Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Friday, October 14, 2022


I love numbers. Back in the olden days when I was an occasional counter at Hawk Ridge, any time little children asked what I was doing, I mustered my best Jerry Nelson voice to say, “They call me the Count. I am called the Count because I love to count birds.”  

I’ve always played with numbers and made a big thing about special numbers. Way back in fifth grade, on the day I turned 10, I worked out that I would turn 60 on 11/11/11. That seemed cosmic because the sum of the digits of that birthday equaled the sum of the digits of that age. That’s why I had to do something cosmically special on 11/11/11, so Russ and I went to the Grand Canyon for me to see California Condors for the first time.   

California Condor

Numbers and silly statistics are part of the appeal of baseball for me. My favorite baseball player, Anthony Rizzo, got hit by a pitch for the 200th time on October 1, making him one of only four players in baseball history who got hit by a pitch at least 200 times and also had more than 200 home runs.  

My favorite baseball player with my favorite bird

Two-hundred hit-by-pitches made a nice round number, but there were two other round numbers I was looking for this month: 100 wins for the Yankees this season—they missed that by 1—and 60,000 for the Blue Jays, which is where my round numbers for October diverge from baseball. Some of the Blue Jays we see in Duluth may have spent a bit of time in Toronto at one time or another, but none are baseball players. I’m talking about the Blue Jays migrating over Duluth. Last year they broke their all-time high with 59,601 counted at Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory. The counters broke that record on October 5, and the very next day they broke 60,000. And as of the end of Thursday, October 13, the Blue Jay count at Hawk Ridge for 2022 is 60,485.  

Blue Jay

There may have been fall seasons, even since 2000, when more than 60,000 Blue Jays passed over the Ridge; it’s only been since 2007 that counters made a serious effort to count every bird flying over, not just every raptor. So breaking the record isn’t that significant, but somehow the number 60,000 seems really cool.  

The Finch Research Network publishes an annual Winter Finch Forecast, predicting where irregular or irruptive winter songbird species will appear each year based on analyzing, over the continent, cone production for various conifers; seed production for various deciduous trees; and berry production for fruit-bearing trees and shrubs. For example, this year the forecast for the upper Midwest predicts higher than usual numbers of Pine and Evening Grosbeaks. 

The forecast includes three irruptive songbirds that aren't finches, all of which they predict will be seen in good numbers in the upper Midwest this winter. I’m already seeing plenty of Red-breasted Nuthatches; Bohemian Waxwings usually appear later in fall or early winter. And the Finch Research Network writes this about Blue Jays:

This will be a good to strong flight year. Beechnut and hazelnut crops are poor. The acorn crop is generally poor but with pockets of good crops scattered from Manitoba eastward through southern Canada and northeastern states southward to Pennsylvania.  

Blue Jays at feeder 

After all the jays I was seeing in September, I’m now down to just a couple, which appear to be birds that have been on Peabody Street a lot in recent years—they fly in the moment I whistle and set out a small handful of peanuts. But it's too early to know if they’ll settle in here for winter or not. Blue Jays depend on natural food far, far more than feeders. Even during the peak of migration when my feeders are covered with them, bazillions more are in the neighborhood consuming seeds, berries, and insects. Even hungry migratory individuals spend a lot more time away from my feeders than in them, based on the fact that in 2020 and 2021, when I spent long hours keeping track of them, the outliers I could pick out by plumage abnormalities such as unusual paleness appeared only a few times over a full day, and when they did come to the feeders, remained for only a few minutes before heading back into the trees. Feeders provide variety in Blue Jay diets, but are never their primary food source.  

Blue Jays are hardly fair-weather friends—unlike the Toronto Blue Jays, who disappeared for the year this October 8, some feathered Blue Jays will be seen throughout their range this entire winter.  A handful of Blue Jays stuck around Peabody Street all last winter, though “my” Blue Jays—the ones who respond specifically to my whistle, disappeared, returning right about the time the 2022 baseball season was gearing up. 

All the baseball teams named for birds, as well as my beloved Cubs, are out of the running this season. But at least for the next three days, even as I keep whistling for my Blue Jays, I’ll be watching my favorite Cub, Anthony Rizzo, and the team the Cubs traded him to. Then at some point this month or next, I’ll forget all about baseball for the duration. But even in the dead of winter, a few Blue Jays will be here squawking and staring at me with their jaunty little crests, making certain I never forget them. 

Blue Jay