Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Australian Magpies: Smarter than Researchers Thought!


Photo of Australian Magpie by JJ Harrison via Wikipedia

For the past month or so, people have been sending me links to various news sources around the world (like this New York Times article) reporting on the “discovery” that Australian Magpies are smart. These birds certainly have proven to be smarter than scientists realized, not just outsmarting them but also thwarting a very expensive research project.  

To attach GPS tracking devices to individual magpies, researchers took six months developing a harness that would be comfortable and not intrusive, lightweight but strong, and virtually impossible for the magpies to remove—at least by themselves. And the day they finally put the harnesses on five study subjects, the birds flew off showing no signs of distress at all. The researchers thought everything was going perfectly.   

But then, within minutes, one of their study birds, a juvenile, was seen pecking at its own harness, and was quickly joined by another juvenile who also pecked at it. Within the next 10 minutes, an adult female joined them. She pecked at various points on the juvenile's harness until she came to the weak point, a 1-millimeter clasp which she snipped with her beak. At the same time, two other magpies were seen attempting the same thing on a power line . They lost their footing and fell, flew to a nearby tree, and continued to work on the project together.  The next day, two magpies were seen still wearing a harness and tracker, but within three days, all five of the harnesses had been removed.   

The researchers, sentient beings themselves, may have been heartbroken and discouraged, stymied as far as their original research goals, but they managed to make lemonade from these lemons. They published a paper in Australian Field Ornithology reporting on this “altruistic rescue behavior.”   

The only similar behavior in birds reported in the literature was a paper about Seychelles Warblers helping other birds in their social flocks to remove a dangerous kind of sticky seeds from their plumage. Those seeds represent a real danger to the warblers—the Australian Magpies had no previous experience with harnesses to know whether they were dangerous or not. And the researchers could not be certain that the birds actually figured out that one weak point on the harnesses or if they simply chanced upon it while pecking all over.    

Ravens, crows, jays, and magpies in the Americas and Eurasia belong to the family Corvidae. In the same way we humans think our species is the only true intelligent life form on this planet, we Americans think OUR birds, the ones living in North America and Europe, are the most intelligent of birds, so even though scientists and regular people living in Australia have long realized the Australian Magpie has extraordinary intelligence, I hardly ever see Australian Magpies listed with corvids or even with pigeons as among the most intelligent of birds. That may be because a lot of people, including birders, think Australian Magpies are corvids, but they actually belong to the family Artamidae, a family with 24 species, including woodswallows, currawongs, and butcherbirds, found in Australia, the Indo-Pacific region, and Southern Asia.   

Australian Magpies have long been famous for their mischievous attacks on humans—they’re able to recognize up to 30 different human faces and they exhibit a very long memory—one researcher disliked by a magpie left the area for 15 years, but he was attacked immediately upon his return. We know our crows can differentiate and remember quite a few people, too, but unlike our corvids’ raspy and squawky vocalizations, the Australian Magpie song is both beautiful and extraordinarily complex. (You can listen to recordings on Xeno-Canto here.).  

I love that these astonishingly cool birds so perfectly combine brains with handsome plumage and bearing and vocal beauty. I doubt if I’ll ever get to Australia to see them, but my life is richer for living on the same planet with them.

Click on photo or here to see and hear a really cool 12-second video by Jason Antony (Alexanderino) of these magpies singing together!

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Transition from Winter to Spring

Common Redpoll

If you were to ask me today what my favorite season is, chances are I’d say this one—the transitional period as winter slowly melts into spring. On some days I look out on Lake Superior and blue water beckons, the ice gone. Then the wind changes direction and the ice suddenly reappears. It sloshes back and forth for weeks even as it shrinks and breaks apart. April Fools blizzards are real, but so is the melting.   

This month I’ve been showing my 19-month-old grandson how when you step gently on the thin ice sheet covering a puddle, it crazes in a beautiful pattern as water seeps through the cracks. When you stomp on it, sparkly water leaps up in a fountain around your boots.   

American Crow

While Walter and I were doing this last week, crows were flying over carrying sticks. He's starting to recognize them and their caws. 

Black-capped Chickadee

His front yard doesn’t have the right trees to bring in chickadees, and right now the ground is too icy and slippery to manage the steep slope of his backyard down to Tischer Creek, so he’s mostly seeing chickadees through the window when they visit the feeder, but he's paying more attention to them in bare tree branches now, even at a distance. It’s much easier to see birds in trees before the leaves pop out, another reason to love this time of year.   

American Robin

Of course, early spring loses its luster during ice storms or mornings when the temperature is in single digits Fahrenheit. But then I look out the window at hundreds of redpolls still crowding my feeders and twittering up in my trees—these true winter finches who were the very most wonderful backyard characters this winter. (You can hear five minutes of redpoll twittering that I recorded on 27 March here.) Redpolls will soon light out for the tundra, but right now they’re here in the biggest numbers of the season even as robins are piping in with their spring song, a combination we can enjoy at no other time of the year.  

European Starling

Several starlings spent the winter in my neighborhood. I enjoy their songs and love how sparkly their plumage is right now, but they steal nest cavities from Hairy and Red-bellied Woodpeckers and flickers. Last summer I even caught one checking out my chickadee nest. So whenever I notice a starling at my office window feeder, I wave my arm. Starlings are wary, so off it goes.  

Red-bellied Woodpecker--Notice the tiny barbs on her tongue

Some other birds at my feeder ignore my hand-waving. My chickadees aren’t the least bit intimidated, and this year, by mid-February, my female Red-bellied Woodpecker had figured out my pattern—now she gives me a beseeching look if I don’t wave the starlings off quick enough. Several juncos overwintering on Peabody Street have also grown accustomed to my face and stand their ground when I chase off the starlings.  

Dark-eyed Junco

Redpolls aren’t homebodies like these birds—they wander throughout winter. Some individuals may stick around for a week or more even as others in the same feeding flocks are new arrivals. For the first month or so that redpolls were visiting my yard, the ones at that window feeder were as skittish as the starlings. Now quite a few redpolls recognize me and stay in the feeder or the closest tree branches when I chase off the starlings.  

Common Redpoll

I can’t begin to express how much I love it that these birds recognize and tolerate me. I love that my chickadees come closer when they know I’m at the window, and that my Red-bellied Woodpecker sees me as an ally. My friend Mark Roser celebrates that lovely connection we humans can forge with the birds at our feeders. He wrote:  

There is something very intimate about that connection which, when it happens, can touch us very deeply and very personally. And, also, there is something which is at the same time much bigger and timeless. Because the birds invite us to connect to something more expansive than our backyard, and they connect us across time to millions of years before we humans were around.   All of this in the same short fleeting interaction.  

Yep—that feeling of connection is why I so love my window feeder, and why I’ll be sad when this season of transition turns into real spring, when birds at the window feeder will become fewer and farther between. But at that point, my birdbaths will be giving me opportunities to enjoy birds that aren’t even here yet. I can’t set out those birdbaths until nights are a little less frozen and there’s some foliage for migrants to hide out in. At that point, when people ask me what my favorite season is, I bet I’ll be answering “spring!”

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Fifty Years

Russ and Laura right after we were married.

Friday, March 18, 2022, was Russ’s and my fiftieth anniversary. That's two quarters of a century—makes a girl think!

For a couple to reach their golden anniversary requires that they start out while they’re still too young to have much of a clue about who they are and what they’ll be wanting out of life decades out, much less who their partner is and what they’ll want decades out. 

Getting married

When Russ and I got married, I wasn’t a birder. During our first three years of marriage, I was very much a homebody. 

Laura and Russ in 1974

But then suddenly I was gone birding all day most Saturdays and Sundays; during spring, I was up and gone at 4 am weekdays as well. When Russ had a trip for work or we took an actual vacation, I couldn’t help but study the best birding spots at our destination. I dragged the poor guy to lots of sewage ponds and we once spent a memorable afternoon searching the Brownsville dump without luck for a Tamaulipas Crow. Oddly enough, Russ never complained even on these odoriferous excursions, and luckily, most birding spots are far more pleasant.  

Laura and Russ at my favorite place

Fortunately for our family finances, I didn’t start photographing birds until I started working for a local optics company in 2005, and I didn’t buy my first DSLR camera and lens until I was working full time at Cornell in 2008. And speaking of that—I impulsively applied for that job the moment I saw the listing online, late one night after a glass of wine, and suddenly Russ’s wife was headed 1200 miles away, coming home for holidays and brief visits for the next two years. Again, he never complained. 

Russ, Mom, and Pip at the Port Wing Fall Festival

Of course, marriages involve give AND take. When Russ’s mom developed a debilitating case of bursitis while living alone in Port Wing, Wisconsin, and Russ was busy with work, I stayed with her many days and nights for months. When she came to live with us, we gave her our bedroom and remodeled our bathroom to make it accessible. That was just before I was about to start a birding Big Year, and I had to downscale my plans enormously because we’d not budgeted for the bathroom and because one of us now needed to be home every day. But this was no bigger a sacrifice than all the ones Russ had made for me. 

Back when I was 20 and Russ was 21, we couldn’t have anticipated any of this. Not only didn’t we know how we’d each evolve, we didn’t have a clue about what we’d be taking on when we had kids, how we’d deal with aging parents, how we’d deal with one of us developing an all-consuming passion for birds, or anything else. We jumped in with childlike faith and optimism as well as the feeling that we were mature beyond our actual years. Since then, we’ve had plenty of rough patches but always managed to recapture the best of ourselves and each other to pull through. 

Not one of us, bird or human, can predict how our life will turn out. And as with birds, committing to one mate, whether for a season or a lifetime, is fraught with difficulties as well as loveliness. 

The famous Laysan Albatross known as Wisdom has been nesting on Midway Island since at least 1956, but no one tracked her mates at all until around 2006, so we have no clue how many mates she’s had in her lifetime. The only thing we know for sure is that she’s had at least 2 different mates in the past 16 years. 

American Robin

Sixteen years is beyond the lifespan of any known wild robin, and many or most of them do not return to the same mate year after year even while they both survive. But while two robins are together, they have each other’s back. Several years ago, a pair established their territory in my backyard in early spring. It was a drought year, and after they paired up, they had to wait over a week for a supply of mud before the female could start building the nest. The day it finally rained, she made a good foundation in one of my white spruces and was starting to build up the cup when I heard a horrible racket. I ran out to find a Cooper’s Hawk on my neighbor’s lawn holding the screaming male robin in one foot. The struggling robin’s pectoral muscle was sliced to the bone and the hawk was starting to eat him alive while his mate got right in the hawk’s face screaming at it. Meanwhile, a couple of neighborhood crows waited a safe distance away, hoping to capitalize on the situation. 

All this I took in in just a few seconds, but my opening the door and running out took the hawk by surprise and it flew off. Fueled by adrenalin, the dying robin ran under another spruce tree, the crows started making their move, and the female robin blocked their path, flailing her wings at them. Suddenly the hawk returned, darted under the tree, and grabbed the doomed male, this time dispatching him quickly and flying off to eat in peace. 

I was heartbroken to lose this particular robin, who for years had done all his singing from atop my largest spruce. I was also sad for the female. She'd lost her mate and now all her hard work on the nest was wasted, too. But no—first thing the next morning, there she was, finishing up that very nest cup with a new male bringing her nesting materials. 

This female had not only stuck by her first mate till death did them part but had fought for him as long as he clung to life. Now, spending days or weeks in mourning would have left her not only without her mate but also without a decent chance of successfully raising young that year. At this point, she probably had one and possibly even two fertilized eggs moving along her oviduct, so finding a new mate gave her the best chance of adding to her first mate’s genetic heritage as well as this new male’s and her own.

Russ and Laura

Those of us who get through the good and bad times together, year after year, owe a marriage's longevity to luck as much as anything. Instead of droughts, storms, and territorial competitors, we humans face financial struggles and setbacks, and all kinds of family strife. Instead of Cooper’s Hawks, we face heart attacks, cancer, other diseases, tragic accidents, and other dangers. Most marriages don’t last 50 years not because most couples aren't loving and loyal enough or don't deserve it, but because death intervenes. 

Luck is neither deserved nor undeserved—it just is. So far, Russ and I are still hanging in there, and we still have each other’s backs. And that is the most joyful kind of luck there is. 

Russ and Laura 50 years after our first date

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Alaska Trip Preparation, Part III: Anticipation!

In the four decades that Russ and I have lived in Duluth, we’ve driven on Highway 53 in Wisconsin hundreds of times. A couple of hours into the drive, we used to always start looking for the sign that read “Welcome to Tilden, Half Way Between the Equator and the North Pole.”  

That sign is no longer there, replaced with something much more boring, but while it was there, it served as a vivid reminder of just where we live on this planet, 144 driving miles north of the 45th Parallel, meaning that Duluth is 288 or so miles closer to the north pole than to the equator. 

When I was ostensibly learning geography in elementary school, the north and south poles and the equator were abstractions far beyond any places I could imagine ever visiting, and it stayed that way for decades. It wasn’t until I was almost 50 that I first traveled beyond the United States and a wee bit of Canada. I've made up for lost time at least a little—I’ve stood on the Equator twice, on two different continents: in 2006 in Ecuador, 

Laura on the Equator in Ecuador

and in 2016 in Uganda. 

Laura at the Equator in Uganda

The furthest south I’ve ever been was Peru in 2016. Lima, at -12º, is still almost half a world away from the South Pole, and I’m pretty sure I’ll never get any closer, at least not in this lifetime. My dreams of seeing wild penguins ebb with every birthday. 

I've done much better in the northern hemisphere. Russ and I took a cruise along the Inside Passage back in 2001, getting almost as far north as 59º N. 

View from the Wilderness Adventurer on our Alaska cruise

(Putting that in a wider perspective, in 2015, our daughter and son-in-law flew with their bicycles to St. Petersburg, Russia, almost at the 60º mark, and they got even further north when they took the train to the western border of Russia and bicycled on their own into and all the way across Finland, Sweden, and Norway.) 

Anchorage is above 61ºN but is still over 2,400 miles from the North Pole. The furthest north we’ll get on this trip is Nome. At 64.5ºN, it’s still about 2 degrees south of the Arctic Circle and more than 1,700 miles from the North Pole. That’s a greater straight-line distance than from Duluth to the Pacific Ocean! But I’ve never fancied myself a polar explorer, so that’s plenty good enough for me. 

There are orders of magnitude more birds in the tropics than at either pole. I found a paper from 1996 by Vuilleumier listing all the birds that had ever been recorded in and over the Arctic Ocean—a mere 29 species, and not one of them is found only in the arctic. Indeed, in my own life I’ve seen 26 of them, 17 (Snow Goose; Brant; Common Eider; Long-tailed Duck; Pomarine, Parasitic, and Long-tailed Jaegers; Herring, Glaucous, Great Black-backed, Sabine's, and Ivory Gulls; Arctic Tern; Northern Wheatear; White-crowned Sparrow; Lapland Longspur; and Snow Bunting) right here in Duluth, along with a Black-legged Kittiwake just up the shore at Stoney Point and a Ross’s Gull in Ashland. The others I've seen on other coasts and continents.

Of the three truly Arctic species I’ve never seen, the Lesser White-fronted Goose will be pretty much impossible to find on this trip and the Dovekie almost impossible. I’ve got a chance, if I’m lucky, of seeing a Thick-billed Murre—the tour group saw that last year.

Proceeding south from the Arctic Ocean to where our tour will be, the number of birds increases rapidly. Victor Emanuel Nature Tours sent us a checklist of 250 or so possibilities, with optimistic blank spots added at the ends of many families in hopes that we will add at least a few new species to the list. 

Not one of the common species would be a lifer, but of the less common birds the group saw last year, 11 would be new for me. The one I most want to see is the beautiful little Bluethroat, a softly colorful bluebird-like species found in wet birch woods and brushy swamps in Europe and Asia, barely reaching westernmost Alaska. 

Bluethroat, by Bogomolov.PL via Wikipedia

The Bluethroat will be possible only on the Nome part of the trip, as will the Bristle-thighed Curlew, a handsome, medium-sized shorebird with beautifully decurved bill. 

Bristle-thighed Curlew photo from the National Park Service via Wikipedia

To get that one, we’ll make an arduous hike on the tundra. Another beautiful shorebird, the Bar-tailed Godwit; the Arctic Loon; two ducks (the Spectacled Eider and Stejneger’s Scoter) and another small songbird, the Eastern Yellow Wagtail, are also potential lifers that were seen only on the Nome part of the trip last year.

Birds are hardly the only creatures in Alaska. Russ and I are both eager to see such splendid northern specialties as musk ox, caribou, mountain goats, moose, Dall’s sheep, and (hopefully from a good distance) grizzly bears. In Denali National Park, we’ll be in viewing range of the tallest mountain in North America. The peak of Mount Everest may be almost 9,000 feet higher when measured from sea level, but Denali is almost a mile taller than Everest measured from base to summit. Last year the Victor Emanuel tour group got stunning looks at the peak. We can hardly plan on that—it’s usually shrouded in clouds—but you never know.

Many of the things I hope to see on this trip won’t pan out, but wonderful things I never expected have happened on just about every trip I’ve ever taken. In the moment, each birding adventure is too crowded with fun and excitement to leave room for disappointment. I’m getting months of joy already from eager anticipation, and when we return, I'll savor my photos, sound recordings, bird lists, and memories for many years to come. Not bad for a trip that, technically, will last for just two weeks. 

Some of my references for planning my Alaska trip

Monday, March 14, 2022

Alaska Trip Preparation, Part II: Getting in Shape

Alaska cruise on the Wilderness Adventurer

In June, Russ and I are heading to Alaska for the second time in our lives. In August 2001, we took a cruise in the Inside Passage and spent a couple of days birding in and around Juneau.

Back then, before I booked the trip on the Wilderness Adventurer, a small ship operated by a Native-owned company, I researched the least polluting, most environmentally responsible cruise company. 

Alaska cruise on the Wilderness Adventurer
This is a picture of ALL of the passengers on this cruise. Russ is kneeling on one knee at the left and I'm next to him. 

Tragically, that company is no longer in business, but the Wilderness Adventurer is still in operation. Other than figuring out the most sustainable cruise and doing our best to offset our travel to and from Alaska so we wouldn’t be responsible for too much pollution or carbon emissions (and yes, we were well aware of the issues of climate change two decades ago), that trip involved nothing but fun and joy. 

Russ kayaking in the Inside Passage
The cruise involved kayaking, too!

Twenty-one years later, for the first time in my life, I’m dealing with another kind of trip preparation. This trip is partly to celebrate Russ’s and my 70th birthdays, but I’ve been dealing with a couple of other milestones, too. February 12 was the seven-year anniversary of my first heart attack; my second was two years ago. I’ve been on warfarin for the past two years which should prevent an encore, and I also just had my five-year anniversary of being cancer-free after my bout with breast cancer. I’m still active and in pretty good shape. I haven’t had any issues with my joints and still have no trouble at all carrying and using my binoculars and camera with its 100–500 mm lens everywhere. 

Laura and Pip and Laura's car

I have a lot of birding friends who were younger than me when they had to give up lugging a big camera or heavy binoculars, and some of my friends can’t hold 10-power glasses or even a small camera steady anymore. So I consider myself very lucky for an old lady. (Some people insist I should never use the word “old” or “elderly” in reference to myself, but people who hear a negative connotation in the simple descriptive word “old” are hanging onto some pretty ageist prejudices.) 

This birding tour will be low-key as far as physical exertion goes, except for one day on the Nome leg, when we take a long and potentially grueling hike on the tundra in hopes of seeing the Bristle-thighed Curlew. I’ve always considered myself a moseyer, and birding groups seldom hike too fast even on easy terrain. I’ve never had trouble keeping up with groups on this kind of adventure, and I’m bound and determined to keep this hike from being the first time. 

After my second heart attack in January 2020, I did a great job of exercising every day via my hospital’s cardiac rehab program until I had to stop going because of the pandemic. For months after, I stayed active with my desk treadmill and doing weight and aerobic exercises with my trusty old Jane Fonda’s Complete Workout video. But working that into my daily routine has become increasingly difficult as my grandson morphs from baby to toddler. I provide childcare at his house while my daughter and son-in-law are working, a genuine labor of love that fills my heart with joy, but even the happiest heart needs regular cardio workouts to be healthy. My treadmill is at home and I can't use it with a small child around anyway. I’m currently using Walter’s morning nap-time to exercise, but he’s reaching that tricky stage where he’s starting to outgrow the need for two naps. So my exercise routines keep getting changed, and I'm the kind of person who has trouble adjusting to change.

Even though this part of my Alaska trip preparation isn’t fun,  the possibility of seeing an amazing bird on the tundra is excellent motivation, and making sure I exercise each day is already paying off in how I feel, too. It’s funny how many decades I’ve cruised through without ever once thinking about or noticing the physical rigors of birding, even when I've taken very long hikes, all alone, in such isolated places as Water Canyon in New Mexico and Big Bend National Park in far western Texas. I plan to keep seeing and photographing birds for a decade or two to come, and staying physically fit is important in my day-to-day life even without a Bristle-thighed Curlew lifer to look forward to. Exercise is just one more step in preparing for a thrilling birding adventure.

Bristle-thighed Curlew photo from the National Park Service via Wikipedia

Sunday, March 13, 2022

Alaska Trip Preparation, Part I: Reducing My Carbon Footprint

Russ and Laura right after we were married.

Russ and I turned 70 last year, and this Friday we celebrate the 50th anniversary of getting married, which we did over spring break while we were undergraduates at Michigan State. To celebrate these two huge milestones, last summer we signed up for a birding tour to Alaska organized by Victor Emanuel Nature Tours. On June 10th, we’ll fly to Anchorage. After a day to get our bearings, we’ll fly to Nome for a five-day pre-tour extension. Then we’ll return to Anchorage for the main event, going to spots near Anchorage and to Denali and the Kenai Peninsula. Our guides will be Barry Zimmer, who has done this Alaska tour many times, and one of Russ’s and my dearest friends, Erik Bruhnke.  

Pip and her Uncle Erik

As I plan for any trip, step one is to examine my environmental conscience to make sure I’ve been leading as environmentally sustainable a life as possible, and to take stock of how many miles this trip will involve and the best ways for me to make up for the greenhouse gases my travel will release into the atmosphere.

When Russ and I got married, we were about as idealistic as two 20-somethings could be. From the start and ever since, we’ve analyzed every purchase we make, big and small, to make sure everything we buy was produced as sustainably as possible and will do the least possible damage to the environment. For example, our '71 Ford Pinto got the best mileage of domestic cars available then. And we always bought Era laundry detergent because it was one of the few available at the time with zero phosphates. 

Sammy our Ford Pinto bearing wedding sign

But as careful as we’ve always tried to be, any time I mention anything to do with travel, I get angry emails and calls from listeners livid about my taking a plane anywhere. Some focus on the frivolous nature of birding. When they fly, it’s only for work—as if traveling to see birds isn’t an essential component of my career. One man boasted that he and his wife drive to their vacation destinations, but then mentioned that those destinations are where they board a cruise ship, as if the bunker fuel cruise ships burn isn’t a huge source not just of greenhouse gases but also of devastating pollutants. 

Good mileage day
This was from our Prius--I haven't gotten around to taking a similar photo in the Niro. 

My car, a Kia Niro hybrid, gets between 55 and 60 miles per gallon most of the year, dropping to between 38 and 50 in winter, depending on temperature and road conditions. I’ve always made it a habit to drive at the slowest speed that is safe, courteous, and convenient, which makes a significant difference in mileage. 

Some of the people who most strenuously criticize my flying live in the north woods, putting many more miles on their high-clearance SUVs or trucks in their day-to-day lives than I put on my hybrid during my Birding Big Year. People living outside town depend on gas-guzzling snowplows that burn orders of magnitude more fuel per customer mile than snowplows in town do. The added greenhouse gases involved in rural mail and package delivery are significant, too. The sad truth is that many people living in the woods contribute more greenhouse gases without ever getting into a plane than city dwellers who take one or two plane trips a year do, especially in recent years, because efficiencies in aircraft have improved at a much faster rate than those in cars, SUVs, and trucks.

But self-righteousness is no more warranted than casting stones. In 2019, transportation was responsible for 29 percent of carbon emissions in the United States. Any mode of transportation that burns fuel contributes to climate change, including electric cars unless the source of the electricity is 100 percent solar or wind. Every one of us is responsible for the greenhouse gases we cause throughout our lives, and the more miles we travel, the greater our responsibility. 

When forests are destroyed, they not only stop taking up carbon from the atmosphere; they also release the carbon they’d sequestered, instantaneously when forests are burned. So it seems only fair in making amends for my travel to donate to organizations that effectively reforest tropical habitat. That also provides critical habitat for birds—the ideal mitigation  solution for me. 

But what organizations should get my donations? Jeff Price, of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in the UK, recommends the World Land Trust, which focuses on buying and protecting environmentally-threatened land in 20 different countries in Africa, Asia, and Central and South America. The U.S.-based Rainforest Trust and Rainforest Alliance do excellent work, too. Russ and I will make donations this year to all three. 

Working out how to mitigate greenhouse gases is not the only hard task I face ahead of this trip. Next time I’ll talk about the one other tricky issue I’m facing. Then I can focus on the fun elements of trip preparation.


The Nature Conservancy focuses on restoring habitat of all kinds, which also helps sequester carbon and protect vulnerable species. The Nature Conservancy pays their CEO $818,838—that's almost seven figures—when my income seldom hits five figures (yes, it's usually under $10,000). So I figure their main focus is on "major donors" rather than small potatoes people like me. As important as their mission is and effective as they are, my membership is enough to help them—some of those major donors give their big donations on the basis of the number of memberships. This year I'll donate beyond my annual membership to the other three. 

Friday, March 11, 2022

Handfeeding, Part II: Mark Roser's Interactive Bird Feeding

A few weeks ago, I got a package in the mail from one of my friends, Mark Roser. It was trademarked “Laughing Birds,” which of course I found charming, and contained two small bags of sunflower hearts, peanuts, and tree nuts; a macramé hanger and little clay dish; a pair of cotton gloves; and Mark’s Guidebook to Interactive Bird Feeding. I instantly seized upon that phrase, “interactive bird feeding,” because that’s pretty much what I do. And the heading on the back cover read, “Travel to the depths of your own back yard and uncover what has been there all along.” Yep—this sounded like it would be right up my alley.  

But I was also a little skeptical. On Facebook, when I see a photo of a wonderful bird—especially a beautiful hummingbird or tiny songbird—I try not to look at the comments, because invariably, some people will type "WANT," and they don’t mean they want to see one for their life list or to photograph it—they mean they want that beautiful thing for a pet, as if we humans could possibly actually own a wild creature any more than we could own the sun or the moon or the stars. Wild creatures belong to themselves.  

Cuban Tody!!
A few people commented on my flickr photo of a Cuban Tody that they wished they could have one. I did NOT publish those comments. 

Fortunately, the book laid my fears to rest. Mark starts by explaining three kinds of bird feeding, which he calls primary, specialty, and interactive. Those of us with feeding stations understand primary and secondary feeders—the primary ones filled with sunflower or other seeds we buy in bulk to attract a wide variety of birds, and the specialty ones designed to appeal to specific types of birds. Nyjer attracts finches, suet attracts woodpeckers and nuthatches, and white millet attracts doves and juncos. Normally, we fill these feeders and then go inside to watch. Chickadees, redpolls, and a few other species may learn to associate us with filling the feeders, and may approach while we’re right there—some of them also start coming to our hands—but most of the birds who come to feeding stations wait until they can’t see us.  

Blue Jays at feeder
A few of my neighborhood Blue Jays approach me for peanuts, but this migratory flock is too busy bulking up to waste time forging relationships with humans. If I came near, they'd disappear. 
Blue Jay Approved!
This one kindly posed in exchange for peanuts so I can pretend my ABA award is Blue Jay approved. 

Interactive feeders offer only small amounts of the most enticing foods—peanuts and nut meats, sunflower hearts, and expensive items like that. By limiting the amount and offering it only while we’re nearby, some birds readily learn to accept our presence. Mark explains how to offer it in the little clay dish and how to get the birds used to our presence. 

Black-capped Chickadee

Soon we can hold the dish in our hand and little birds will come right to it. The next step is to hold the seed in our hand without the dish. That’s where the cotton gloves come in—our hands and birds’ feet all bear germs and some birds have sharper claws than others. The gloves offer a bit of protection on both sides.  

Near the beginning of the book there's a box about safety. He encourages people to invite children, people with disabilities, people in senior centers, and people isolated from others to learn how to do this, too, but writes:  

Please be sure that you make the safety measures 100% clear. The approaches described in this book put birds in a very vulnerable position and should not be taught to anyone who does not have a sincere desire and ability to safely care for birds.  

If you do not feel that the person can keep the birds safe, then please don’t hold the sharing cup or hand-feed that day. You can watch closely with the birds nearby but without contact.  

I particularly like Mark Roser’s recognition that birds are their own selves. His interactive guide shows, step by step, how to get your backyard birds comfortable coming closer to you, but he also explains that some birds are reluctant to come too close, such as bluebirds and cardinals, and why we shouldn’t try to break that barrier.  He writes,   

As I got to know the birds, some of them by name, I began to recognize that when I stepped out of my house, I was actually stepping into theirs… As I spent time with them, I became more sensitive to what could be helpful and what could scare them away or hurt them. With each step forward and two steps back, my vantage point was being changed and my intention and hopes shifted within me.  

Mark writes about the importance of only offering as much food as birds can finish fairly quickly so it doesn’t spoil. But A Guidebook to Interactive Feeding does not cover in any depth one serious issue that develops as winter melds into spring, when warm temperatures hasten the decay process of spilled seeds and seed shells. The bazillions of redpolls people have been exulting in this winter often eat on the ground, maintaining little personal distance from one another. We must keep those seeds raked and discarded to protect the birds. But redpolls move about and can pick up diseases elsewhere, too, and spread the disease in our backyards. Sadly, if we see ANY sick redpolls, House Finches, or other birds, it’s imperative to close down our feeding station until the flocks disperse. After dealing with a pandemic for two years, most of us understand why restaurants had to change a lot of protocols, so this should be reasonably understandable. 

Ironically, Mark’s system of interactive bird feeding can continue full on even if we’ve had to shut down our main feeders, as long as we aren’t inviting sick birds to be eating anywhere near where we’re inviting healthy birds. Feeding birds is a Good Thing right up until it isn’t. 

Most of us may not be rocket scientists or brain surgeons, but we should be able to use our human instincts to protect our backyard birds. Mark Roser’s Guide to Interactive Bird Feeding, available via, is an excellent approach to growing more aware of and more deeply enjoying our backyard birds.

Common Redpoll

Monday, March 7, 2022

Handfeeding, Part I

Common Redpoll

For the past few weeks, I’ve been hearing from people thrilling to flurries of redpolls at their feeders, in many cases eating literally out of their hands. The fun of these large flocks can’t be overstated. My dear friend Tim Larson, who's had them come to his hands, said, “It's like a horde of tiny Shriners is holding its convention at my place, bringing their irrepressible, effervescent spirit to these strange days.”

Common Redpoll

It’s hard to articulate the visceral joy many of us feel when we make a genuine, even if momentary, connection with the natural world. When a wild bird’s sparkling eyes meet mine, the connection shoots electrical impulses straight to my heart—I can actually feel it skipping a beat or two. And when a little songbird alights on my finger, its tiny, sharp claws send out the same kind of electrical sparks that fly in descriptions of falling in love.  

Handfeeding mealworms to a Black-capped Chickadee

The redpolls in my yard this year are getting their food from my feeders, not my hands. Some years I've hand-fed my chickadees, and some of those individuals remember me from year to year, which I love. And while I’ve been hand-feeding chickadees over the years, I’ve had both species of nuthatches, a Downy Woodpecker, and a few Pine Siskins alight on my hand, too. 

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Three of the most thrilling experiences I’ve ever had while birding were when a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, a Golden-crowned Kinglet, and a Pine Grosbeak alighted on my hand, no food involved at all. I don’t think either of the kinglets even knew I was a living thing. Both kinglet episodes happened when I was standing at the edge of a hedge on frozen mornings during spring migration, and neither bird looked at my face at all. For them, my hand was just another perch as they darted among the branches searching for breakfast. 

The Pine Grosbeak encounter was magically different. That young male and I whistled back and forth before we saw each other, and after we made eye contact, still whistling back and forth, he kept coming closer while looking directly at me. When he finally alighted on my hand, still looking into my eyes, he lingered for what seemed like an endless moment, then flew alongside me for a short while before moving on to the rest of his life. 

Pine Grosbeak

If he'd been a human, people would call this a bad breakup and say he ghosted me. But being as how he was a bird, our magical time together wasn’t the least bit tainted by its brevity or the permanence of its ending, and will always remain firmly embedded in my heart. 

When anyone falls in love, we can’t help but want the object of our affections to love us back. The chickadees in my neighborhood clearly recognize me, and one particular little guy seems especially drawn to me, approaching inches from my face to catch my attention whenever the window is open, or hovering at my eye level just outside the glass whenever I’m standing at the closed window. When I'm working at my desk, he gives me a long, hard stare from the spruce tree in hopes that I'll notice him.

Black-capped Chickadee

But fun as it is to imagine him loving me back, chickadees do not squander their love on humans—his attraction for me is entirely entwined with his associating me with fresh mealworms. I’m sure he feels toward me they way a person might feel toward a favorite grocer or a reliable neighbor—genuine affection, but nothing like the love we feel for our dearest family and friends.  

People we see regularly, even when we don’t know them, often become entwined in the fabric of our daily lives as we start recognizing them and trusting their predictability. I’m sure that’s how most of my backyard chickadees regard me, and that’s plenty good enough. They don’t love me, so I don’t expect them to do anything at all to make my life better. “To love” is an active verb, and my love for them, even if unrequited, demands that I do what I can to make their lives safer and easier.  

Black-capped Chickadee

I know people who yearn to be loved but are far too guarded to give of themselves, at least when it comes to other humans. But people who love birds and other wildlife must act on that love, or it isn't genuine love. Of course, as Tommy Smothers sang so long ago on the album Free to Be You and Me, "some kinds of help is the kind of help we all can do without." Hand-feeding our backyard birds feels so right to us that it's hard to realize that in some situations, and for some birds, hand-feeding is outright harmful. How do we distinguish which situations feeding birds will be bad, neutral, or genuinely beneficial? 

Next time, I’ll talk about the birds we should never ever try to hand-feed, and about a lovely approach to hand-feeding articulated by my friend Mark Roser in his book, Laughing Birds, A Guidebook to Interactive Bird Feeding

Black-capped Chickadee waiting for mealworms