Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Thursday, April 28, 2022

Recognizing Sparrows, Part 1: Juncos and Sparrows with Streaked Breasts

Fox Sparrow detail
Fox Sparrow

For a brief window during spring migration, from the last week of April through the middle of May, my backyard may be fluttering and crawling with sparrows. House Sparrows aren’t part of my neighborhood’s avifauna and, oddly enough, aren’t related to the native sparrows of North America. But over the years, I’ve seen a dozen different species of native sparrows in my own backyard—a baker’s dozen if you count the Eastern Towhee, which really is just an oversized sparrow. 

Eastern Towhee
Eastern Towhee: Yes, this is a sparrow!

A lot of birders are intimidated by sparrow identification—they’re all LBJs, or “Little Brown Jobs,” aren’t they? But when you pay attention, recognizing most is pretty straightforward, and knowing which have similar markings gives you a heads-up to focus on noticeable differences between alternatives.

Dark-eyed Junco
Dark-eyed Junco, adult male

Despite being entirely and uniquely unstreaked among sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos are not only related to North American sparrows—they are sparrows. And they’re virtually always the first to arrive at our feeders each year. A flock of about a dozen spent this entire winter on Peabody Street. I saw my first for 2022 on January 1, and then virtually every day after that until April, when the wintering flock dissipated, those birds presumably moving on toward their nesting range. By the third week of April, newly arriving juncos filled the vacuum, and by the afternoon of April 26, I had over 200!  

Identifying adult juncos is straightforward, and even young females in our backyards are unstreaked with the distinctive junconian* solid pink bill, white tummy, and white outer tail feathers. Baby juncos have noticeable streaking on their backs and undersides like other sparrows, important to be aware of when birding in Northland woods in summer where some juncos breed, but it’s never an issue with juncos visiting our feeders in spring, and even by the time young ones venture from their parents’ territory in late summer, they’ve molted into more standard, unstreaked junco plumage. 

*Junconian: Quality shared by juncos. Etymology: From junco. Coined by Laura Erickson on April 28, 2022 for this very blog post.

Dark-eyed Junco
Dark-eyed Junco, adult female

Fox Sparrow
Fox Sparrow

This year, my first Fox Sparrow arrived on April 11, and I’ve seen a smattering of them every day since—from 1 to 20—but they’ll soon be moving on. Usually I have to wait until September or October to see them after spring migration, but this year Russ and I may find some up in Alaska in June. I’m partial to the eastern subspecies, which is the rustiest and has the prettiest markings, but no matter which subspecies it belongs to, any Fox Sparrow is plenty good enough for me. 

Fox Sparrow
Fox Sparrow

Like most sparrows, Fox Sparrows have streaked backs, but they also have a prominently streaked underside, the streaks coalescing in a prominent central spot. Three other adult sparrows sometimes seen in Northland backyards—Song, Savannah, and Lincoln’s—share that. The Fox Sparrow is by far the largest and rustiest of the four, and its conspicuous rusty tail differentiates it from all other sparrows—flying away, it would only be mistaken for a Hermit Thrush. 

Hermit Thrush
The Hermit Thrush's rusty tail is conspicuous when it flies off, but otherwise it doesn't look at all sparrow-like.

Song Sparrow
Song Sparrow

Song Sparrow
Song Sparrow

The Song Sparrow shares the Fox Sparrow’s streaked underside with that central spot, but the Song Sparrow is much smaller and gray/brown, not rusty. Song Sparrows arrive early, too—my first this year showed up on April 15. 

Song Sparrow
Song Sparrow

The Song Sparrow is extremely important for even beginning birders to learn because it’s a common nesting backyard bird over much of North America, and it winters over most of the United States. Study its face as well as its breast streaks—the dark, blackish triangle on either side of the white throat (called a malar stripe), is an important field mark.

Song Sparrow
Song Sparrow

Unlike juncos and Fox Sparrows, one or two pairs of Song Sparrows will nest here on Peabody Street, so they’ll remain a conspicuous daily bird into October. 

Lincoln's Sparrow
Lincoln's Sparrow

Soon another sparrow with a streaked underside will also appear in my yard, at least a few times. Lincoln’s Sparrow shares that streaked underside with the central spot, but its streaks seem painted on by the finest brush or pencil while the Song Sparrow’s seem painted on with a much thicker brush. 

Lincoln's Sparrow
Lincoln's Sparrow

Lincoln’s Sparrow is one of my favorites for its soft appearance. Its breast is buffier and its cheeks grayer than a Song Sparrow's, with a narrower malar stripe and a buffy submustachial marking rather than the dark, triangle of the Song Sparrow, and its throat is delicately streaked. Lincoln’s Sparrows nest in boggy areas up here, so most of us see them in our backyards only during migration.   

Savannah Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow

The other two sparrows with streaking are much less likely to be seen in most suburban-type backyards except rarely during migration, and then usually only during bad weather. If you spend any time birding in grasslands, the Savannah Sparrow is important to learn, but don’t count on seeing one in your yard. I’ve seen them in mine just once or twice in the 41 years I’ve lived here, during late snowfalls. 

Savannah Sparrow

Most Savannah Sparrows have a noticeable yellow lore—the marking between the eye and bill—which may be bright or quite dull. If you see that yellow mark on a heavily streaked sparrow, it’s a Savannah, but the yellow can be subtle. The white throat on Savannah Sparrows is less conspicuous than that of Song Sparrows because it's often delicately streaked. Savannah Sparrows also have a pinker bill. 

Swamp Sparrow

The Swamp Sparrow doesn’t have a heavily streaked breast in spring—many have few or no breast streaks at all—and it’s seldom seen at feeders except in terrible weather during migration. Most Swamp Sparrows have a rusty cap, and the wings and tail are fairly rusty, too, though darker—not as strikingly fox-colored as the Fox Sparrow. 

Next time I’ll focus on the native American backyard sparrows that are usually unstreaked beneath.

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Joy in the Backyard

Pileated Woodpecker

The tail end of this year’s redpoll irruption is at hand, and I keep thinking each day will be the last I see them until late fall or winter, so I keep opening my office window to get photos. On Saturday, after I'd taken a few and was about to close the window, in flew BB, the neighborhood male Pileated Woodpecker wearing a USGS leg band. He stayed in the box elder at the end of the driveway, pretty much out of view, for a minute or two, and then dropped to the one feeder I've left open during this bird flu epidemic, his favorite suet feeder.  

Pileated Woodpecker

I have hundreds of clear photos of BB in that feeder from this fall when I needed multiple clear shots of his leg band to tease out the full number (115423658). But he’s my favorite Pileated Woodpecker, so naturally I kept the window open for a few more pictures. Another Pileated called from the backyard, BB called back, and suddenly, what to my wondering eyes should appear but an adult female Pileated that I’m presuming is BB’s mate. Right there in the feeder with BB, right when the window was open for an unobstructed view!  

Pileated Woodpecker

I’ve seen lots of photos of two Pileateds together before, but never in my yard, and the light was perfect to get both of them in focus. I was so thrilled that I wrote a post on Facebook: 

I have no intention whatsoever of succumbing any time soon, but when I do, please know that I died happy. This is BB and his lady love, the photos taken from my office window, which was open thanks to the redpolls in my tree. 

Pileated Woodpecker

When I looked at the post a little while later, I thought, well, that’s a little hyperbolic, isn’t it? But then I thought some more, and realized no—those photos make me extremely happy. This Pileated Woodpecker pair is hardly the only cause of my happiness, but they’re certainly part of it. 

Pileated Woodpecker finding grubs in my box elder tree

They spend a lot of time digging in our boxelder trees. One near the house was already old when we moved in 41 years ago—indeed, the moment my mother-in-law saw it, she said we had to cut it down right away. But that’s the tree a Pileated Woodpecker sat in to give me my very first good Pileated Woodpecker photos in 2004, over two decades later, and even now, two decades after that, I’m still getting great birds, and photos, in that tree.  

Pileated Woodpecker

The boxelder the Pileateds have been spending the most time digging into in the past couple years was a sapling when we moved in. They’ve made some pretty dramatic holes in that one. 

Pileated Woodpecker working on my box elder.

The third boxelder, at the end of our driveway, is where BB invariably lands before going to the feeder. That tree is also where a pair of Red-bellied Woodpeckers nested in 2016. 

Nesting Red-bellied Woodpeckers

So I love my Pileated Woodpeckers, I love the boxelders that they spend so much time in, and I’m proud of myself for using my own judgment and protecting that old, old boxelder. I love that things in my own backyard bring me so much joy. 

Pileated Woodpecker tongue!

I’m lucky that I can get so much pleasure right here in my own backyard, because Russ and I have had to quarantine this week after we both got Covid. I’m relieved that I didn’t give it to my unvaccinated baby grandson last Monday when I babysat—I’d already been exposed but must not have been contagious yet. I’m getting over it really well, but I won’t get to see him until this weekend. That makes me sad, but all the time I do get to spend with him fills me with joy. 

Catching Covid after being so careful and being double-vaccinated and double-boosted may seem like rotten luck, but neither of us got very sick, and if I’m going to accept with equanimity all the good luck I’ve had over my life, I have to accept with that same equanimity the bad luck. But meanwhile, my good luck continues. Since that great photo op with BB and his mate on Saturday, I’ve managed to get my best pictures ever of both a male and a female Hoary Redpoll. 

Hoary Redpoll

Hoary Redpoll

Spring is just getting started. Just about every morning now, I see at least something new for the year, and even the ones that have been here for days, weeks, months, or years give me new and exciting photo ops, beautiful morning sound recordings, and lovely moments just experiencing them. Every day is a gift.  

Pileated Woodpecker

Thursday, April 21, 2022

Bird flu and other hazards at feeders

Common Redpoll

With avian influenza making the news and more and more poultry catching it, one would think the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) website would be staying on top of wild bird cases. But here it is, April 21 at 9:30 pm CDT, and they’re still not showing the American Crow that tested positive in Minnesota at the beginning of the month, though now they are showing one infected crow in North Dakota. No cases of ravens or Blue Jays are showing up on the website, nor any other songbirds.   

Some people are instantly jumping to the conclusion that redpolls with their feathers fluffed must necessarily be infected with bird flu, even on cold days when just about all the redpolls in that flock are fluffed for insulation, and even though sick individuals, who do fluff their feathers more than healthy birds in any weather conditions, are probably much more likely to be sick from one of the usual spring diseases than bird flu. But I can only say “probably,” because we cannot know when no agencies or organizations are systematically gathering data on songbirds, woodpeckers, hummingbirds, pigeons and doves, or other backyard birds. Recommendations on either side of the issue are based entirely on educated guesses. On April 20, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology responded this way to a Facebook question about bird flu:  

So far, the Cornell Lab has not recommended taking down bird feeders. The current avian flu does not appear to be affecting songbirds at all, and there is nothing to suggest that it would spread at feeders. Only domestic fowl, waterfowl, and a few birds of prey seem to be affected. Taking down feeders doesn't hurt, as songbirds have plenty of wild sources of food this time of year. But, there's no evidence yet that it's necessary. Groups that are making that recommendation are playing it extra safe!

Cornell's All About Birds website has an information page about this recommendation. Meanwhile, the Cornell Cooperative Extension on March 15 recommended that people take down feeders. And both are legitimately interpreting the data, because there is no effort to collect dead songbirds to assess what may or may not have killed them. My original plan was to keep at least a few of my feeders going during the tail end of this huge redpoll irruption, but there’s no way of knowing whether grackles and other migrating birds that spend a lot of time in wetlands and could have been exposed to the virus via waterfowl are testing positive anywhere, so I decided not to risk it. But I keep second-guessing myself.

Black-capped Chickadee

Oddly enough, after two years of being extremely careful with our own social distancing, masking, and getting vaccinated and boostered, and tracking the entirely scientifically based CDC recommendations, Russ and I both tested positive for Covid this week. We’ve taken every precaution all along because we need to protect our 1-year-old grandson as well as ourselves, so it’s ironic that after being so vigilant, we got sick exactly when public masking requirements and other precautions are being thrown to the wind with no scientific basis at all. I’m bitter that some unvaccinated people who refuse to wear masks anywhere are among the most strident in criticizing anyone who leaves their feeders up. Even though I’ve taken my own feeders down for a bit, other people just as conscientious and caring about birds have not—and unlike the Covid vaccination and masks, with regard to bird flu there’s no science behind anyone’s decision.  

I wish disease were the only problem posed to birds by bird feeding. I just learned about a horrible feeder design being sold by a company called “Heritage Farms” as the “Audubon Seeds 'n More Metal Hopper Bird Feeder Model 7452R”. The way it’s designed, birds insert their heads into it to get a seed, and one person I know of went out to fill hers and found a chickadee, already dead, whose head had been entrapped. On Amazon, the item includes two comments from others  regarding this, one who came upon a dead sparrow entrapped this way, and one who found an unidentified bird entrapped but still alive, and wrote that her husband had to get his metal cutter and cut between the openings—he saved the bird in time. Audubon’s name on the product implies that it endorses it. I hope they pressure the company to not only take their name off it but to get the product off store shelves and Amazon immediately.   

Chestnut-sided Warbler

I bought some wonderful window tray feeders from Wild Birds Unlimited some time around 2000 or 2001. I’ve loved these for a long time, in part because the removable, washable bottom is screened, so rainwater drains well. But twice this spring when I was watching my female Red-bellied Woodpecker in that feeder, I saw that one of her claws was momentarily stuck in the screening. She quickly extricated it by herself, but it put up a little red flag in my mind. 

Then last week I got an email from a reader in Sacramento, California, about a much more tragic occurrence at a feeder with what looks like the exact same kind of screened floor, this one a roofed platform feeder from Duncraft. She discovered a male goldfinch that had gotten a claw stuck in the screening and, by the time she found it, was dead.  

In the past, I used to recommend people provide suet in mesh onion bags, and Nyjer seed used to be sold in mesh bag feeders, too. In both cases I’ve heard from people who found birds such as nuthatches and finches entangled and dead, so I no longer recommend using any kind of soft mesh where birds can find it.  

But screened feeder bottoms? As I noted, I’ve been using my own feeders with what I’m pretty sure is exactly the same screened bottom for almost two decades without any problems except that one case this year, and these screened bottoms really do help keep seed dry. Fortunately, my Sacramento reader is much cleverer than I and immediately came up with a solution—she lined the bottom of that feeder with parchment paper! That’s what I’m doing from now on, too. It needs to be weighted or folded around the edges so it can't blow away, and obviously has to be changed occasionally. 

Screened feeder bottoms may not represent a statistically significant hazard, but just one preventable bird loss of one of my birds is one too many. 

Crappy pictures of a Pileated at my window feeder


Monday, April 18, 2022

I Hear a Symphony

American Robin and Common Redpoll
Robins arrived this year while redpolls were still everywhere. 

Any time I hear a robin’s song, so rich and bubbly, my heart fills with joy. Our species has no idea what exactly robins are communicating to one another, but our own ears tease out words like cheerily, cheerily, and spring is here. The first robin song I hear after a long winter is balm to my soul. At that moment, I know this is my most beloved song.  

Black-capped Chickadee

Until I remember how much I enjoy hearing chickadee songs in the dead of winter. There’s nothing like that Hey, sweetie! to lift my spirits when the temperature is double digits below zero.  

Common Redpoll

Common Redpoll

This year, especially in the past couple of months, the exuberant twitterings of redpolls have been bringing me a lot of joy, too. Decades ago, when we saw large irruptions of redpolls more regularly, the flocks always seemed to build until mid- or late-April or the very start of May, and then the birds would vanish for the year. I knew that would be the likely pattern this year, but I was still surprised to have so many in my yard still on Easter Sunday—that’s when I got my very best recording ever of this lovely finch

Fox Sparrow

In the background, I heard something even more welcome. The bird song I associate most with mid-April snowfalls is the Fox Sparrow, and I have about 20 visiting my yard right now. Their songs are at an ideal frequency for my hearing—I can hear nearby Fox Sparrows through the window or whenever the door opens, and the sound is wonderfully pleasing, managing to strike plaintive and cheerful chords both. I’d feel bereft in early May when the last Fox Sparrows disappeared if not for the House Wrens, Brown Thrashers, catbirds, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, and orioles that start to arrive at that point.  

Adult Black-capped Chickadee regrowing tail feathers

Not all the pleasures of spring are auditory. A couple of weeks ago, I noticed that one of my chickadees had lost all its tail feathers. That’s usually from a run-in with a predator. Injuries beyond that sometimes doom a poor bird, but this one is doing fine, the feathers more than half grown in again already. When feathers are damaged or broken away from the body, they don’t repair themselves—not until new feathers grow in during molt can that kind of damage be fixed in nature. But when feathers are pulled from the roots, as long as the bird has enough food, the feathers grow in surprisingly quickly. It took a few days between my noticing this bird and being able to get some photos, and by then the tail was already a good inch long.  

Blue Jay

A couple of Blue Jays hung out in the neighborhood this winter, but only occasionally came to my yard. Now, at least one of “my” Blue Jays is back—I can tell, because if I go out with a few peanuts, it immediately flies in and grabs them. I’m hearing crows every day, but the pair must be nesting further from my yard this year, so I’m not seeing them much.  

White-breasted Nuthatch

I need to spend time in my yard trying to figure out where my White-breasted Nuthatches are nesting. It’s probably fairly close to the house—maybe in one of my box-elders or maples because the male is singing so vociferously every morning right now. While I was still putting out Nyjer seed in my office window feeder and the feeder was crowded with redpolls, my chickadees would hold back while the redpolls were there. Not my male nuthatch—he flies straight into the bunch and they scatter. His mate is more reticent—she waits until he leaves and grabs what she can before the redpolls take over again.  

Frigid temperatures and snow can make us doubt spring is ever going to arrive, but if we bundle up, close our eyes, and open our ears, we can savor the rich and constantly changing spring symphony. No matter which instruments have the leading part on a given day, the cheapest concert of the year invariably turns out to be the greatest. 

Common Redpoll


Friday, April 15, 2022

To Feed or Not to Feed

 Overview of bird diseases every spring

Overview about the 2022 avian flu outbreak

What are experts saying we should do about feeding? 

What am I personally going to do about my own feeding?

Common Redpoll

1. Overview of bird diseases every spring

Every March and April, I read news stories and am plied with questions about bird diseases and whether people should close down their feeding stations for the year or even permanently. The end of winter is a very dangerous time for birds—in addition to all the other human-imposed dangers they face year-round, such as collisions with windows and other structures, being killed by house cats, habitat loss, pesticides, and air and water pollutants, a lot of natural phenomena kill birds as they gather in flocks during migration. Humans exacerbate some of these natural phenomena. Dangerous, bird-killing spring storms, and also droughts that make it difficult for migrating birds to find safe sources of surface water and that cause more and larger fires, are increasing in number and intensity thanks to climate change. Birds migrating by night are disoriented by light pollution. And various communicable diseases, from salmonella and botulism to avian flu, all natural pathogens that kill birds every year, proliferate where bird seed and droppings collect over winter, both in natural situations and near bird feeders. 

That birds succumb to diseases is not a new phenomenon. Although the worst recorded disease outbreaks in natural populations have occurred mostly in waterfowl, spring disease outbreaks have also always affected winter finches, sparrows, and other ground-feeding birds, especially where they gather in large numbers. If there were no feeders at all, Fox Sparrows, juncos, redpolls, and lots of others would still be moving about and feeding in flocks—that’s what they do—and some of them would still be spreading and dying from these diseases. 

That is not to say our feeders aren’t a serious factor and that we aren’t obligated to protect the birds drawn to our backyards from the risks our feeders and backyards pose. Russ and I started feeding birds in 1981 when we moved to Duluth, and that winter we fed huge numbers of Evening Grosbeaks and other winter finches, going through hundreds of pounds of sunflower seed. We had enough snowfalls that winter that we never saw a lot of spilled seed under the feeders until spring, but the melting snow revealed mountains of seed shells and wasted seeds on the ground, mixed in with months of accumulated bird poop. 

Bird feces are obviously a source of disease organisms, and so is the ground itself—some disease organisms that affect birds are soil-borne. All of these microorganisms flourish when supplied with the moisture, nutrients and heat in rotting seed and bird poop. Back in the spring of 1982, I knew intuitively that I needed to clean up the mess. That year and ever since, Russ and I have raked under the feeders and disposed of the rakings in sealed plastic bags or, some years, in compost bins with screening to keep birds out. 

I’ve been writing and talking about the importance of cleaning up the literal crap under bird feeders for four decades. And in 1993, almost 30 years ago, I wrote in the April 7 entry in my first book, For the Birds: An Uncommon Guide, about keeping the seed shells and other matter that collects under bird feeders raked up to prevent birds from contracting and spreading communicable diseases. It felt to me like a no-brainer. 

Evening Grosbeaks in my yard, May 18, 1982
This was our bird feeding station the spring of 1982, after our first winter of bird feeding. 

2. Overview about the 2022 outbreak of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza 

Just as the coronavirus was not new in 2019, avian flu is not new, though it’s usually mostly limited to waterfowl and domesticated poultry. This year’s variant is much more lethal and communicable, called HPAI, for Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza. Like most bird diseases, this one is spread via eye, nasal, and mouth secretions and feces, and so it’s mostly spread by birds in close contact, including scavengers eating the dead and dying. 

At first, all the media attention this year was focused on the multibillion-dollar poultry industry. Industrial farms and live animal markets, where highly stressed birds and other animals are held in close proximity, are hotbeds of diseases affecting wildlife and humans, as are the fields and wetlands where their farm wastes run off or are dumped. Poultry farms were almost certainly the original source of Mycoplasma gallisepticum, the conjunctivitis that people call House Finch eye disease. Covid-19 almost certainly had its start in live animal markets. Once any disease gets started, containing it can be difficult to impossible, and new variants, some extremely dangerous, keep evolving. Poultry farmers of course cannot afford for diseases to kill their birds, so a LOT of money goes into tracking, testing, and pro-active culling of infected birds. That was in the news a lot for weeks this year. 

At the start of April, media coverage about this year’s bird flu variant switched from poultry farms to wild birds. On the one hand, it’s about time, but on the other, the best we have is anecdotal information, and apparently there will be absolutely no systematic studies to track the disease among wild birds. 

What little hard data we have is from the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, or APHIS. They’re maintaining a web page titled 2022 Detections of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza in Wild Birds, which is updated frequently. As of April 14 when the page was last updated, the disease has appeared in more than 30 states including every state along the eastern seaboard and extending throughout the Midwest and as far west as Colorado. An astonishing 137 of the 665 birds on the APHIS list were Mallards—that’s a full 20 percent. And the vast majority of the others were other species of ducks, geese, and swans, along with a few individuals of other water birds that associate with waterfowl: Brown and American White Pelicans, Great Blue Herons, Ring-billed and Herring Gulls, and Sanderlings, all of which were likely exposed via the droppings of sick waterfowl. 

Bald Eagle

Both Black and Turkey Vultures and 36 Bald Eagles have also been killed by it. This is genuinely tragic, but these species are all scavengers on waterfowl and occasionally on poultry farms, and seldom visit backyards or prey on small birds, so at least we know that feeder birds were not the likely source of the disease for them. 

I think it goes without saying that even if this year’s avian flu outbreak was limited to waterfowl and birds associated with them, it would still be a serious problem which, as migration proceeds, is likely to become even worse. But the problem is wider than just waterfowl and their predators. 

Snowy Owl

Five dead Snowy Owls from New Hampshire to North Dakota tested positive. Snowy Owls do often feed on ducks, and it’s easiest for them to catch sick ones, so if this had been the only owl species to have tested positive, that would be at least a little reassuring regarding our backyard birds, but other hawks and owls are also dying from it. 

The APHIS website as of April 14 listed Cooper’s Hawks in New York and Wisconsin; Red-tailed Hawks in Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Iowa, Kansas, and South Dakota; a Red-shouldered Hawk in North Carolina; and Great Horned Owls in Florida and Minnesota. The Raptor Center treated three baby Great Horned Owls that died this week; their parents had been found dead; the owlets tested positive. We have no information about how they were exposed. 

These birds and three pheasants in New York comprise the complete list of birds testing positive for avian flu in 2022 in the United States as of April 14, according to that APHIS website as it appeared at 6 pm on April 15. Not on the AHPIS list because it was found in Canada, a Blue Jay in Nova Scotia also contracted the disease. 

Some of the waterfowl were collected, dead and alive, specifically for testing; some were brought in by waterfowl hunters for testing. There is a lot of state and federal money for studying game birds and poultry, but virtually none for testing backyard birds. 

This afternoon, a staff member of the University of Minnesota Veterinary Diagnostic Lab in St. Paul posted on the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union listserv that a crow tested positive here in Minnesota at the beginning of April. I wanted to know whether this crow might have been scavenging on waterfowl, and whether it came from a farm area, a neighborhood, or wilder habitat, but the case is not listed on the APHIS site and I couldn’t find any online citations. Job restrictions at the vet lab prevent staff from revealing any other information, including what county it was found in. So although I trust that this is a confirmed case, I have no more useful information relevant to bird feeding in Duluth than I already had. And when the bird does appear on the APHIS site, it will include only the state--not the county or location--and the testing facility that confirmed it.  We'll still be left in the dark about some important factors. 

Back when we were tracing the original spread of West Nile virus, counties were asking for people to bring any dead crows or Blue Jays in for testing, but that was not because anyone dealing with the testing cared about these species—corvids were exceptionally vulnerable and their bodies fairly conspicuous, so we tested them to confirm where the virus was spreading in order to know where humans were at risk. As soon as enough human cases appeared, testing on birds for West Nile Virus ended. 

Blue Jay

This year there has been NO effort to collect and test sick or dead backyard birds, and it doesn’t look like there will be. The vet lab staff person said the DNR has asked that people “report sick (exhibiting abnormal behaviors) or dead waterfowl or birds in groups of five or more,” but they won’t be testing them, so the best we’ll have are guesses about what happened. Here in Duluth during migration, people on Park Point, along the shore, and in some neighborhoods often find five or more dead and dying birds in their yards due to window strikes, and despite Duluth's cat leash law, cats leave dead and dying birds strewn around, too. On a few occasions, I’ve seen a hawk drop a bird while being harassed by robins or crows. Even severe injuries may not be at all obvious on creatures whose feathers so effectively cover their bodies, so injured birds can be hard to distinguish from sick ones. And every year birds die from botulism and salmonella, even in backyards without feeders and in areas far from feeders. With so much panic this year, I suspect people will take much more notice of birds killed or injured at their windows and will jump to the conclusion that bird flu is running rampant in places where it hasn't even appeared yet.  And because these backyard birds are not being tested, and apparently won't be, we'll have no way of knowing whether the panic is even justified. 

Without testing, reports of dead or sick birds are anecdotes that don’t even constitute datapoints. But the sad truth is, testing costs money. The staff member at the veterinary lab said if people find sick or dead birds, “They can be tested at the Veterinary Diagnostic lab, but the person dropping off the animal will have to pay for it. Unfortunately it's all about the money. The government will pay for it when the large flocks are affected or the farmer. There isn't much put aside for wild birds.” I'm not sure if anyone in Duluth has the time and money to drive birds down to the Twin Cities and pay for testing, but this is what happens when Americans stop funding the agencies responsible for the resources we all share and depend on. 

Pileated Woodpecker

3. What are experts saying we should do about feeding?

The first thing to remember is that birds do not need our feeders. They really and truly do just fine without them, especially outside the coldest days of winter. 

The second thing to remember is that people need bird feeders. I can’t begin to recount all the individuals who have told me how meaningful it was for them to watch their feeder birds while they were suffering from depression, consigned to a wheelchair after a devastating accident, dealing with cancer and debilitating treatments, etc. They of course would be shattered if their bird feeding contributed to the suffering or death of those birds, so it’s important to be as careful as possible, but absolute recommendations to stop bird feeding everywhere based on no studies and intentionally limited data-gathering are as irresponsible as absolute statements to keep feeding regardless. 

Great Horned Owl

This week, the Raptor Center in the Twin Cities made a very useful information page regarding bird feeding with this year’s avian flu. You can read the whole thing here. The bottom line (with my own emphasis on some sentences):

The 2022 outbreak is unique because of the very high levels of transmission of the currently circulating H5N1 virus strain in wildlife. With minimal viral surveillance being done with songbirds, it is hard to measure the risk of transmission from songbirds to other birds. 

Every day at The Raptor Center, we are seeing the impact of HPAI- as we triage and test birds like bald eagles and great horned owls that are intensely suffering from fatal neurological illness due to HPAI. With these infected birds, humane euthanasia is the only tool we have left to help them. We also know that this strain and outbreak is causing severe illness in other species  like geese, ducks, blue jays, and crows.

During these unprecedented times, we recommend doing anything that we can to try and help our wild bird populations. Because the science is unclear on the role of songbirds in this current H5N1 outbreak, one consideration is to not encourage birds to gather together at places such as bird feeders or bird baths. These are places where things like viruses could easily be exchanged between individuals.

In areas with HPAI transmission in any avian species, consider pausing the use of bird feeders and baths for the next couple of months until the rate of virus transmission in wild birds dramatically decreases. Not only will this action help to protect those beautiful feathered creatures that visit your yard, but will also help all wild bird species that are already having it  hard this spring because of HPAI. We have it in our power to take a short term action so we are not accidentally assisting in the virus’ spread.  

This is a nuanced and fair recommendation except for one thing: at this point in time, the ONLY known case for the Blue Jay was in Nova Scotia, and no one will divulge where in Minnesota the only known case of a crow happened. Somehow, most of the media seem to be headlining this as EVERYONE TAKE DOWN YOUR FEEDERS NOW!

Meanwhile, the Minnesota DNR forwarded this message:

The DNR is aware of the recommendations put forth by the Raptor Center with UMN and our own guidance, at this time, has not changed. We have not received any confirmed reports of songbirds affected by this strain of avian influenza. DNR guidance aligns with recommendations by the USGS National Wildlife Health Center and USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the leading authorities on this disease.

We do recommend individuals clean their bird feeders regularly, as this helps protect birds against other infections, such as salmonella. Our best practices for cleaning bird feeders are available on our website.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird 

4. What am I personally going to do about my own feeding? 

Every time someone asks me whether they should keep feeding or not, I’m tempted to say, “Dammit, Jim, I’m a birdwatcher, not an epidemiologist.” I’m not going to tell anyone what they should do, because I don't know how close they are to congregations of ducks or geese, poultry farms, or other risky situations, and don't know how meticulous they are about cleaning their feeders and raking the ground beneath. 

But after studying the issue, this is my plan for my own backyard right now, in a county where no known cases of bird flu have occurred in songbirds, hummingbirds, doves, woodpeckers, or predators of backyard birds, where there are no nearby poultry farms, and where no one nearby is feeding ducks or turkeys: 

I'm keeping the area under our feeders raked. We’ve already done this twice since the snow started melting, and will keep this up. (Raked-up waste makes fine compost but must be well screened to exclude birds.) This should be everyone’s normal routine at winter’s end anyway.

While bird flu is a risk, I’m only going to set out one bird bath, and will clean it and change the water every single day. (Even without bird flu, this should be done at least twice a week both to keep the water sanitary for birds and to keep mosquito eggs from hatching and larvae from emerging.) 

Common Redpoll

It wasn’t until late today that I learned that a crow in Minnesota tested positive, and no one will divulge where or what the circumstances were. I had planned to leave my feeders up until the redpolls disappeared. Now that I know about the crow, on the very unlikely chance that this happened in a Duluth neighborhood rather than hundreds of miles away from here in a wetland, I’m going to take down my tray feeders. I don’t like using tube feeders at this point in the year because if a bird is infected, its face as well as beak touch the feeder as it pulls out seeds, so those feeders are already inside. 

Fox Sparrow

I will keep scattering small handfuls of white millet and  nyjer here and there in the yard, switching spots from day to day to maximize spacing among the birds. 

Unless and until there are reports of any suet-eating birds contracting the virus, I’ll keep out some suet feeders. These are not ground-feeding species.

Unless I hear of any hummingbirds contracting the virus, I’ll set out my hummingbird feeders as usual. I always have twice as many feeders as I use so I can thoroughly clean them every 2 days, and every day when the temp is above 90ยบ. That should be standard practice for feeding hummingbirds anyway.

Rufous Hummingbird

HIPAA privacy protections do not extend to birds, so there is absolutely no reason why the public shouldn’t be informed IMMEDIATELY when a songbird in their county tests positive. Universities, government agencies, and private organizations have a responsibility to share such crucially important information. And testing should be required for at least a reasonable percentage of sick and dead backyard birds suspected of having the disease. I don’t know how to pressure county, state, and federal governments to mandate and fund this testing, but it’s ridiculous that this critical information is not gathered systematically and made public as soon as it’s verified. 

Black-capped Chickadee