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 30º.    

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

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Help make the Belted Kingfisher the official mascot of the University of Illinois

In the late 1990s, I circulated a petition trying to get the Black-capped Chickadee named Minnesota’s Emergency Auxiliary Backup State Bird, to serve during the six months of every year when loons have flown the coop and are not fulfilling their obligations. I got a few thousand signatures, my DFL precinct caucus voted in favor of it, and if I recall correctly, my congressional district convention approved it too, but that’s as far as it went. It was a lot of work on a fun campaign. I failed, but at least we still have a state bird, absent half the year though it may be.

School mascots are like state birds—not all that important in the overall scheme of the universe, but at their best, they provide a unifying symbol of community spirit and shared identity. My adult children have forgotten a lot of details about their elementary school but still remember the Lakeside Lion because of the funky design and colors on school supplies and sweatshirts.  

Lakeside Lions

Elementary school mascots have less impact on us beyond childhood than high school and college mascots do—I can’t remember what my elementary school’s mascot was, but I do remember the West Leyden Knight. When I started college at the University of Illinois in 1969, the mascot was “Chief Illiniwek.,” which even in my ignorance at the time seemed offensive. In 2008, the university finally got rid of that shameful stereotype, and in 2011, a campus survey of 11,440 U. of I. students revealed that 85 percent supported the decision. But in the 14 years since, the university hasn’t replaced the mascot with anything else.  

To fill that vacuum, in 2019, a fun, determined, and talented astrophysics student, Spencer Hulsey, spearheaded a campaign to name as mascot a splendid blue and orange bird.  

The Belted Kingfisher has a lot going for it besides bearing the school colors. The powerful, heavy beak and shaggy crest give it the proportions of an athlete, especially one wearing a funky helmet; and kingfishers exemplify skill, concentration, and focus as well as power, making them an excellent choice for a school that excels in academics and sports both. And unlike many mascots and a certain state bird I could mention, the Belted Kingfisher lives right there in Champaign-Urbana year-round. Its loud rattle would make a perfect battle cry for any sporting event and is mechanical enough that some enterprising individual is bound to make a cool noise-making toy mimicking the sound that could create a craze like the vuvuzela did in the 2012 Olympics only, with luck, less damaging to our eardrums. Spencer and her friends suggested a giant Kingfisher Kazoo. What could be more fun?  

UIUC student Keegan Thoranin drew this kingfisher 

One little-known fact about the Belted Kingfisher makes it especially appropriate as a football team mascot—it’s one of the few birds that form huddles. Nestling kingfishers stay in a tight huddle, wings snugly wrapped around one another even as they shuffle about in their dark nesting burrows. 

Belted Kingfisher chicks

That huddling can also be construed as a group hug that could endear the birds to the most sports-averse students as well as football fans. And that is exactly what a mascot should do: appeal to the many diverse interests and passions of a university community.

Spencer Hulsey created a lot of engaging illustrations to promote the kingfisher and gave me permission to post them on my blog. 

In 2020, she presented her case to the University of Illinois Senate who passed the resolution 105 to 4, but the endorsement legislation is still sitting on the Chancellor's desk. Now her group is focused on building community support so the chancellor can see they mean business. She said that ultimately, their work “proved to him that the campus and faculty are ready for a new mascot, and we expect he will vote to adopt a new mascot before Spring 2024. The kingfisher is the only contender at the moment, but the floor could be opened to other suggestions.” The Kingfisher website includes information about how we can join the Letter Campaign to most effectively support making this splendid and fun bird U. of I.’s official mascot. 

Monday, November 28, 2022

The Black-capped Chickadee deserves a Guinness World Record!

Black-capped Chickadee

It’s hard to keep track of the world’s superlatives, but Guinness World Records is the global authority on all things record-breaking, with offices in the U.K., United States, China, Japan, and the United Arab Emirates and official adjudicators who verify records all over the world. On the Guinness website, the stated purpose of their record keeping is “to make the world a more interesting, fun and positive place,” their vision “to inspire a sense of wonder,” and their mission “to document the incredible.” The Guinness World Record website also bears what seems like an excellent motto, “Officially amazing.”

Some individual birds and some bird species have genuinely earned that distinction. Wisdom the Laysan Albatross is officially the “Oldest Wild Bird.” Some other species of albatrosses and other birds that haven’t been as heavily studied via decades-long banding operations probably include individuals that are older than Wisdom, and some Laysan Albatrosses on other islands, and perhaps even some of Wisdom’s neighbors on Midway Island, may be older, too—Chandler Robbins banded only a fraction of the albatrosses on Midway when he was there. What makes Guinness so valuable is that they require verifiable documentation, and only one bird banded in 1956 or earlier is still being documented as recently as this past winter. When she was banded, Wisdom was a nesting adult, meaning she was at least 5 years old—she could well have been a little or a lot older than 70 this past winter.  

Photo of Emperor Penguin family from Wikipedia, contributed by Snowmanradio.

That need for verified documentation is why the Emperor Penguin’s record for “lowest temperature endured by a bird” isn’t based on the most extreme temperatures in Antarctica during the bird's nesting season but, rather, on a study at a breeding colony in Antarctica in June 2008, when the air temperature dipped below -4º F and the sky and ice temperatures sunk below -49º F. The record says, “It’s widely acknowledged that emperor penguins have to occasionally endure air temperatures as low as -40º F and beyond, as well as wind gusts that can reach in excess of 90 miles per hour.” 

That documentation does seem perfectly legitimate as the "lowest temperatures endured by nesting birds," but sets the bar rather low as far as the “lowest temperature endured by a bird.” In one cruel study, Common Redpolls survived down to -65º F and Hoary Redpolls down to an astonishing -88º F, but that was in a laboratory, not the wild, and wasn't entered in Guinness.  

As far as birds in the wild go, right here in Duluth, on 2 January 1885, the temperature dipped to -41º F, and I can't imagine that chickadees didn't survive that. During the 41 winters we’ve lived here, the lowest temperature of the season has dipped to -30º F or colder eleven times, and we've consistently had chickadees at our feeders (as well as plenty of other birds) during all those cold snaps. (During those same 41 winters, the season’s coldest temperature here has been warmer than -20º only six times.) 

Temperatures can be significantly colder in the Iron Range. Minnesota’s all-time cold-temperature record was set in Tower on 2 February 1996 with an official thermometer reading of -60º F, and it may have been even colder in Embarrass that same morning—we’ll never know for sure because their official thermometer broke in the extreme cold. The temperature in Duluth that morning was -39º F, and my feeders were filled with chickadees as well as nuthatches, Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, and other birds, but I wasn’t taking photos back then so have no proof. I recall a news story about a guy who slept out in Tower that night so he could claim to have survived Minnesota’s coldest night ever. He emerged, triumphant, at first light, to news cameras and microphones. I’m sure I heard chickadees calling and even singing in the background of the news coverage, but my vague recollection won’t cut it as far as Guinness World Records go.  

I’m sure plenty of songbirds, from redpolls to ravens, in the wilds of Alaska, Canada, Norway, Siberia, and other northern places have survived significantly colder temps than are listed in the Emperor Penguin entry in Guinness, but apparently no one has submitted documentation proving this. 

And so far, no one has submitted to Guinness documentation of Black-capped Chickadees present in Tower that record-breaking morning, or on any other morning when temperatures were colder than -40º. If anyone has photographic or audio confirmation of Black-capped Chickadees in Tower, Minnesota, on 2 February 1996, I’d be more than happy to help you submit the record. If nothing else, getting that into Guinness would encourage researchers in Antarctica and far northern places to step up their game. 

Meanwhile, it’s fun to realize that our third-of-an-ounce Black-capped Chickadees have survived colder temperatures than those that got 50–100-pound Emperor Penguins into Guinness World Records. Even without the record, my favorite bird is plenty cool enough for me.  

Black-capped Chickadee

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Record breakers, from turkeys to that Bar-tailed Godwit

Bar-tailed Godwit

Guinness World Records has 973 bird-related records, including the slowest flying birds, American and European Woodcocks who can fly a mere 5 miles per hour without stalling while displaying; the strongest bird of prey, the Harpy Eagle; and the bird with the highest-pitched call, the Black Jacobin, a Brazilian hummingbird whose lowest recorded sounds are above 10 kHz, making the song higher-pitched than the hearing capabilities of any bird so far tested. It’s possible the jacobin’s calls are too high for even them to hear, meaning their call could have a function unrelated to vocal communication. I love ornithological mysteries like this, though I suspect the birds can indeed hear their own calls, meaning ornithologists haven’t quite figured out how to accurately test hearing capabilities in such tiny birds.  

Wild Turkey displaying

This week, when normal people are thinking about turkeys as a Thanksgiving meal, or because they’ve seen President Biden or their governor pardoning one, or read about or saw video accounts of a Wild Turkey attacking people in Washington, D.C., I’m thinking about turkeys holding the world record as the "bird with the strongest gizzard." Yep—that thick organ found in the little bag of innards inside a store-bought turkey is more amazing in life than in the most delicious giblet gravy or stuffing. According to the Guinness account, “One [turkey] specimen had crushed 24 walnuts in their shells within 4 hours, and had also ground surgical lancet blades into grit within 16 hours.”  

Bar-tailed Godwit

The whole reason I’ve been checking out Guinness World Records is that a splendid bird I saw in Alaska this year, the Bar-tailed Godwit, made international news in October when one individual broke the record for the longest non-stop journey of any wild bird. Some whales may make even longer non-stop journeys, but they feed along the way. The godwit's flight was the longest non-stop journey without feeding en route of any animal in the world. 

Before this past October, the bird holding the record was another Bar-tailed Godwit individual—a satellite-tagged adult male who, in 2020, flew from Alaska to New Zealand without stopping for food or rest, 7,580 miles away. That same individual broke his own record with an 8,100-mile flight on his next migration in 2021.

But this year, scientists placed a transmitter on a first-year bird still too young for them to determine the bird's sex. That bird left the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta on October 13, and 11 days later made it to Ansons Bay in Tasmania, some 8,425 miles away. Again, this was entirely without stopping or feeding. It took 11 days and 1 hour to make that amazing trip. And godwits can only fly by steadily flapping their wings—they can’t soar to minimize their energy use as eagles and hawks do. To have the strength to do this, they boost the size of their pectoral muscles and heart before the trip. And to fuel the flight, they put on enough fat to double their weight. All this requires them to shrink their other internal organs to make room for the enlarged muscles and all that fat. 

The individual birds bearing these satellite trackers are not the only ones who have made these impressive flights—godwits virtually always travel in flocks, so any birds with them accomplished the exact same feat without any fanfare at all. And interestingly, it’s very unlikely that these flights that made the Guinness Book are really the furthest any Bar-tailed Godwits have flown—they’re just the furthest we happen to know about. Satellite trackers and the technology to read them are expensive, so very, very few birds bear these trackers. Like Wisdom, the banded Laysan Albatross on Midway Island who holds the record as the oldest wild bird ever, this record is only among birds we actually know about—there may be albatrosses years or decades older than Wisdom who have never been banded, and Bar-tailed Godwits who have travelled even farther. 

Nevertheless, the information we get about tracked birds gives us a fuller and more nuanced look at their species. And regardless, even if a banded or marked individual hasn’t done anything genuinely unique, it’s special and lovely to know about a special and lovely individual. 

Sunday, November 20, 2022


Black-tailed (front) and Bar-tailed Godwits 
Illustration from Naumann, Natural history of the birds of central Europe, 3rd Ed. 1905 

When Russ and I arrived in Nome on June 12 this year, the very first bird I added to my life list, at the mouth of the Nome River, was a wonderful one, the Bar-tailed Godwit. There are four species of godwits in the world, and this one completed my godwit list. 

Godwits are large shorebirds with straight or slightly upswept, extremely long bills, which they use to probe deeply in sand and soft mud for aquatic worms and mollusks. In winter, they flock together where food is plentiful.  

The English word godwit was first recorded in about 1416–17. Its origin is uncertain—it may have been an imitation of the bird's call, or it may have been derived from the Old English god whit or god whita, meaning “good creature”, probably suggesting good eating. Sir Thomas Browne, writing in about 1682, noted that godwits “were accounted the daintiest dish in England.” English speaking people would have encountered both Bar-tailed and Black-tailed Godwits, though they probably didn't worry about telling them apart. Linnaeus didn't distinguish between the two. 

The Black-tailed Godwit, the national bird of the Netherlands, breeds from Iceland through Europe and areas of Central Asia, and winters in the Indian subcontinent, Australia, New Zealand, western Europe, and west Africa. I saw some in June 2015 when I was in Austria and Hungary but didn’t get any photos. In November 2016, I saw some wintering in Uganda and got distant photos during a boat trip. 

Black-tailed Godwit

The Bar-tailed Godwit breeds further north, on Arctic coasts and tundra from Scandinavia east to Alaska. The Bar-tailed Godwit includes five different subspecies with different breeding and wintering ranges and migration routes. 

Maps by Onioram

When creating the first scientific names, Linnaeus placed the godwits in the same genus with several long-billed sandpipers. He considered both the Bar-tailed and Black-tailed Godwits the same species, and in 1758 gave them the scientific name Scolopax limosa; Scolopax was the Latin word for snipe and woodcocks, and limosa was Latin for “muddy.” Two years later, French zoologist Mathurin Jacques Brisson decided that the godwits deserved their own genus, Limosa and re-named the Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa and the Bar-tailed Godwit Limosa lapponica.  

We’d expect to see only two godwits in the Lower 48: the Hudsonian Godwit and Marbled Godwit. The English naturalist George Edwards described and illustrated both of these species in his 1750 work, A Natural History of Uncommon Birds. Edwards called the Hudsonian Godwit the “Red-breasted Godwit”...

... and the Marbled Godwit the “Great American Godwit.” 

Edwards based those illustrations and information on specimens brought to London by James Isham following a Hudson Bay expedition. Linnaeus referred to George Edwards’s work when he included both species in the 10th edition of his Systema Naturae

Hudsonian Godwits breed in the far north near the tree line in Alaska and northwestern Canada and, as the name suggests, on the shores of Hudson Bay; they winter in South America. In good weather, they can make the south-bound journey non-stop, which explains why most of my sightings of Hudsonian Godwits in Wisconsin and Minnesota have been in spring, including my lifer, which I saw in May 1977 at Goose Pond near Madison, Wisconsin. I also saw them in Kansas in April 2015. I would have missed the Hudsonian Godwit altogether in my 2013 Big Year except that I lucked into two of them at the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge in Upstate New York on September 28. 

Hudsonian Godwit

My photos are horrible, but it was a very lucky sighting—during migration, most East Coast sightings are from late July through early August, not the very end of September. 

This June, I saw two Hudsonian Godwits in breeding plumage at the Westchester Lagoon in Anchorage, Alaska. 


The Marbled Godwit, the largest of the four godwits, breeds in mid-continental North America, eastern Canada, and the Alaska Peninsula. The largest winter ranges are along the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf coasts of the US and Mexico. I saw my first Marbled Godwits in September 1978 at Goose Pond. Since then, I’ve seen them many times in many places in Minnesota, California, Texas, Colorado, and Kansas.  

Marbled Godwit

Marbled Godwit

Marbled Godwits

So by 2014 I’d seen 75 percent of all the godwit species in the world. But the one I hadn’t yet seen, the Bar-tailed Godwit, was the one I was most fascinated by. Next time I’ll explain how this extraordinary bird made it into the Guinness Book of World Records

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

In My Prime

Black-capped Chickadee

As of Friday, November 11, 2022, for the 20th year of my life, I’m officially in my prime, thanks to 71 being the 20th prime number. I’ll have to stop saying I’m in my prime next year about this time, but will have two more prime years this decade, assuming I make it to 73 and then 79.   

As much as people my age seem to hate anyone referring to people in their seventies as “elderly,” I can’t think of a single boomer who was so prickly about calling people this age “old” when we younger, even as late as our fifties. The Beatles’ recorded “When I’m Sixty-Four” for Sergeant Pepper when Paul McCartney was 25, the same age Paul Simon was when the song “Old Friends” appeared on Bookends with the line “How terribly strange to be seventy.” Even if we don't want to call 64 old, the Biblical “three score and ten” is the quintessential definition of old age.  

Wawa, Dee Dee Nana, and Bear

Also as of Friday, I’m not just in my prime—I’m the precise definition of what a 71-year-old looks like. My whole life, the multi-billion-dollar cosmetics and fashion industries have been hell-bent on making everyone feel dissatisfied with our own faces and bodies. I’m pretty good at ignoring the constant barrage of ads for beauty products—they don’t feel personal except for one ad for Botox looking down at me above my dentist’s chair. It’s bad enough knowing the dentist and hygienist judge my toothbrushing and flossing habits—are they also using their magnifying lenses to study my wrinkles? That is the kind of thought I try to banish by thinking about birds.  

Maybe it’s because I focus my eyes and optics on birds rather than the mirror that I don’t mind being whatever age I happen to be. I’m still in good health, but even when I’ve faced surgeries, two heart attacks, and cancer, paying attention to nature has had real medicinal value. 

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

In April 1978, I had abdominal surgery back when they made incisions bigger than they do now. The doctors and nurses told me to go slow with walking and stay off uneven surfaces, and that lifting would be especially bad. I don’t remember the precise weight limit—just that my 7x50 Bushnell binoculars exceeded it. But hokey smokes—it was April—spring migration! The morning after I got home, Russ took me to my favorite birding spot. When I heard Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, I forgot all about my incision as I charged up a small hill to see them, and the pain magically stayed at bay. My recovery took way less time than doctors predicted, thanks to birding.  

Barn Owl

On January 12, 2020, days after my second heart attack, a Barn Owl turned up at the Sax-Zim Bog. I was thrilled—the experience definitely speeded up my recovery—but the poor owl, so far north of its range, died a few hours after Russ and I left. I’d wanted to use this poor bird as a sign of resilience and hope, but instead, it reminded me that we’re all muddling through life as well as we can for as long as we can. All of our days are numbered. 

Black-capped Chickadee

That lovely owl also reminded me that no one on this planet—avian or human—is obligated to serve as a symbol of anything for anyone, nor to be burdened with lugging around some dead person's spirit. When I die, my kids will probably think of me when they see chickadees. But those chickadees will not, in any way, shape, or form, be embodiments of me. Chickadees have been bringing me comfort and joy just about every single day that I've been home or anywhere else in their range since I saw my first on March 2, 1975. Seeing these lovely sprites who have brought me so much joy for almost 5 decades should be good enough for anyone. 

The medicinal value of birding is not unique to me—during my father-in-law’s final months in the late stages of cancer, he was up and at his chair by the living room window every morning at first light to see the birds arriving at his feeder. Over the years, a great many other people have told me how birds brightened the final weeks and days, and sometimes hours and minutes, of loved ones.   

The therapeutic value of birding isn’t just anecdotal. New research from King’s College London found that seeing or hearing birds is associated with an improvement in mental wellbeing that can last up to eight hours, including for people diagnosed with depression. Johanna Gibbons, co-author of the study, said that the dawn chorus is “A multi-sensory experience that seems to enrich everyday life, whatever our mood or whereabouts.” She continues, “This exciting research underpins just how much the sight and sound of birdsong lifts the spirits. It captures intriguing evidence that a biodiverse environment is restorative in terms of mental wellbeing. That the sensual stimulation of birdsong, part of those daily ‘doses’ of nature, is precious and time-lasting.”   

The value of birding isn’t limited to mental health. Ontario writer Robert C. Bell contracted a debilitating case of Lyme disease in 2013 when he was in his late 50s. He had to take early retirement from a job he loved in the mining industry and thought his life was pretty much over. But he got so engrossed in birds at his feeders that he started going outdoors to see more birds, got more serious about birding, and took up bird photography. He says, simply, “Birding saved me… It’s given me a real spark and purpose in life.” Bell just wrote a book about his experience, Out of the Lyme Light and into the Sunlight: Birding as Therapy for the Chronically Ill, which will be out this month by Hancock House—I have it on pre-order from the publisher.  

None of us can turn back the clock except in a Standard Time vs. Daylight Savings Time sense, and even the U.S. Senate knows how stupid that is. As with every living thing, each of us is given a finite set of years, months, and days, and no beauty or fashion products or injections of botulism toxin can change it. Why squander valuable moments of my finite life fretting about my reflection in a mirror when I can reflect on and enjoy real beauty? Life doesn't have many guarantees, but birds, from everyday chickadees and jays to much harder-to-see species, are guaranteed to bring beauty and fascination to our lives if only we open our hearts to let them in.  

Walter and Dr. Blue Jay