Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Saturday, December 31, 2022

100 Plants to Feed the Birds

In May 2020, a month after my pregnant daughter and son-in-law refugeed from Brooklyn, New York, to our house during the pandemic, Deborah Burns, my editor at Storey Publishing, asked me to write a fourth book for them. (The previous ones are listed here.) The title would be 100 Plants to Feed the Birds, because this book would be part of a series that includes 100 Plants to Feed the Bees and 100 Plants to Feed the Monarchs. I said if I wrote it, I’d have to include a lot of plants that do not feed birds directly. A great many of our most beloved songbirds eat little or no plant material, feeding primarily or even exclusively on insects that depend on locally native vegetation.

But did it even make sense for me to write such a book? I’ve been monomaniacally focused on birds since 1975 and do little gardening. Russ and I have protected the native trees, shrubs, and smaller plants that support birds in our yard, and have planted a few native plants here and there, but that is small potatoes compared to some gardeners on my own block. How could I possibly be qualified to write this book?

In some ways, my misgivings pinpointed some of my strengths. Bird study may have absorbed me since college, but I took enough botany, forest management, wildlife ecology, entomology, aquatic entomology, and even horticulture courses to give me a broad background and a sense of what should be included and emphasized in this kind of book. My birding experiences have spanned all fifty states and at least a few pockets of Canada, and I’ve tried to keep up on important issues affecting birds, including habitat. From my first spring birding, I've paid attention to the specific plants some birds are strongly associated with. I am far from an expert on any of it, but when it comes right down to it, who is? There’s no way anyone can list exactly 100 of the best of anything without leaving out some things that others would include. For every plant an authority would include that I wouldn’t, they’d leave out a plant that other authorities thought was essential.

My internal debate reminded me of a previous book I’d done for a different publisher. When Scott & Nix asked me to write the American Birding Association Field Guide to Birds of Minnesota, I refused, giving them half a dozen names of people I considered way more qualified than I was to write such a field guide. They kept coming back to me, and I kept giving them more names. I know I’m far from the state’s top birder in terms of species seen and quickness at identifying some species, and I’m less focused on identification than behavior, natural history, and conservation. And what the heck kind of birder could I be when I wouldn’t trade a season of watching a pair of Black-capped Chickadees nesting in my yard for wandering around to add much rarer birds to my state list?

But I had to admit, they had some good reasons to keep coming back to me. My previous books proved that I knew how to research, could be both concise and accurate, and worked well with editors. They could see from my having written The National Geographic Pocket Guide to Birds of North America that I could fit my words into a prescribed layout. I might not be among the very top birders in Minnesota, but I am good. And somehow, my not taking myself too seriously as an authority on bird identification worked in my favor for a book directed to beginners—the publishers knew I’d make birding friendly and inviting, and that I’d share the easy-to-make and even stupid mistakes I myself had made as a beginner and still make. When they agreed to expand the number of species covered to 300, I relented. I still had misgivings, but I’m very happy with how it all turned out and proud of my work.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird at bee balm

This proposed book about plants and birds would take me even further out of my comfort zone than the field guide did, but Deb Burns’s faith in me was grounded in our having worked together on those three previous books for Storey. And the timing was perfect. The pandemic had eliminated all of my travel. I could focus pretty much entirely on this project for three months before Katie’s baby would be born, and I’d have a few more months while Katie and Michael were taking turns with parental leave before my grandma duties kicked into a higher gear. Even then, I could work evenings and during naps. 

I spent a year and a half researching and writing, learning how much I did not know, and realizing that no matter where a reader lived in the continental U.S. or Canada, they'd need way more information that any single book could give them about their local situation. My treasured friend Ali Sheehey, an essential ally during my 2013 Big Year, took on the enormous task of researching and listing a native plant organization for every state and province, which makes the book ever so much more valuable and useful. I spent the next four or five months working with the publishing team as they made final edits, selected photos, and laid out the book, finalizing everything before it was sent off to the printers this past April. The book was officially “out” on December 20, meaning its gestation between final electronic version and printed reality was a little less than 9 months. My grandson was born a little past his due date, so the book’s and his deliveries averaged out perfectly.

Discovering milkweed

I’ve been so consumed with being a grandma that I haven’t been paying proper attention to much else, so seeing my first copy was like seeing the book through fresh eyes, and I’m very happy with it. Plus it’s the only book in the known universe with a photo of Walter inscribed, “This book is dedicated to my grandson, Walter. May his generation inherit all the natural beauty and biodiversity that my generation did.”

I’m never comfortable promoting my own work, so this will probably be the last time I write a blog post specifically about the book, but in the coming weeks, I will be doing several posts about the plants birds depend on—material taken directly from 100 Plants to Feed the Birds. January is when many gardening catalogs arrive, and I hope some of the information will inspire readers to grow at least a few plants this coming year to support your favorite birds.

Evening Grosbeak in box elder tree

(Note: The book, a paperback, has a LOT of photos and a beautiful layout. The e-book works out very well on a computer screen, and probably works well on a tablet (I don't have one to test it), but is hard to read on my phone, and both hard to read and just black-and-white on my Kindle.) 

Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Duluth's 2022 Christmas Bird Count

Townsend's Solitaire

The Christmas Bird Count was started on Christmas Day in 1900 by Frank Chapman, who wanted to provide an alternative to “Christmas Side Hunt” competitions. Birdwatching has never been in competition with hunting—indeed, there’s quite a bit of overlap between the two. I know many deer hunters who also participate in the Christmas Bird Count.   

I also know lots of birders who have done the exact same bird count routes every year for decades, and many who have done two or more different Christmas Bird Counts every year for decades. Here in Duluth, several birders manage to do the "Big Three": the Duluth, Two Harbors, and Sax-Zim Bog counts, which are always scheduled on different days.   

As much as I treasure both tradition and the Christmas Bird Count, I’ve not been nearly so faithful or energetic. I couldn’t go out the first year we were in Duluth, having a brand new baby. I vowed never to miss another one, but various parental duties including two more new babies, my publishers scheduling Christmastime book signings, my job in Ithaca, New York, one nasty bout with the flu, and probably a few more flimsy excuses have kept me from participating in quite a few Duluth Christmas Bird Counts over the years, and I’ve done only a handful of other counts since we left Madison, Wisconsin in 1981.   

Yet somehow when I do participate in the Duluth count, it feels ever so homey and traditional. This year, it was held Saturday, December 17. We had to deal with deep snows and wild winds, but the temperature reached a balmy 30ยบ.    

My friend Janet Riegle has been doing upper Lakeside with me for quite a few years now, and being much steadier and more responsible than me, she’s served as our area’s count leader since I got my job at Cornell in 2008. When I’m around to participate, we always meet between 7:15 and 7:30 at my house, so while we’re getting organized, we can watch for birds at my feeders. Then we walk around the blocks above Peabody Street for 2 ½ hours or so, dividing them so our team can get the area between Colorado and Glenwood Streets completely covered before 10 am. We finish up the rest of upper Lakeside by lunch. Then those of us able to bird a full day head to our afternoon spot between McQuade and Lakewood Roads. We mostly drive that section, which is larger geographically while producing way fewer birds than we see in Duluth proper.   

Common Raven

This year, we split up our morning area so I could cover the southeastern quarter with Susan Relf and, for a while, Clint Moen while Janet Riegle and John Kelsey covered the southwestern quarter. A group of ravens must be roosting somewhere in or near Lester Park, because 22 flew over from that direction heading southwest in a loose flock a few minutes after we started out. During that first half of the morning, ravens outnumbered crows, but the littler corvids sure caught up. By day’s end, Janet and I had tallied 40 ravens and 53 crows; for Duluth’s entire count circle, a full 1,305 crows were counted, breaking the previous record, set in 2001, by more than 350. The total raven count for the day was 150—about an order of magnitude lower than the crow count.  


Mallards were very well represented. In the morning, Susan and I counted 20 in a single flock flying north, but then started seeing lots of smaller groups heading both south and north. We couldn’t be sure if they were new individuals or parts of the original large flock, so we didn’t add them. Our day's total was 36 while the full Duluth count was 1,171 Mallards. That was the most since 2017 but well shy of the record 1,862 counted in 2001.  

Now off on a tangent: Three years ago, I got cataract surgery. The first eye was done a week and a half before Christmas, and the second two weeks later, which means the vision in my two eyes on that year’s Christmas Bird Count was extremely marginal. I set the diopter adjustment on my binoculars so when looking through them, both eyes were in focus, but looking for birds before I pulled up the binoculars was disorienting and even dizzying. And even through my eyes focused together through the binoculars, the image through the eye with the new lens was much much brighter than through the other eye, which was also disorienting.   

How my cataract distorts color

A few days' discomfort, even though one of them was Christmas Bird Count Day,  was totally worth it. Since the second eye was done, my vision has been not just very good—it’s the best it’s been in my life. I need glasses for most close-range vision, but don’t need them at all while birding. This year I did my morning count with Susan Relf, the very ophthalmologist who did that cataract surgery.   

This year's count was lackluster, in large part due to weather. Saturday’s total for the Duluth count circle was a below-average 53 species, with six more species, including the second Eastern Screech-Owl ever found on the count, at least seen during Count Week. Janet and my total of 25 species seen in our areas was about average for us, though individual bird numbers were low.   

After covering Lakeside below Glenwood the first half of the morning, we met up at my house at 10:00. Russ set out cookies and hot spiced cranberry/apple juice, and this year John brought a batch of chocolate chip cookies, too. Despite the fierce wind, the temperature was climbing up through the 20s, so we didn’t need to warm up much before we set out to cover upper Lakeside until lunch. Janet and John found the Townsend’s Solitaire she’s been keeping track of and got great photos. And I was thrilled when a Northern Flicker flew over my head, certain that I’d seen the rarest bird of the day.   

At lunch, Janet and I did our afternoon area east of town between Lakewood and McQuade Roads on our own. We didn’t see much but did come upon a lovely little flock of Pine Grosbeaks close enough to give us some lovely photos.   

Pine Grosbeak

Pine Grosbeak

We finished up in time for Janet to bring me to the spot where she’d had the Townsend’s Solitaire in the morning, and the sweet little bird was close enough, and low enough, to give me my best photos ever.  

Townsend's Solitaire

Winter solitaire appearances in Duluth are growing more numerous. We’ve had at least one on the Christmas Bird Count or during Count Week in 7 of the last 10 years, and since 1980, we’ve totaled 2 on 5 different years. I was hoping we’d break that record, because Janet’s been seeing hers consistently for weeks even as Susan, living 2 ½ miles from that spot, had two individuals coming together to her crabapples several times, including just three days before Count Week began, and a few days after it ended. Janet’s bird was the only one seen on the day or week of this year's count, living up to the name Solitaire.  

My flicker wasn’t as notable as I’d hoped—two other groups reported one, and this year’s total of 3 wasn’t even a record—4 flickers were counted on Duluth’s Christmas Bird Count in 1967. And at least one flicker has been reported on 18 counts since 1948. Those little details didn’t make my own sighting less exciting for me.   

The only new bird seen on this year’s count wasn’t a species. The male Oregon Junco is a western subspecies of the Dark-eyed Junco. At the start of Count Week, at the same feeder, there was a “Cassiar Junco”—that one wasn’t a subspecies but a hybrid of the Slate-colored and Oregon Junco subspecies.   

We broke three records. As I already mentioned, the crow count was the highest ever. The 394 goldfinches seen broke the previous record, set in 2013, by almost 100. And the 29 Red-bellied Woodpeckers not only broke the record of 23 set in 2018—this also marks the fourth time in the past 5 years that the Red-bellied count exceeded 20.   

Also notable were the 117 robins, the most since our high count of 259 set in 2009. The 137 Evening Grosbeaks were the most counted since 2005. And this year's 10 Snow Buntings were the count's first since 2016. Also notable, but sad, we had only 7 Ruffed Grouse, possibly at least in part due to the heavy new snow. White-breasted Nuthatches and Northern Cardinals were both found in much lower numbers than recent counts. And this was the first count since 2000 when not a single crossbill—neither White-winged nor Red—was found at all.   

A single year’s count doesn’t mean a whole lot in terms of increasing or decreasing populations, because each year’s weather makes a huge difference. This year’s numbers are entered into the database, more pieces of a gigantic puzzle that helps us see patterns, thanks to the many volunteer counters and Duluth's wonderful count compiler, Clinton Dexter-Nienhaus. 

Townsend's Solitaire

Here's this year's totals:

  • Canada Goose- 6
  • Mallard- 1171
  • American Black Duck- 20
  • Common Goldeneye- 62
  • Common Merganser- 1
  • Red-breasted Merganser- 6
  • White-winged Scoter- 1
  • Wild Turkey- 2
  • Ruffed Grouse- 7
  • Rock Pigeon- 1025
  • Mourning Dove- 13
  • Ring-billed Gull- 2
  • Herring Gull- 516
  • Iceland Gull- 5 (All Thayer's Gulls)
  • Glaucous Gull- 2
  • Lesser Black-backed Gull- 1 (first cycle continuing in our area)
  • Great Black-backed Gull- COUNT WEEK
  • Golden Eagle- 2
  • Sharp-shinned Hawk- COUNT WEEK
  • Northern Goshawk- 3
  • Bald Eagle- 44
  • Red-tailed Hawk- COUNT WEEK
  • Great Horned Owl- COUNT WEEK
  • Snowy Owl- COUNT WEEK
  • Barred Owl- 1
  • Eastern Screech Owl- COUNT WEEK
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker- 29
  • Downy Woodpecker- 85
  • Hairy Woodpecker- 75
  • Pileated Woodpecker- 32
  • Northern Flicker- 3
  • Belted Kingfisher- 1
  • Merlin- 2
  • Peregrine Falcon- 2
  • Northern Shrike- 7
  • Blue Jay- 89
  • American Crow- 1305
  • Common Raven- 150
  • Black-capped Chickadee- 1794
  • Red-breasted Nuthatch- 99
  • White-breasted Nuthatch- 87
  • Townsend's Solitaire- 1
  • American Robin- 117
  • European Starling- 1309
  • Bohemian Waxwing- 1147
  • Cedar Waxwing- 140
  • Waxwing sp.- 22
  • Evening Grosbeak- 137
  • Pine Grosbeak- 89
  • House Finch- 89
  • Purple Finch- 2
  • Common Redpoll- 496
  • Pine Siskin- 2
  • American Goldfinch- 394
  • Finch sp.- 12
  • Snow Bunting- 10
  • Dark-eyed Junco- 33 (2 oregonus, Count Week cismontanus)
  • White-throated Sparrow- 2
  • American Tree Sparrow- 1
  • Northern Cardinal- 8
  • House Sparrow- 87

Tuesday, December 13, 2022

She's Back!!!

Wisdom in 2022. Photo by Keegan Rankin/USFWS

In December 1956, in a study to protect nesting albatrosses on Midway Island, Chandler Robbins caught and banded a great many Laysan Albatrosses. Seabirds in general are exceptionally long-lived, so in 2011, when Robbins returned to Midway to band albatrosses again, he wondered if it were possible that any of the birds he handled that year were ones he and his colleagues had banded during that long-ago albatross study. An aluminum band cannot possibly be readable after 55 years on an oceanic bird’s leg, but when scientists re-capture already-banded birds, they replace worn and weathered bands with new ones, carefully recording both the old and new numbers on the new banding card. In the years before computerized banding records, scientists seldom rifled through the vast body of banding records to see when a replaced band had originally been placed on a bird. And tracing the records backward was even more time consuming when the previous band was itself a replacement. But Robbins was curious enough to do the work, and the band on one of his 2011 birds traced all the way back to 1956, when he himself put the original band on a nesting female.   

The very youngest a female Laysan Albatross can be to attract a mate and start nesting is 5 years old, setting Robbins' bird's minimum age in early 2011 at 60 years old. That extraordinary discovery made international news, and suddenly everyone was calling the bird “Wisdom.” I was especially thrilled because 2011 was the year I would turn 60—here was the only still-living wild bird known to have hatched before I was born.   

Albatrosses spend the entire year out at sea, coming to land only to nest, but with all the hubbub, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service paid special attention to Wisdom, putting a colored plastic band on her leg as well as the aluminum one to make her more recognizable as an individual, and ever since, searching for her every November when albatrosses return to Midway to nest.   

Wisdom laid an egg in November 2020, when she was at least 69, but it didn’t hatch, and she didn't lay one last year. All kinds of things cause eggs to not hatch, including accidents, predators such as mice and rats, poor diet when the female is ovulating, exposure to toxins, and defective ovum or sperm, often due to environmental factors. When an egg does hatch, the chick doesn’t always survive, again due to all kinds of factors. Indeed, albatross chick survival rates have declined as more and more plastic garbage in the world’s oceans accumulates even as nutritious prey species decline. The last time Wisdom successfully raised a chick to fledging was in 2017.   

Since 2011, I’ve paid close attention to USF&W press releases every November. With the pandemic, they haven’t been able to keep us up to date as promptly as they used to. This year I got a heads up on December 5 from my friend Scott Wolff, who used to do work on Midway Island and keeps in touch with some of his friends there. That's how I found out that Wisdom had returned three days before the official notice went out. She was spotted and photographed on Thanksgiving, November 24, 2022. Her mate, Akeakamai, didn’t return to Midway last year and hasn’t been seen this year, so he is presumed dead. Attracting and sealing the deal with a new mate takes time.    

Last year, the chick that Wisdom fledged in 2011 produced Wisdom's first known grandchick, but it didn’t survive to fledge. Of course, not one of her chicks hatched before 2011 would have been traced as her offspring—there may well be a dozen or more children of Wisdom alive today along with many grandchildren and great-grandchildren too, but without an albatross version of a 23andMe-type ancestry program, we'll never know.  

As of December 13, Wisdom has only been seen and photographed that one day this season. Without a mate, she had no reason to secure and defend a nest territory, and so she apparently returned to the sea. It’s getting late this year to start a nest, but if she were to find a mate at this late date, she and he might return to check out real estate options for next year. Staff at Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge and Battle of Midway National Memorial will continue to look for her.   

It seems like amazing luck for one marked bird to still be around so many decades after hatching, but I wonder how lucky she feels encountering so much plastic trash and unpredictably unseasonable weather conditions on her long searches for increasingly scarce food. Thinking about her, I wonder if I've squandered my 71 years here. I've tried my best but will be leaving the planet ever so much poorer than how I found it. My generation started out so idealistically looking for ways to save the environment but now is as implicated as every other generation in the pollution-fueled insect apocalypse, accelerating climate change, increasingly toxic oceans, and so much more. Wisdom's longevity is an improbable triumph against growing environmental degradation. I hope we humans roll up our sleeves and get to work to ensure that our children and grandchildren can survive and thrive on this planet we all share as long as Wisdom has. 

Wisdom in 2022. Photo by Keegan Rankin/USFWS

Monday, December 12, 2022

A Very Belated Thanks to My Shakespeare Professor, Randal Robinson

I’ve been in love with William Shakespeare’s works since my 9th grade English class, when we read The Merchant of Venice. Lenore Peters, a creative and sparkling human being right out of college, brought the characters alive vividly—I can still hear Shylock’s “Three thousand ducats” in her voice. She deftly brought into our class discussions the issues of prejudice and stereotypes in Shakespeare’s world and how, if you paid attention, his characters both personified and transcended the stereotypes. Shylock’s greed was not just a stereotypical trope—it was fueled by the longstanding poor treatment he’d received at the hands of the other characters, fed by their antisemitism. And in the end, Portia was the only character knowledgeable and creative enough to use the legal system to save the day, though of course women weren’t allowed to be lawyers, so she had to dress as a man to do it. We of course knew about antisemitism back then, but I don’t remember the word sexism being in our lexicon in 1965, yet Miss Peters sure brought alive the concept of fundamental fairness in making us feel both the tragedy of Shylock and how obvious it was that in a fair world Portia would have been allowed to speak up in court as herself. As a girl whose favorite uncle was Jewish, how could I not love Shakespeare after that introduction?

Miss Peters was uniquely engaging, but my other high school English teachers also fanned the flame of my love for Shakespeare. And that love was fanned even more by my University of Illinois honors freshman rhetoric class with an existential theme, when I first read King Lear. My favorite character in the play, and perhaps in all of Shakespeare’s plays, is the Fool. He and Cordelia were the only characters brave enough to speak truth to power, and the Fool exuded integrity which somehow balanced his loyalty toward the calamitous King; he stuck with him long after he could have fled. My favorite lines are these:

     That sir which serves and seeks for gain,
     And follows but for form,
     Will pack when it begins to rain,
     And leave thee in the storm, 

     But I will tarry; the fool will stay,
     And let the wise man fly:
     The knave turns fool that runs away;
     The fool no knave, perdy.

In college as I became a passionate environmentalist and, more specifically, learned to love birds and yearned to protect them, those lines perfectly represented my firm belief that loyalty to them would far transcend my economic or social status, which is exactly why 36 years after starting to produce my radio program and now podcast, I’m still perfectly happy to do it as I always have, with no commercial sponsors or financial compensation whatsoever. And it’s also why I smile when savvy friends tell me that doing so much work for so long for nothing is foolish.

Common Loon
A "cream-faced" loon (immature Common Loon)

When I attended the University of Illinois, students in most departments were required to have a liberal arts background, so after the rhetoric classes freshmen were required to take, it was easy for me, even as a math major, to take another English literature class in which we studied two Shakespeare plays, and then a course devoted entirely to Shakespeare. I wasn’t a birder yet, so a lot of the bird references went over my head. Macbeth’s rant when he called a servant “Thou cream-faced loon!” seemed vivid enough without my realizing that he was referencing loons in immature or adult winter plumage. 

Winter Wren

King Lear tells Gloucester, “Die for adultery! No: The wren goes to 't.” That also seemed self-explanatory without my needing to know the nuances of mating behaviors of the only wren Shakespeare could have been familiar with, closely related to our Winter Wren. But that line became richer when I learned how male wrens construct stick nests in as many suitable cavities as they can find, sometimes attracting two or even three mates onto their territory, and that after raising one batch of young, females often move on to find a new mate.  

Common Nightingale photo by Carlos Delgado via Wikipedia

Romeo and Juliet’s one and only argument, in the wee hours after their wedding, was about bird identification. Reading the play in college, it was clear enough that before lighted alarm clocks, knowing some bird songs would give people a rough estimate of what time it was. It seemed obvious that a bird called a nightingale would sing all night long while a lark would not. Romeo had to flee at first light, so distinguishing these bird songs was a matter of life and death, but as urgent as it was to identify the bird accurately, they argued their cases without being competitive or without Romeo mansplaining even after it was clear that he was the one who was right. When they first hear the bird, Juliet says, 

     Wilt thou be gone? it is not yet near day:
     It was the nightingale, and not the lark,
     That pierced the fearful hollow of thine ear;
     Nightly she sings on yon pomegranate-tree:
     Believe me, love, it was the nightingale.

(Notice that she threw in a useful hint about the bird's habitat.) Romeo argues: 

     It was the lark, the herald of the morn,
     No nightingale…

Juliet sticks to her guns until the bird sings again. Then she blurts out, 

     It is, it is: hie hence, be gone, away!
     It is the lark that sings so out of tune,
     Straining harsh discords and unpleasing sharps.

(And notice how clear and accurate her documentation of the bird's vocalization is. That went over my head until I was a birder.)


It wasn’t until I was in graduate school in the Fisheries and Wildlife Department at Michigan State that I took the Shakespeare class that made the biggest difference in my personal growth and professional development. I was working toward a master’s degree in environmental education and wanted a robust background in all the “ologies”—mammalogy, herpetology, and entomology as well as ornithology—plus I was required to take a lot of environmental education and wildlife management classes in the Fisheries and Wildlife Department.  

Tuition at MSU was much higher than at U of I, and charged per credit when Russ and I were living on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and tuna noodle casserole, but something deep in my heart and soul needed to take one more Shakespeare class, so I signed up for a course taught by Randal Robinson. My advisor was distressed that I would “waste my time” on Shakespeare of all things, even after I explained to him that the whole reason we have European Starlings in America is because of Shakespeare mentioning them in one of his Henry plays. Eugene Schieffelin really did introduce them in Central Park in 1890 and 1891, but despite the articles I read back then, there isn’t any accurate evidence establishing that he or his "naturalization society" were at all focused on Shakespeare. Regardless, my advisor thought a Shakespeare class would be utterly irrelevant to my studies, and if I was going to take the class at all, he wanted me to at least take it pass/fail so I wouldn’t "waste" too much time on it. I knew I couldn’t make the class too high of a priority, but if I was going to take it at all, I was going to take it seriously, for a grade.

My previous college English classes had been excellent, but most of the instructors pretty detached and some a bit pretentious. Dr. Robinson exuded passion—for the plays and, especially, the characters. He told us that the way to get beyond the language barrier was to see the characters come alive, as Shakespeare intended, and suggested that we read along while listening to recordings by excellent actors. I’d already figured out how to negotiate MSU’s sound library to listen to bird recordings, and now I’d take an hour or so at the end of every day on campus to hunker down and listen to whichever play we were reading. To convince my advisor, and maybe even myself, that this was a justifiable use of my time when I was in a graduate program about environmental education, I always listened to a few bird songs while I was there, too, becoming more competent at recognizing bird songs even as hearing Shakespeare’s lines made them come alive.

Dr. Robinson said we’d get a better understanding of the plays by staging various scenes ourselves, which he assigned us to do in small groups. I was extremely shy and self-conscious at the time. One of the characters I had to portray was Autolycus in The Winter's Tale, a real stretch for me as I suspect Dr. Robinson knew when he assigned it. The experience was excruciating but helped me come out of my shell in a way no other class had managed. I didn't know it then, but this turned out to be essential for someone whose career would ultimately involve public speaking. 

Autolycus is a high-energy character, and as we rehearsed, Dr. Robinson encouraged me to speed up my delivery and movements, but try as I might, I simply could not. He told me I had "an unusually slow body rhythm," and helped me find other ways to capture the character's intensity. That "slow body rhythm" stuck in my head. After my first heart attack in 2015, I learned that I have bradycardia, an unusually slow heartbeat. Bradycardia is not, in and of itself, a health issue and wasn't related to the heart attack, but I found it intriguing to have a medical word for something Dr. Robinson had described so long ago. 

Dr. Robinson's focus on Shakespeare as living, breathing plays rather than literature was essential in my development as a writer. Even at this point in my long writing career, I wouldn't call my writing polished or elegant, but it was that course that made me focus on how my words sound spoken aloud as well as read, which I think helps my writing to be more conversational and accessible.

A few weeks ago, it suddenly occurred to me, almost half a century after I’d taken that class that so enriched my life, that I’d never thanked Dr. Robinson for everything he'd given me, so I looked him up on the MSU website. He’s retired now, but I sent him an email telling him how wonderful and inspirational his class had been. I've spent my life far from Shakespeare, writing and talking about birds, but both my life and my work are richer thanks to him. I told him that in 2004, a Rufous Hummingbird appeared at my feeder in northern Minnesota in November and left, in good health, on December 3. She was an adult female but a few stray iridescent throat feathers had people thinking she was a male for over a week, so of course I named her Viola after the protagonist of Twelfth Night, who disguises herself as a man for most of the play. I knew most people wouldn't get it, but I also knew that if Dr. Robinson ever got wind of it, he would. 

Anyway, my life is much, much richer thanks to Randal Robinson, and I'm embarrassed that it took me almost five decades to thank him for giving me so very much. 

Rufous Hummingbird at feeder, November 2004