sung at a much faster rate. Winter Wrens sing about 16 notes per second, which is darned fast, but Pacific Wrens sing more than twice as fast—a full 36 notes per second. Our human ears can’t resolve such rapidly delivered notes, making some of the tinkling notes into what we perceive as a buzz, and making the Pacific and Eurasian Wren’s songs less pleasing than the Winter Wren’s, at least to me. In his superb book, Birdsong for the Curious Naturalist, Don Kroodsma discusses these songs and provides, on the supporting website, recordings of the Winter Wren played at normal speed and slowed down and does the same with the Pacific Wren.  

On the Fourth of July weekend, I went to Rib Mountain State Park in Wausau, Wisconsin. My main goal was to see a particular southeastern bird, the Acadian Flycatcher, whose range barely extends north into the park. I did not expect to find a bird I so associate with northern forests side by side with this southern bird. A combined map of the breeding ranges for both the Winter Wren and Acadian Flycatcher would pretty much cover the entire eastern half of the continent from the Gulf states and northern Florida all the way up to the Maritime Provinces and Hudson Bay, but there would be only a very thin line of overlap, which Rib Mountain happens to be within. 

Breeding range of the Acadian Flycatcher is shown in orange. The pale orange in northern Iowa, Wisconsin, and Michigan, the northernmost reaches of the range, indicates it's scarce there. Map from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's splendid All About Birds website

Breeding range of the Winter Wren is shown in orange and purple, where they're found year-round. Notice that the main overlap between the two species is in the Appalachians, where the wrens are found at higher elevations, in conifers, than the flycatchers. Map from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's splendid All About Birds website


Winter Wrens are mouselike in habits and appearance, being tiny and brown, and skulking about on the ground and low branches, usually trying to stay hidden in tangles. When they appear in backyards during migration, it’s often at a brush pile or raspberry patch or other bramble. In their breeding forests they may sing at any height—their voices carry farther from atop a tall tree, but I’ve seen them singing when barely off the ground. The one I watched singing at Rib Mountain spent a minute or two at my eye level, not a single branch blocking my view, which was so fun it drew my attention from the Acadian Flycatchers I was there to see. 

I’d never thought about the likelihood of seeing both Winter Wrens and Acadian Flycatchers not just in the same general area but in the same woodland, both singing at the same time. Acadian Flycatchers need mature deciduous forests; Winter Wrens are found in evergreen forests near streams with lots of fallen logs and dense understories. How can they both find what they need in the exact same tiny area of one small park? I don’t know, but it’s pretty wonderful and cool that two such marvelous species do. 

I recorded a few Acadian Flycatcher songs, but a much closer Winter Wren dominated my recording and my attention. Unfortunately, I was recording with my iPhone’s Voice Memo app, which is designed to accurately capture human talking, not the rapid-rate, high-frequency Winter Wren song. It did a credible job with the flycatcher, but doesn’t sound quite so spot on with the wren. If I’d known one would be right in my face, I’d have brought along my good digital sound recorder.  Oh, well. This gives me one more excellent reason to return to Rib Mountain State Park next year. 

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Chukar!

Chukar 

In 2013, when I did my Big Year, I focused on species of conservation interest and other native species. I certainly didn’t close my eyes to vagrants that showed up, nor to exotic birds whose populations are established. The birds I was looking for were the day-to-day birds who belonged in the places I was birding in. I certainly didn’t think about seeing the national bird of Iraq and Pakistan.  

Chukar

Chukars have been introduced into the United States and Canada many times beginning in 1893. They got well-established in mountainous western states, but despite several introductions and a lot of escapes from game farms, they’ve never developed a self-sustaining population in the Midwest. They do live in a few of the places I birded during 2013, but I never lucked into seeing one. Indeed, in all my years of birding, I’d never once seen one.  

That is, until yesterday. In the past week or two, a small group of them started hanging around in people’s yards in my neighborhood, a few blocks southwest of me. I first heard about them last week on Facebook and combed the area pretty thoroughly, pushing a stroller with my grandson Walter, but no luck. Then a few days later my friend Dudley Edmondson mentioned seeing them—as soon as I was done with grandma duty that day, I drove up and down all those blocks again, but again without luck.   

On Monday, when I saw another Facebook post about them, I commented about how much I wanted to see and photograph them, and in early afternoon Tuesday, my friend Sarah Glesner sent me a message telling me where the covey has been most reliably seen. A little while later, she sent another message that one bird seems to have split off from the group and was hanging out in a yard four and a half blocks east of my house. It was too hot and muggy to walk there with the baby, so when I was free at 5, I hopped in my car with my camera and voila!   

Chukar

The single Chukar was foraging at the end of a driveway exactly where Sarah said the lone bird would be. I photographed it from my car—it was a little backlit but only about 20 feet away. Chukars feed on the ground, eating insects, seeds, tuberous roots, and berries. I couldn’t figure out exactly what this little guy was picking at on the edge of the lawn, but it also seemed to be picking up a bit of grit in the driveway.  

Chukar

 Chukars take their name from their call, sort of a chuck, chuck, chukar, chukar, but I didn’t hear it utter a peep during the time I watched.  

In the wild, Chukar coveys tend to include one mated pair and their young, but sometimes even in wild situations multiple families join forces to form a larger covey. It’s hard to understand why the one bird in my neighborhood is on its own when a covey is just a few blocks from it.  

Chukars do not belong in Duluth—the birds in my neighborhood apparently escaped from captivity somewhere around here in the same way that bobwhites sometimes do. Like most birds raised in captivity, the one I saw was pretty tame—not the least bit concerned about me photographing it from such close range. Sarah mentioned that the birds in the larger group seem quite tame, too.  

In a neighborhood where Great Horned Owls and foxes are hunting for their young right now, these Chukars may not survive long, but I prefer to focus on the fact that they’re at least living out what time they have on their own. In the next few days, I may try for photos of the covey, but I’m darned happy that after 46 years of birding and 16 years photographing birds, I’ve finally seen and taken pretty good pictures of a Chukar, even though as an escapee, it doesn’t count on my lifelist. I’m still reporting it on eBird, not to plump up my lists but because if Chukars ever do get established in Minnesota, it will be useful to be able to figure out when they first appeared. Regardless, I’m thrilled that I finally saw one. 

Chukar

Monday, July 12, 2021

Acadian Flycatchers at Rib Mountain State Park in Wausau, Wisconsin

Acadian Flycatcher photo from Wikipedia, public domain. 

I was in Rhinelander, Wisconsin, for the Fourth of July weekend, and got up early that Saturday morning to head to Wausau, to Rib Mountain State Park, to hike along the Homestead Trail.   

It was a wonderful hike for seeing birds but not for photographing them—at least, not most of them. A Black-billed Cuckoo flew fairly close, though he stayed in the foliage. A few Wood Thrushes sang away—lovely caroling mostly heard in southeastern hardwood forests than our conifer-dominated North Woods, but they all stayed too far from the trail for photos. A silent Scarlet Tanager alighted on a branch overhead, but flew off before I could pull up my camera.   

My target species in that perfect area of the park was the Acadian Flycatcher. Rib Mountain seems to be the farthest north this species extends in Wisconsin—right at the point where hardwood-dominated forest ends; the species doesn’t reach Minnesota except in the extreme southeast. I never thought to look for Acadian Flycatchers in Wausau, but the small population is well enough known to be on the bird checklist for the park, so I’m a little embarrassed that I’d never known it was there.   

It was pretty easy to locate at least two—they were singing their explosive little songs from two different directions at a spot where the trail split. And when I walked a quarter of a mile or so further, I heard what was probably a third individual. None of them were close to the trail, and I didn’t want to disturb them by playing a recording to lure them closer.   

The Acadian Flycatcher is quite rare in Minnesota, where it’s listed as a Special Concern Species—the DNR designated it a Species of Greatest Conservation Need. There are a handful of reliable locations for it in the state—Beaver Creek Valley State Park, Murphy Hanrehan Regional Park Reserve, and Seven Mile Creek Park. It’s threatened in Wisconsin, but a bit more widespread than in Minnesota, though only in the southern half of the state. Rib Mountain’s habitat is unique for so far north. This species is a useful indicator of forest health because it requires relatively undisturbed hardwood forest. Development sends them packing.   

Acadian Flycatchers are one of the species in the genus Empidonax, all of which have an eye-ring and wing-bars—the Acadian’s markings are a little more striking than some of the others, but what clinches identification is the voice. I learned it as pizzAH, but the short, explosive notes are better transcribed as tee-chup or ker-chip. I captured a few songs on my iPhone, but a much, much closer, more cooperative Winter Wren’s persistent singing dominated my recordings—the more distant Acadian Flycatcher sounded like a background singer. That recording is here.   

Winter Wren
This persistent little Winter Wren, right in my face, made it hard to record the Acadian Flycatcher! But you can hear the flycatcher a few times in this recording, and also in this one.

It was thrilling to hear singing Acadian Flycatchers even if I didn’t get any photos. So far, the only photo I’ve ever managed to take of one was a shot from behind, the face not at all visible, which I got in Delaware during my Big Year. 

Acadian Flycatcher

Now that I know where to find them at Rib Mountain State Park fairly easily, I’ll try next year, if they are still there. The City of Wausau and the Wisconsin DNR are considering expanding the Granite Peak Ski Area—a privately owned resort in the park that wants to build ski runs, ski lifts, mountain bike trails, and parking lots right through this unique hardwoods forest, destroying butternut trees and other plant species of special concern in the state and threatening roosts of the threatened Northern Long-eared Bat and Big Brown Bat. You can read about the issue on the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology's website, which also says how to send comments to the DNR before July 14, 2021.  

The Acadian Flycatcher is known for requiring undisturbed forest, and this development will directly affect the area where they live in the park. I’m sad that I didn’t even discover this lovely treasure until now, when it is in danger of disappearing forever from that checklist of the birds of Rib Mountain.


This is just the first page of the checklist, with the key, and the page with the flycatchers. What a rich park this is!


Monday, June 28, 2021

If you read this For the Birds blog via email…

 Email subscriptions for this blog have been managed by Google’s app Feedburner, but Google is ending the service in July (no date has been specified).

I’ve looked at alternatives, and MailChimp seems to be the best, least commercial and exploitative choice. On Thursday, I will import from Feedburner the addresses of For the Birds email subscribers and enter them into MailChimp. Emails may look different, particularly in the sender and subject lines, but should be easy to recognize.

It will be easy to stop getting emails from MailChimp by unsubscribing, but if you’re currently getting blog posts by email and want to opt out of this change entirely so MailChimp doesn’t get your email address at all, please email me by Thursday morning. Once MailChimp is running, I’ll turn off Feedburner, so you shouldn’t receive duplicate emails. 

My daughter and I tested MailChimp with Sunday’s blog post using our gmail addresses. Hers came through perfectly; mine was sent to spam. So if you don't get blog posts for a while, you might check your spam folder. 

This all only applies to people who receive the blog via email. If you read the blog on my website, nothing will be different. 

The Lost Weekend

Black-billed Cuckoo

When I wrote about the Black-billed Cuckoo last week, I started reminiscing about my lifer Black-billed Cuckoo and how, for one brief, shining moment when I was a new birder at Michigan State, I had an honest-to-goodness birding buddy. Her name was Mary Beauchard, and she was taking ornithology with me. Neither of us could get enough of birds, even with all the class field trips, so when I got an announcement from the Capital Area Audubon Society about a really exciting mid-May weekend field trip, we decided to go. Neither of us had much money, but we had a tent and two sleeping bags and were both up for a Big Adventure.  

I still have the field trip announcement in my field notebook!

At some point while we were making our plans, a guy in our class overheard us and asked if he could tag along. I didn’t know him very well and wasn’t keen about a third person. My car was a Ford Pinto, and with three, someone would be stuck riding in the cramped back seat. That also meant that Mary and I couldn’t leave our gear and snacks in the backseat where we could easily reach anything we wanted while we were on the road—we’d have to put most of our stuff in the hatchback. It seemed ungracious to outright say no, so I warned Dave that the Pinto didn’t have much legroom in back, and if he came along, he’d be the one back there. I also warned him that we were going to be camping and bringing our own food because even if we could afford to go to restaurants, we’d rather spend that time birding. He said he was an experienced camper and had all the gear he needed. So we were stuck.

When I picked them up in the morning, it was raining hard, but according to the Audubon announcement, the Fred Russ State Forest was 106 miles away—the rain couldn’t be everywhere, could it? Before I’d even made it out of the Lansing area, Dave started complaining about his back. I did not want Mary to give up her front seat—she was the one who’d helped me make all our plans plus she was an excellent bird spotter. But with the downpour, there weren’t many birds to spot anyway, and she kindly offered to let Dave sit in front. I found a place to pull over and they switched. He continued to complain but did not offer to switch back even though taking the front seat wasn’t helping.

If it had been just Mary and me, we would have spent the two-hour drive chatting about the birds we’d each seen that week as warbler migration was peaking, talking about the birds we hoped to see on this trip, and plotting out strategies so even if the rain kept up, we’d see wonderful things. But even from the front seat where Mary belonged, Dave continued complaining. What if the rain didn’t let up? I said birds can’t go indoors so we’d certainly see some, and it’s not like we didn’t have umbrellas. Except he didn’t bring one. I had a rain hat with a wide enough brim to protect my eyes and binoculars, so I told him he could use mine, but he said he could hardly manage binoculars with one hand while holding an umbrella. I’d already figured out the technique of sliding the umbrella under my shirt into the center of my bra, which holds it securely in place, but was too shy and proper to mention that sort of risqué thing, and he’d have complained about how that wasn’t fair to men. 

Then he started whining about how his tent leaked. I said I could flatten the hatchback’s backseat so he could sleep in the car, but no—he said his back would make that impossible. I don’t think we spent even a minute of the long drive chatting about birds. 

The field trip participants were supposed to meet at 9 am sharp in the picnic area near the entrance to the state forest, and the driving rain slowed us down plus we’d lost time pulling over so Dave could take the front seat, so we were cutting it close, but we made it. I expected to see at least a dozen cars there before us, but no—the parking area was empty. Well, empty of cars. There were plenty of birds in the trees, and now the rain was just a steady drizzle, so Mary and I jumped out. Despite the rain, we tallied 25 species, including a stunning Black-billed Cuckoo—a lifer for both Mary and me—not far from the car. I ran to tell Dave, but he’d seen one of those before. He stayed hunkered down with his arms folded across his chest and a frown on his face. 

Black-billed Cuckoo

Mary and I had a lovely time in the picnic and parking area while Dave stayed in the car, now complaining because he didn’t bring anything to read. The drizzle kept up, but the temperature was pleasant and there was no wind. It wasn’t the best birding ever, but was far from the worst. 

This being 1976, there was a phone booth by the office, not far away, so after a couple of hours, it occurred to me to call Russ at home. He said maybe 10 minutes after I left, someone from Audubon had called to tell me the field trip had been cancelled. I had the Audubon newsletter with the weekend’s itinerary and directions to Warren Woods State Park, Warren Dunes State Park, and the Grand Mere Dunes. Mary and I would have seen a LOT of new birds in those spots, and we both wanted to forge ahead, but somehow spending the next 30 or more hours with a cranky third wheel didn’t seem bearable, so we headed home. 

Mary Bouchard and I did some more birding together in the next couple of weeks, but then Russ and I moved to Madison, Wisconsin, early in June and I lost track of her.  I just now googled Dave and he was easy to find, but I doubt he’d want to hear from me any more than I’d want to hear from him. He did teach me important lessons about saying no and about doing my best to be adaptable when birding with others. I can’t help but think about him as well as Mary Bouchard whenever I see or even think about a Black-billed Cuckoo—one of the saving graces of an unforgettable lost weekend. 

Black-billed Cuckoo

Sunday, June 27, 2021

How do woodpeckers learn to slam their faces into trees?

Gepetto04.jpg
"Gepetto," a woodpecker I raised, figuring out that food grows in trees.

Last week I got an email from a good friend of mine named Scott. He writes about seeing: 

a little woodpecker doing what it does, hammering at a small tree. We mused about whether woodpeckers hammer out of nature or nurture, or trained nature. The question on the table was: if a woodpecker were raised by chickadees and never saw another woodpecker, would it still instinctively hammer?”

That is a great question with a complicated answer. Baby woodpeckers hatch in an earlier stage of development than chickadees or most other birds, with no down feathers at all. Their parents spend all day gorging themselves on whatever insects they can find and then returning to the nest to feed the babies by regurgitation. During my time as a rehabber, I raised two baby flickers and one baby Pileated. The flickers were fairly feathered out nestlings when I got them—their tree had broken right at the cavity in a storm. The parents were still returning and caring for the nestlings but then a crow discovered the open nest and carried off at least one nestling. As it was returning to take another, the people who lived there climbed a ladder, pulled out the surviving nestlings, and brought them to me. The baby Pileated I raised had apparently just fledged when it was hit by a car in Two Harbors—this may have been its maiden voyage. Its wing was sprained but there were no breaks. 

Both flickers and pileateds specialize on ants as well as on insects hidden under the bark of trees. It would be inefficient to carry ants via their beaks—they’d have to make an awful lot of separate trips to the nest from a good anthill, so instead, the parents swallow all the ants they can on a single trip and then feed the nestlings via regurgitation. There was no way I could obtain the precise mixture of natural food in the huge quantities their parents could feed them, so I substituted a mixture of mashed mealworms and a commercial powdered hand-feeding mix. I added enough water to make it the consistency of pancake batter and fed it via an eyedropper. They guzzled it down from the time I got the birds until they were independent.  

Northern Flickers

Northern Flickers

I’ve watched woodpeckers of other species, less dependent on ants, at a few nests, most especially the Red-bellied Woodpeckers that nested in my boxelder in 2016. I have photos of adults carrying insects in their beak on June 17, a full 22 days before I got a photo of a well-feathered nestling sticking its head out of the nest, so those chicks must not be fed by regurgitation. 

Male Red-bellied Woodpecker
June 17, 2016
Nesting Red-bellied Woodpeckers
June 20, 2016
Red-bellied Woodpeckers bringing food items to nest
June 29, 2016
Hello, world!
July 8, 2016

I’ve not personally watched Downy Woodpeckers feeding their young, but two photos in my book, Into the Nest: Intimate Views of the Courting, Parenting, and Family Lives of Familiar Birds, showing the inside of a Downy Woodpecker nest, show the mother bringing beakfuls of insects and spiders to the nestlings.  I don’t know at what stage baby woodpeckers in general start paying attention to what their food looks like. 

Photo by Stan Tekiela from Into the NestCopyright 2015 by Stan Tekiela. All rights reserved.

Photo by Stan Tekiela from Into the NestCopyright 2015 by Stan Tekiela. All rights reserved.

Baby woodpeckers stay with their parents for several weeks after fledging. During the first days and even weeks, they follow their parents closely. I’ve had lots of opportunities to watch adults of several species with their young, and the interactions are charming. Once I spent a half hour watching a father Pileated and his daughter. He was pecking into a tree right next to her, seemingly showing her the right places to dig. I watched her dig out and swallow a few big bugs all by herself, but several times even after a few successes, she got impatient and started begging. Her father patiently fed her even as he seemed to make sure she was watching him dig out more. And each time after feeding her, he moved a foot or two away from her, as if encouraging her to dig out her own insects in the tree bark. 

This is how parents educate their young even as they continue to provide everything the chicks need. That is exactly why only qualified people should ever raise baby birds—when people don’t understand this critical process, their impulse is simply to let the babies go when they can fly by themselves. We obviously cannot teach them everything their parents can, but if we’re expecting them to pick up their knowledge on the street—where they can find their own food, what signals should they pay attention to when predators are near, where they should hide out during storms or when a predator is about, and probably little things we mere humans cannot imagine—we still must provide food as they figure all that out for themselves.  

When I raised the flickers, I could show them some of the anthills in my neighborhood, but it took them a long time to figure out other ways of getting food, so they were still coming back to me and my sons for feedings well over a month after natural flickers, properly educated by their parents, were fully independent. 

Northern Flickers

By October, my flickers were taking less and less food from us, and they disappeared by the end of the month. I know for a fact that at least one of them survived the winter, because when my son was doing his paper route the next spring and a flicker called, he whistled and it alighted on him. 

Woodpeckers have such exquisite hearing that they hear where insects are in the trees and learn how to slam their sturdy beaks right where they'll be able to get them. Wild woodpeckers get to study how their parents do this, and that studiousness itself is instinctive. But I know that the Pileated I raised figured out the tree-slamming stuff without my demonstrations. I was better at taking him to anthills—he could slurp up ants to his stomach’s content with fairly little effort, at least for a day or two before he’d decimated that ant population. 

So even though there is no record of a chickadee rearing a baby woodpecker, we know that they do work out how to slam their faces into trees to get out food—I imagine they also watch their parents excavating holes, though I can’t be certain about that. It's all so interesting, and the more we learn, the more we realize how much we still don't know. 

GepettoTom.jpg

Thursday, June 24, 2021

New Technology for Citizen Scientists

Northern Flying Squirrel at my bird bath!

This week I talked about good and bad news about birds. There’s also a bit of current news about flying squirrels which I read about in an article by John Myers in the Duluth News-Tribune this week.   

A study out of Ontario is finding that northern flying squirrels are disappearing from the Northland thanks to climate change as warming trends lead to the loss of so many of our conifers. Southern flying squirrels, more associated with hardwoods, are advancing north and replacing the northern species at the astonishing rate of 12.5 miles per year. Rich Staffen, a biologist with the Wisconsin DNR, said southern flying squirrels have now reached Lake Superior, and that squirrel trapping programs in the past 5 years in the northern third of Wisconsin now are mostly catching southern flying squirrels and only rarely northerns. Both Wisconsin and Michigan are now listing the northern flying squirrel as a species of concern because of their rapidly shrinking range. Minnesota hadn’t been paying much attention until just recently. Now Michael Joyce, a wildlife ecologist at the Natural Resources Research Institute in Duluth, is leading a pilot program to capture ultrasonic voices of flying squirrels and to capture their images from trail cams. He’s also asking people up here to share our reports. (Michael Joyce's email,) My backyard trail cams caught pictures and videos of flying squirrels in a feeder and a birdbath last fall. They look to my inexperienced eyes like southern flying squirrels but I couldn’t be sure—taken at night, the photos are black-and-white and don’t show that much detail, but that’s for Michael Joyce to decide.   

Northern Flying Squirrel at my bird bath!

During the pandemic, more and more people have started paying attention to backyard wildlife, and as people grow increasingly aware of birds and other animals living among us, the natural impulse is to care more. That should vastly increase the data citizen science provides for projects like the flying squirrel study. 

The single easiest way anyone can provide valuable data is to submit their bird sightings to eBird—a wonderful, absolutely free, tool managed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. I have the eBird app on my iPhone. Say I’m about to take a walk along the Western Waterfront Trail. I start up the eBird app in the parking lot. It produces a checklist of the likely birds I’ll see there that day. I keep track of species and numbers as I walk, but don’t entered some birds until I get back to the parking lot when I’m done—the idea of eBird after all is to keep track of the birds we see, not keep our faces focused on an app. When I’m done, eBird shows a map of exactly where I’ve been at that time on that date, along with my checklist. The data generated is valuable for conservation scientists, and grows ever more valuable as the network of people submitting data grows. And eBird’s value isn’t limited to science. It also keeps track of our personal birding lists so if we keep it up to date, we can find out exactly how long our yard list is, how many birds we've seen in any given year, and how many birds we’ve seen in each location, county, state, and country we’ve birded in.  

But what if you can’t recognize a bird? The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has another app, Merlin, designed to help anyone, including absolute beginners, with identification. Merlin even identifies bird photos if we furnish the date and place to narrow down the possibilities. I’ve tested Merlin many times with my own photos of known birds, including some pretty marginal photos, and been very impressed with the app’s accuracy. And it can be used with eBird so the birds we identify can be seamlessly added to our checklist. Like eBird, Merlin is absolutely free.   

And this week, Cornell announced a huge improvement in this already superb app. Now Merlin can help us identify the bird sounds we hear! I haven’t tested it myself yet—I only heard about it yesterday—but it looks fantastic. And again, it’s absolutely free. You can learn about it at merlin.allaboutbirds.org.  

Since the pandemic began, I’ve been making lots of recordings of my backyard birds. Sometimes those recordings reveal the presence of birds I hadn’t noticed in person. Now a group of biologists and conservationists have developed an exciting device called Terra, which contains a set of microphones and a radio receiver for radio-tagged birds to be set up on people’s property. It will keep track of night sounds of migrating birds as well as day-flying birds, and will recognize the increasing number of birds wearing radio tags as they visit or fly over our yards. Terra’s scientific value will come from having an extensive network of them. The Terra team is launching this project via Kickstarter, setting a goal of $266,700 in pledges in the campaign, which ends of July 1. No money pledged will be charged unless they reach this goal; the device will be sent to everyone who pledges $165 or more. The link to the Terra information page is here.   

It’s easy to feel helpless in the face of so many urgent environmental problems. eBird, Merlin, and now Terra are wonderful tools to help us notice, recognize, and enjoy wildlife while making tangible contributions to their long term survival.  


Monday, June 21, 2021

Cuckoos

Cuckoo Clock

Long before I ever became a birder, the word cuckoo conjured two things: the Three Stooges and cuckoo clocks. I had no idea that the distinctive sound cuckoo clocks make is a perfect imitation of the Common Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus), a bird that German clockmakers would have been very familiar with in the Black Forest when they created this wonderful timepiece. I didn’t know anything about the bird when I took my first Shakespeare classes. He makes reference to this bird, the inspiration behind the word cuckold, fairly often.

Cuculus canorus vogelartinfo chris romeiks CHR0791 cropped

The cuckoos of the UK and Europe are in the same family as our American cuckoos, but in a different subfamily, Cuculinae, and the birds are quite different in important ways. The Common Cuckoo is famous for being a brood parasite, meaning females lay their eggs in the nests of other species, and those parents raise the cuckoos instead of their own young. When a Common Cuckoo egg hatches, the tiny hatchling has a powerful instinct to roll out everything else in the nest, including any eggs or chicks belonging to the parents at that nest, so it will soon have no competition at all for every one of both parents’ feedings. American cowbirds are also brood parasites, but although baby cowbirds have a serious size advantage over the natural warblers or sparrows in the nest, the cowbirds aren’t aggressive toward them. In many species such as Song Sparrows, at least two and sometimes three of the parents’ own nestlings survive to fledge along with the baby cowbird. European cuckoos are larger than cowbirds and apparently need all the calories the foster parents can muster. 

Mangrove Cuckoo
Mangrove Cuckoo

Yellow-billed Cuckoo
Yellow-billed Cuckoo

Black-billed Cuckoo
Black-billed Cuckoo

The three cuckoos found in the United States belong to a different subfamily, Coccyzinae, and are not usually brood parasites (though they sometimes lay eggs in the nests of other birds—cuckoos and other species—in addition to laying eggs in their own nests and raising those young). All three of our cuckoos have distinctive calls but can sit still for many long minutes within foliage, so even when they’re calling persistently, they can be tricky to observe. Although we may work hard to see one at all, none of them seem all that wary, so once you do see one, you can often watch for a while. 

The Mangrove Cuckoo, found in the United States only in southern Florida and most easily seen here in the Keys, has a very loud call. This was considered a migratory species that withdrew from Florida in winter back, making it seem to be a rarer find than it really was when I saw my lifer in the Everglades in 1988. The birds don’t call in winter, so even researchers weren’t easily finding them in winter. I lucked into seeing mine only because a little group of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers were mobbing it as I hiked the Snake Bight Trail. It didn’t move a muscle while I studied it—I could only confirm that it was a real, live bird and not a fake or stuffed specimen because it blinked a few times.  I've seen Mangrove Cuckoos in the Keys a few times, including on Saddlebunch Key in 2019 when I was with Russ. I got photos while he got a recording with my iPhone. 

Mangrove Cuckoo
Click here to hear this very bird as recorded on my iPhone.

Two cuckoos are found in the US north of Florida. The Yellow-billed breeds throughout much of the eastern United States down to South Florida and west into the Great Plains, with isolated, declining populations in the American West, and down into Mexico and the Greater Antilles. It breeds throughout Wisconsin and Minnesota except northeastern-most Minnesota. The Black-billed Cuckoo ranges farther north than the Yellow-billed, but not in the Gulf States nor Mexico or any Caribbean islands. Both species winter in South America. 

The Yellow-billed Cuckoo is often called the rain crow because it calls so often on hot days just before a thunderstorm, and its strident call is hard to ignore. The Black-billed Cuckoo is more likely to be seen or at least heard by Northlanders, but only if they’re paying attention.  Its calls are well within the frequencies we humans hear very easily, but they aren’t loud, and their calls seem to simply be part of the soundtrack rather than the main feature, except for those of us for whom they are the main feature. When I was in the Sax Zim Bog recently and stopped to enjoy a Dickcissel on Arkola Road, suddenly I was hearing a cuckoo in the background. I got a few photos and recorded him with my iPhone.

Black-billed Cuckoo
Click here to hear this very bird as recorded on my iPhone.

Both cuckoos feed voraciously on cicadas and hairy caterpillars, including gypsy moths and the tent caterpillars that are abundant this year up here, which makes this summer a time when people are noticing cuckoos. I’ve been fielding lots of questions from people who are hearing them calling incessantly, sometimes by night as well as by day. 

I’ve always wished I could observe cuckoos nesting, but that would involve invading their privacy. Janice Hughes described the baby cuckoos in a charming way in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Birds of the World:

Shiny, black nestlings hatch following a brief 11-day incubation period. Within 3 hours of hatching, they can raise themselves onto twigs, using their feet and bills. They mature rapidly, and at 6 days of age resemble porcupines, with their long, pointed feather sheaths. Just prior to the young leaving the nest on the following day, the sheaths burst and the chick becomes fully feathered, a process once likened to the commotion in a corn popper. The agile, young cuckoos are capable of hopping and climbing rapidly through the vegetation. 

Despite their seeming abundance when we’re seeing lots of prey insects, Black-billed Cuckoos are nowhere near as abundant as they used to be.  Janice Hughes wrote:

Populations have declined across its range throughout the twentieth century, with particularly severe decreases in the 1980s and 1990s. Accounts from naturalists in the late 1800s speak of flocks of cuckoos descending on caterpillar-laden trees and not departing until every insect was consumed. Caterpillar irruptions still occur, but since they have been controlled by pesticide use, cuckoos are rarely seen more than singly. It is likely that pesticides, and the concomitant reduction of prey availability, have caused Black-billed Cuckoo mortality and reduced breeding success, but these effects have never been quantified.

Little by little, people seem to be waking up to the dangers of pesticides, but then again, I thought that back on the first Earth Day, and that was over half a century ago. Knowing about cuckoos is the first step in wanting to protect them. This would be a good time to start. 

Black-billed Cuckoo