Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Slow Birding


In 2016, a Vermont naturalist named Bridget Butler created a website and blog, calling herself the “Bird Diva.” She was at the point in her life that I’d been in mine when I started producing “For the Birds,” with three tiny children and a need to do something creative and useful while being the best stay-at-home mother possible. 

The first definition of diva in Merriam-Webster is “prima donna,” so being a diva would seem to require a person to be a female who is both extremely talented and has an outsized ego to match. As I probe Bridget’s work, I’m finding that moniker appropriate on just two of those fronts: yes, she’s a woman, and yes, she’s brilliant. She’s the one who introduced the term Slow Birding to the birding community lo those many years ago via her warm and inviting workshops and online courses. Slow birding simply means paying closer attention to the birds we see, sometimes plopping ourselves down to watch or listen more deeply than when we feel obligated to keep moving on to the next bird. She told me:

The essence of my Slow Birding practice is connection; connection with the birds, the land, with myself and with other people. That type of connection comes with an open heart and deep listening. For me, there's no room for gatekeeping or exclusivity. We're all born with the ability to observe and notice and connect and I receive great joy in helping others find that feeling by watching birds. 

On her website, she adds that she strives “to encourage folks to take that passion [for nature] and turn it into action, paying it forward for the landscape they love & enjoy.”

Bridget Butler slow birding

Slow birding is a very old concept even if Bridget is the one who introduced most of us to her wonderful name for it. Joseph Hickey, the famous ornithologist who established how DDT causes thinning eggshells back in the 1960s, provided 16 full pages of questions we birders could ask ourselves while watching any species to gather information about its life history in his 1943 book, A Guide to Bird Watching. Most of his book describes various ways scientists and non-scientists gather data about bird lives. 

Hickey’s book introduced me to Arthur Cleveland Bent’s Life Histories of North American Birds, a series written for the Smithsonian, the first volume published in 1919. I didn’t have to read too many of those species accounts—“slow birding” observations from a huge body of  women and men who kept painstaking records of the birds they were paying close attention to—before I started collecting the entire series as Dover reprints. Reading these books and taking two ornithology classes during my first year of birding entrenched me in slow birding almost half a century before I knew that term for it.

In 2020, Bridget Butler was Nate Swick’s guest on the American Birding Association’s podcast in a segment titled “Secrets of Slow Birding with Bridget Butler.  Bridget and Nate’s easy banter gave the lie to the belief of some that the ABA is only about rushing and listing. Bridget created her own niche in a community that has many overlapping niches, and like a chickadee, she negotiates the birding world in a spirit of cooperation, not competition. As the ABA motto says, there’s “A million ways to bird.”

In March 2021, Bridget was a guest on Ray Brown's Talkin' Birds radio program, discussing Slow Birding and a cool community science project. She also wrote a charming article for the June 2020 issue of the ABA’s magazine Birding, titled “Backyard Big Year: Family Style,” about how she and her small children keep track of all the birds they see in their backyard. 

Book Review: Slow Birding by Joan E. Strassmann

I recently learned of a new book published by Penguin-Random House, Slow Birding, and immediately assumed it was by Bridget Butler, but it wasn’t. Joan E. Strassmann, a biologist who studies the evolution of cooperation and the control of conflict in microscopic animals, says birders should:

Sit and watch the birds. You might draw them or take notes on what they are doing. Then when you see those birds again, they will seem like old friends.

That's of course good advice, familiar as it sounds. Strassmann, who never mention's Bridget Butler's work, begins her preface with a description of the "slow food" and “locavore” movements, adding: 

Slow Birding brings these ideas to birding. All too often, birding is something done racing around in automobiles, stopping for moments to pick up a species here and there, then driving on. I call it “motor birding,” the birding equivalent to eating fast food. 

What if instead we stayed close to home and watched the birds that intersect our lives? What if we learned more about our birds, building our knowledge more slowly through daily observation? It may take some practice to get more out of local birds. It may be hard at first to learn to watch birds instead of ticking them off a list. This book will help.

Her book has some fascinating information, but would more appropriately have been titled Detailed Descriptions of Some Ornithological Research Projects.  She calls each of the researchers she cites a "slow birder," though every one of them is a graduate student or a professional researcher with a Ph.D., and all the work she describes, often in great detail, involves highly specialized research projects requiring state and federal permits. Strassmann highlights 18 species found near her home in St. Louis, but despite her emphasis on birding locally, virtually none of the research she cites took place anywhere near St. Louis. Her examples of “slow birders” are people who not only place USF&W bands on birds but also color band them, place RFID tags or geolocators on them, take blood and feather samples for DNA and/or parasite analysis, and collect preen oil by rubbing a small capillary tube on a bird’s preen oil gland. Every one of these valuable scientific activities requires state and federal permits above and beyond standard bird banding permits, work which usually must be done under the auspices of a recognized research institution. And analyzing DNA, blood parasites, and preen oil compounds can only be done at highly sophisticated laboratories, usually at great expense. In other words, the work she focuses on in Slow Birding is nothing most of us birders can possibly do.

Many of Strassmann's “true slow birders” capture and keep wild birds in aviaries or laboratories, at least temporarily, involving additional state and federal research permits. And many of the techniques she focuses on for field work involve extremely invasive methods such as implanting time-released testosterone tubes on wild birds, putting split-shot fishing weights on the tails of nesting songbirds specifically to disrupt their balance and make flight more effortful, conducting laparotomies to look directly at internal sex organs, and slicing the delicate skin on birds’ heads to look at the skull for aging. In one case, Strassmann reassures her readers, “Don’t worry—she treated the birds humanely and held them in a cage until they had recovered from these procedures and could be let go.” Nowhere does she mention the additional permits, institutional support, and training this researcher needed to do this legally and ethically. Again, some of the results of these kinds of invasive experiments are interesting, but a title mentioning ornithological research would have been far more appropriate than "Slow Birding."

Banding stations

Anyone who has participated in simple, ordinary bird banding, especially during migration, knows there is nothing “slow” about it—some people scramble to retrieve birds from nets, a painstaking procedure that must be done both carefully and quickly as more birds continue to get caught, then place each one in a bag or tube, and rush back to the banding station where other people process each bird—that is, band, weigh, take other measurements, sometimes remove one feather, record all this data, and release each bird as quickly as possible. 

Even the best banding stations have some mortality, an issue not mentioned in Slow Birding. (I don’t focus on that either.) But Strassman also describes the techniques of some “slow birders” who know their study subjects will die specifically because of their research. Some changed the color of eggs or substituted fake eggs to document the reduced parental care given chicks who hatch from sub-optimal eggs. One painted the mouth edges of chicks to document which ones would get too few feedings to thrive, and one even clipped colorful feather tips from American Coot chicks to document that their parents stop feeding them or even peck them to death. 

Strassmann’s first species account is about one of my favorite birds, the Blue Jay, one of the three birds illustrated on the beautiful cover. She focuses on their diet, going into great detail about a very toxic food they never eat in the wild—monarch butterflies and caterpillars—and one food item that makes up a significant part of their diet from October through March—acorns. She makes absolutely no mention of the many, many other things these omnivores eat, including berries—the very food item the Blue Jay on the book's charming cover is eating. 

Blue Jays shun monarchs, and Strassmann gets into the nitty-gritty of Lincoln Brower’s classic experiments from the 1960s on captive jays, showing how eating a monarch makes them violently ill. I assumed that after lavishing seven lengthy paragraphs on an insect Blue Jays avoid in nature, she’d let her readers in on what insects Blue Jays do eat, but she simply wrote, “There are plenty of other delicious insects for Blue Jays to eat, but insects are not their principal food,” despite the fact that insects make up 22 percent of the adults’ diet year round and a much larger percentage of the food parent jays feed their nestlings. 

Year-round, adult Blue Jays eat more vegetal than animal matter, and the connection between Blue Jays and acorns is well known. I’ve mentioned on lots of radio programs and articles that Blue Jays are credited with “planting” acorns as glaciers receded such that oaks sprouted up much more quickly than trees with wind-borne seeds, and that jays select healthy acorns with about 88 percent accuracy. Strassmann doesn't seem to realize that even though acorns are an important part of a jay's diet, these omnivorous birds eat a lot of other nuts, seeds, and berries as well. Nor does she mention how much Blue Jays eat at bird feeders even as researchers are showing that widespread bird-feeding is altering Blue Jays’ winter distribution patterns.  

For each species, she provides suggestions for slow birders, but except for sandwiching Cornell’s FeederWatch in a list with other formal projects readers might look into, she never suggests paying attention to what Blue Jays eat in our own backyards except acorns, and never mentions how interesting their behaviors at feeding stations are.  

Blue Jays at feeder

Even more surprising considering that Blue Jays belong to the family considered by most researchers to be the most intelligent of birds, she only indirectly discusses their spatial memory; her direct references to their intelligence are in the context of lame jokes. After telling a charming story about a jay in her yard who took silver-colored coins out of her small children's hands, something it apparently learned from being raised by someone in captivity, she writes that it was “smart enough to take our silver coins but not smart enough to spend them.” And her line about how scientists must fool secretive captive jays to observe their caches falls flat:

Blue Jays are smart and might not go to their caches if they knew they were being watched, even by a species as different from Blue Jays as we are. But they were presumably not smart enough to understand one-way mirrors. 

Understanding avian intelligence is complicated, but I was shocked that someone who taught college-level animal behavior could write this:

The jays are smart enough to cache and smart enough to find most of their acorns but not quite smart enough to find all of them.

Nowhere does she cite a single study that suggests that Blue Jays forget their caches. Researchers have  established that Blue Jays cannot subsist on acorns alone. Even in banner acorn years, they find fresh food sources in winter along with other foods they've cached. The fact that oak trees sprout from acorns “planted” by jays is not at all related to the jays’ not being “smart enough to find” them—it's simply that they cache away more than they'll normally need, just in case.

In her account of the Great Egret, Strassmann focuses specifically on the “slow birders” who not only observed siblicide in egret nests but swapped chicks from one nest to another to see which chicks would be killed. Doug Mock, one of the researchers she cited, told her about a newspaper interview he’d once done:

…she asked, “How can you stand it?” And I replied, “The first step in studying siblicide is that your soul has to die.” I was being flippant, of course (as usual), but it really is pretty harrowing to watch . . . until you habituate.

The research Strassmann includes is fascinating and, for the most part, provides valuable information—indeed, I myself have mentioned a lot of it in my own work—but her accounts focus on too narrow a slice of each species’ life history, with so many details about one or two studies that she misses nuances that have been picked up by other researchers studying the same questions. And her narrow focus gives short shrift to other aspects of each species’ life history, often some of the very aspects that St. Louis birders really could study in their own backyards. 

Strassmann frequently mentions the slow food movement, so I guess it makes sense that her final recommendation for “slow birders” is to “Hunt Snow Geese in the spring…when the meat tastes better.” I'm not opposed to hunting, but it's not Slow Birding. She was specifically talking about conservation issues related to Snow Goose population surges on their Arctic breeding grounds, but she doesn't suggest that "slow birders" try to avoid subsidizing European Starlings or House Sparrows at our feeders, even though that is equally urgent.

The writing is far from elegant. Several times Strassmann drops a subject temporarily with a clunky phrase like “as we shall see.” In the Dark-eyed Junco entry, she grabbed my interest with this:

I could talk about the finding that males copy songs from neighbors, but those songs are of less value in attracting mates than a male’s own invented songs. Or I could tell of the study of Elise Ferree, who found that females with more white in their tail feathers had more sons. 

But then she didn't "talk about" either.  

Strassmann is unsettlingly gossipy about researchers’ marriages and even about one committing suicide. And really, a reader does not need to know this about two people in her neighborhood:

that had the dream of grandparents down the block until he took an unfortunate medicine, went on oxygen, then ultimately both went to a retirement center, where he finally decided to go off the treatments and died.

I found the many tangents she went off on regarding people unseemly and off-putting.

Slow Birding wasn't a waste of time, but I so wish she’d titled it something closer to what she actually wrote about. The birding community already knows the term “Slow Birding” thanks to Bridget Butler, who shows us how to engage with birds in our own backyards in ways that can both enrich our lives and benefit the birds themselves, individually and collectively. I can’t wait for her to write a book.   

Bridget Butler



Monday, January 30, 2023

Dawn Comes to Peabody Street

Black-capped Chickadee

At this very moment, in the predawn twilight at 7:10 am on January 30, 2023, exactly 25 minutes before sunrise, the temperature is 13 below zero and the westerly wind is blowing steadily at 11 miles per hour. I’m looking out my home office window, watching a female cardinal down in my big platform feeder, a Dark-eyed Junco feeding on the ground beneath it, and a fluffed-out chickadee pecking at a sunflower seed from a boxelder branch. At 7:13, a male cardinal chases the female off the platform feeder. At 7:15, seven juncos are on the ground and in the lilac bush. One flies into the white spruce by my window.  

Dark-eyed Junco

When cardinals are in the neighborhood, they’re invariably the first species to show up, quickly followed by the juncos. I have no idea where any of them roost at night—they're suddenly just there in the feeder, lilac bush, and ground beneath. Chickadees roost alone in their own small cavities and fly in from different directions as they each awaken. 

These first birds of the day have triumphed over the long night, but survival for each is still tenuous until they’ve consumed enough calories to maintain their daytime body temperature. It's freaky to look at a chickadee and realize that just millimeters from that -13º F air temperature, its heart and the blood coursing through its tissues are a feverish 108º F. Chickadees “turn down the thermostat” at night, allowing their body temperature to drop down to the 70s or sometimes even lower. When they awaken, they shiver violently, metabolizing brown fat deposits to raise their body temp back to normal, but must quickly “stoke the furnace” with high-caloric food. When a bird succumbs to the cold, it’s usually right around the critical time after that long winter’s night when it most desperately needs food. We never see the chickadees who don’t have enough energy to raise their body temperature back to normal—they die inside their tiny roosting cavities.

By 7:20, still 15 minutes before sunrise, three more chickadees came in to grab a seed and flew off. Now a fourth is pecking at a seed while perched on the window feeder, protected from the wind. Chickadees don’t like eating near other birds, but this one has the feeder to itself. Nope—another chickadee just flew in and the first flies off too quickly for me to see whether it finished its seed, dropped it, or carried it off. I’m not worried—chickadees grasp a sunflower seed in their feet and peck a tiny hole in the shell, then take tiny bites out of the kernel even as they continue to enlarge the hole in the shell. This one had been working on the seed long enough to get most of the calories before it took off. 

Black-capped Chickadee

Most cavity roosting birds stay put later than birds sleeping on bare branches. The cavity can be several degrees warmer than the open air, warmed by the birds’ own bodies. On the coldest days, I seldom see nuthatches, woodpeckers, or starlings until several minutes after sunrise, which today is 7:35. The hungriest chickadees come earlier. 

At 7:45, ten minutes after sunrise, it still looks like twilight despite the clear sky. On these bitter cold mornings while Lake Superior is still open, the sun must rise not just above the horizon but above a thick cloud of steam over the lake before any sunbeams at all reach Peabody Street.  

Banded Pileated Woodpecker

Today the first cavity rooster other than those earliest chickadees is BB, my banded Pileated Woodpecker, at 7:48. I must see the band on his right leg to be sure he’s not a different male, but today he's holding his belly against his feet to keep them warm. He even lets go of the feeder with one foot to press his toes tightly against his tummy for a few seconds, then switches to the other foot. He's in the feeder for 5 minutes, and I get just one quick glimpse of his band. My home office window is frozen shut so I can't take photos. 

A starling appears at 7:53, and my male Red-bellied Woodpecker at 8:04, followed by a Blue Jay. A flock of starlings flies in from the east at 8:07, and a female Hairy Woodpecker at 8:08. All three wintering Blue Jays are here by 8:10, so I take room-temperature peanuts outside for them and my squirrels.

At 8:13, while I'm still downstairs, I notice a bit of red in the boxelder at the far end of my driveway. BB, atop a broken limb, faces the not-quite-risen sun, body feathers all fluffed out. At 8:20, fully 45 minutes after sunrise, the sun crests the steam cloud over the lake and casts the first beams of sunlight in my yard. At that very minute, BB flies off.

Now it’s 8:30, I’ve finished my coffee, and it’s time to head off to babysit my grandson. I’m a little sad to leave before I can see for sure that my female Red-bellied Woodpecker made it through the night. I wonder what time my nuthatches will arrive, and if one or both of my Mourning Doves will show up today. 

There aren't many birds for me to watch here this winter, but that just makes me pay closer attention to the ones I do see. 

Blue Jay/

Friday, January 27, 2023

What to do BEFORE improving backyard habitat: Windows

Black-and-white Warbler

One day in the early 1980s when I was out in the backyard with my preschool children, our young golden retriever Bunter brought me a dead Evening Grosbeak. As I reached down to take it, I said, “Oh, Bunter! What did you do?” She looked abashed, but as I took the bird from her, I realized she hadn’t hurt it at all—based on rigor mortis, it had been dead long before she picked it up, killed by our dining room window.

I’d been a birder for 6 years before we moved to Duluth in 1981, but until we got here I had no clue how lethal windows could be. Our dining room picture window was a horrible killer. Evening Grosbeaks and Purple Finches seemed to be the two birds killed most often, but warblers, sparrows, and once a Baltimore Oriole were also among the victims. I’d lose somewhere between 5 and 10 birds every year, a tragic waste, and finding a solution seemed hopeless.

Dead Canada and Blackburnian Warblers

As soon as I started producing “For the Birds” in 1986, I started hearing from listeners with the same problem, making me think more deeply about ways we could prevent collisions. I spent a lot of time researching the issue at the UMD library but didn’t find any tested solutions until 1990, in a paper by Daniel Klem, “Collisions between birds and windows: mortality and prevention” in the Journal of Field Ornithology, based on studies Klem and his students had made on campus at Muhlenberg College.

Laura and Dan Klem

Klem noted that when feeders were placed directly on windows or set within three feet of the window, birds occasionally hit the glass but weren’t flying fast enough for serious injury, but if the feeders were set any further away, birds hit at maximum velocity. So for Mother’s Day that year, Russ and my kids built a platform feeder directly on our dining room window frame. That marked the end of the problem at that window. Still, one or two birds died at a window somewhere on our house every year.

Evening Grosbeak family group
About a minute into this video, a young male flies right up to the glass to inspect it. 

Over time, I picked up more ideas from Klem’s work, and put a lot of helpful tips about ways to protect birds from window collisions in my 2006 book, 101 Ways to Help Birds

Those and more are listed on my website, lauraerickson.com. Click on “Ways to Help” at the top, and then go to #6: “Make your windows safer for birds.”

Suggestions include suspending window screening on the outside of dangerous windows; hanging “zen wind curtains” made from para-cord; creating vertical lines from tape, soap, or waterproof markers no more than 4 inches apart; coating the window with one-way transparent film; and setting taut bird screening 6 or so inches out from the glass so if birds do fly in, they’ll bounce off. Decals on the exterior window surface only work when you cover the window with them, spaced no further apart than a person’s outstretched hand. You can see photos showing most of these in real buildings on my website.

Bird Screening
Audubon's Rowe Sanctuary built this wonderful green welcome/education center overlooking the Platte River in Kearney, Nebraska, where cranes gather. At the building's grand opening, people were horrified by how many birds were crashing into the windows. Fortunately, one of those horrified visitors came up with a great solution, immediately got to work, and then started The Bird Screen Company.

Window collisions weren’t taken seriously by most scientists despite Daniel Klem’s painstaking research until the past decade, and most prominent bird conservation scientists actually pooh-poohed the significance of the problem. I wish someone like Martha Stewart or the producers of “This Old House” would come up with lovely exterior window coverings that could withstand weather. Why couldn’t we have blinds on tracks on the outside rather than the inside? Or sturdy shutters that open and close securely with an inside control, so it would be easy to keep them closed when we're not enjoying the view? Along the East Coast and Gulf, shutters would also reduce the amount of plywood people buy before hurricanes. And they’d reduce heat loss at night in winter here in the North and keep buildings cooler on sunny days in the South.

Windows kill roughly the same number of birds that cats do—about a BILLION every year in the United States alone. I’m going to be devoting several upcoming programs to the importance of creating bird habitat in our yards. Making our windows safe will help ensure that these birds are not being lured to our homes simply to die.

Pileated Woodpecker at my window feeder

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

What to do BEFORE improving backyard habitat: Cats

Kasey

In the coming weeks, I’m going to produce several “For the Birds” programs and blog posts about improving backyard habitat. But before anyone should set up bird feeders or add plants to attract birds, we must ensure that we’re not luring them to death traps. Two backyard bird killers each take out on the order of a billion birds in the United States every year—cats and windows. 

When Russ and I were first married in 1972, I came upon a homeless cat sitting in a tree—he wasn’t wearing clothes, and when I came to know him, I realized he did not like following rules, so I named him Yossarian. This was before I started birding, but I didn’t need to know much about birds to know that cats kill them, and that outdoor cats, being subsidized by humans, can survive quite handily even when prey populations shrink so that natural predators would have to move on or die out. So Yossarian spent the rest of his life as an indoor cat, as did 5 other outdoor cats we took in over our lives.  

Sasha

When we moved to Duluth, a few cats prowled my neighborhood. Our dog kept them out of our yard, but on several mornings during a warbler fallout in 1991, my son Tommy and I found scores of dead warblers littering a sidewalk on our walk to kindergarten. One day when I couldn’t take it anymore, I picked up all the dead birds and deposited them in a big pile on the cat’s owners’ porch with a note explaining that if I ever saw that cat outside again, I’d take it directly to the pound. 

Outdoor cats are the number one carrier of rabies among domestic animals. And every cat that feeds on, or even just toys with, rodents or birds can spread toxoplasmosis, which is exceptionally dangerous for pregnant women and their unborn babies, newborns, toddlers, and the elderly. Outdoor cats use flowerbeds and children’s sandboxes as litter boxes, putting gardeners and tiny children at risk.  

Feral cat

When Russ and I visited Jekyll Island in Georgia a few years ago, one feral cat on a railing along a narrow boardwalk to the beach reached out to scratch me—I was walking tightly against the other side to avoid it, and its claw snagged my shirt rather than skin. A small child whose face was at my arm level could have been hurt badly. Feral cats are dangerous.

For decades, people have been touting “trap, neuter, release” programs for feral cats, assuring us that this provides a check on feral cat numbers, but there is absolutely no evidence that this is true despite how many decades these programs have been in existence. Outdoor cats who do have homes also take a huge toll, even the ones whose owners insist that their cat is too lazy or old to hurt birds or that their cat focuses entirely on mice, not birds. 

Wherever excellent bird habitat exists, from small backyards to large swaths of public land, predators follow. A pair of Merlins nest somewhere in the neighborhood just about every year. Most winters, a hawk, Merlin, or shrike spends a few weeks hunting in my neck of the woods. And I live right under Hawk Ridge, a major raptor flyway. I’m always distressed when one of these predators takes out one of my little birds. Then again, I was pretty upset when a monarch I’d raised from a caterpillar was drying its newly opening wings and a chickadee took a triangular bite out of one. When we think at all about the caterpillars and other insects our treasured backyard birds take out, we don’t seem to extend much sympathy toward them.

Black-capped Chickadees nesting in yard

But predation is natural whether the victim is a grub or a bird. And natural predators simply cannot afford to eliminate all the prey where they live or they’ll eventually starve or move away. That is the difference between natural predators and outdoor cats—thanks to people feeding them, cats are subsidized killers who get by just fine even as they kill far too many local birds. 

To responsibly invite birds to our yards, we obviously must keep our own pet cats indoors, but we should also consider how safe our yard is from feral and stray cats in our neighborhoods. With so many strident, well-funded cat defenders organizing now, encouraging city councils to pass a cat leash ordinance is even harder today than it was when Duluth did it in 2000. Our own hard work can only be successful when we partner with individuals and groups concerned about birds, the environment, and human health and safety. That kind of endeavor is not for everyone, but at least make sure your own yard is as safe as possible before issuing invitations to birds to come visit. 

Feral cats in subsidized colony, Sacramento, CA

Sunday, January 22, 2023

Mourning Dove!

Mourning Dove

This week I heard from Kelli Alseth of Proctor, not too far from Duluth. She's delighted to be hosting a Mourning Dove at her feeding station. She’s been sprinkling sunflower chips on a flat railing and her porch floor specifically for it, and that's where the dove spends most of its feeding time. She sent photos her husband Jeffrey took.  

It’s very unusual for Mourning Doves to remain up here all winter—the vast majority head south. I’ve had them in my own yard only a couple of winters since we moved here 42 years ago. Duluth is north of the wintering range according to even the most up-to-date field guide, the 7th edition of the National Geographic, and the map on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds website. 

But Mourning Doves are functionally illiterate and never read that information when planning their travels. I saw one a couple of times at the very end of December, over a week after Duluth’s Christmas Bird Count. I would have loved to see one for the Count, but it wouldn't have meant much—13 were tallied by other people that day. As it turns out, Mourning Doves have been reported on 42 of the last 44 Duluth Christmas Bird Counts. Indeed, eBird’s map of Mourning Dove sightings from December through February extends well north of Duluth into Canada in the dead of winter.  

eBird map of Mourning Dove sightings, all years, between December and February

So individual Mourning Doves do stick around up here just about every year, but there are excellent reasons that the vast majority head south. Unlike songbirds and even hummingbirds, Mourning Doves are vulnerable to frostbite, with a rich blood supply to their thick, featherless toes. 

Mourning Dove
I photographed this young Mourning Dove in July 2017. The fleshy feet are even redder when the outdoor temperature is cold and blood flows to the extremities.

The way they protect themselves is to pig out a few times a day, stuffing not just their stomach but a large pouch in their esophagus called the crop, and then to roost in a secluded, sheltered spot for an hour or so, digesting their food as their warm tummy presses against their feet. 

Mourning Dove
The same young Mourning Dove is roosting comfortably. 

Thanks to their very short legs, very long tails, and habit of feeding on the ground and flat feeders, doves face another dangerous issue during sleet and ice storms: if their tail feathers get coated with ice, they sometimes become frozen stuck against the icy substrate. Over the years, I’ve heard from a few Wisconsin listeners about finding two or three Mourning Dove tails stuck to their platform feeders, or tailless doves visiting after such a storm. Tail feathers do grow back in, but with only marginal food availability in winter, this takes several weeks during which their compromised flight maneuverability makes them more vulnerable to predation. When we are lucky enough to host one or more Mourning Doves in winter or during harsh springs or falls, providing black-oil sunflower seeds and white millet in places where they can eat comfortably—on platform feeders or a sheltered spot on the ground beneath a thick conifer—is a mercy. Kelli Alseth appears to be a perfect dove hostess.

I usually don’t see Mourning Doves in my own yard until March or April, but I did see one on New Year’s Eve.

Mourning Dove

That made me hopeful that I’d add the species to my 2023 list on New Year’s Day. But no luck—I finally saw one on January 9 and two on January 12. They were a male and a female, which I could tell because one was noticeably larger than the other. Females are a duller brown with less iridescence, but I can’t see that without good light. 

When Mourning Doves do winter up here, they usually visit more than one feeding station so they have backups if one food source dries up. The one they visit at first light in the morning and then as twilight sets in is usually their favorite. On Saturday, January 21, one visited my feeders on and off all day, and spent quite a bit of time roosting in the white spruce next to my home office, but it was nowhere to be seen the next morning. 

Mourning Dove

Several people have feeders within a block of me, so I’m sure the two doves occasionally showing up here are more regular at at least one of those feeding stations than at mine. I’m very happy that Kelli Alseth’s visitor comes so reliably to her yard, and even more happy that her dove chose such a trustworthy person to count on. 

Friday, January 20, 2023

A Million Ways to Bird

Laura's new binoculars!

I got my first field guide and pair of binoculars on Christmas 1974 and was thrilled by the very idea of becoming a birdwatcher. The only birdwatchers I’d ever heard of were the fictional Miss Jane Hathaway from The Beverly Hillbillies and, oddly enough because she was also played by Nancy Kulp, the equally fictional Pamela Livingstone on The Bob Cummings Show

I didn’t have a clue how to be a bird watcher because it obviously involved finding and identifying wild birds beyond the only ones I already knew—pigeons, House Sparrows, cardinals, and robins. The field guide showed so many more, and according to the range maps, hundreds of them could be seen right where I grew up near Chicago and right where I was living right then, in East Lansing, Michigan.   

The field guide would help me if and when I saw a bird, but meanwhile, I had to figure out how to find more, so as soon as I finished reading it, I went to the library and found Joseph Hickey’s A Guide to Bird Watching, originally published in 1943. What a welcoming invitation! 

This is the Dover reprint I bought in Madison when I'd no longer be going to the MSU library.

Yep! Joe Hickey autographed my copy!!

The very first paragraph said bird watching:   

can be taken up at any age, by the active as well as by the convalescent…It is packed with drama because it centers on the annual miracle of creation. It is rich in movement, since birds are among the greatest travelers on our planet. It combines the visual and the auditory, for there are beautifully plumaged birds and equally stirring singers. Most of all, its essence lies in the unknown. Birds travel to the ends of the earth and back, we know not exactly how. Much of their everyday life is still unrecorded. Countless new channels of knowledge still await exploration by enterprising bird students.   

Hickey explained how to keep a life list, so the first time I went out to watch birds, I started mine. After traipsing around Baker Woodlot for over an hour, I came home with a life list of one—Black-capped Chickadee—and was bubbling with joy. That tiny bird had made eye contact with me! Imagine that. Every bird I added was a revelation, its place on my life list a treasured milestone.  

But I quickly learned that some people who were way more skilled at finding and identifying birds than I was didn’t keep a life list. One of my dearest friends, one of the best birders I know, who has traveled more extensively and seen more species than I have, never keeps lists at all.  

Paula and Laura in Port Wing

Some of us bird watchers take lots and lots of photos, sound recordings, or videos. Some record every single sighting in eBird or a field notebook. But a great many people who enjoy birds every bit as much as I do immerse themselves in the moments when they are birding, savoring each avian encounter without the desire or compulsion to memorialize it on paper or digital media. Some bird watchers simply pay a bit of attention to birds when out golfing or looking at wildflowers. It's all good.     

Hardly anyone reads Joseph Hickey’s book anymore—dozens of newer books provide more up-to-date information. Some emphasize travel and listing; others recommend savoring birds closer to home. Some birders get focused on a single approach while others bird in different ways on different days. I suspect a lot of avid birders never even read how-to books about it. The beauty of birding is that there is no right way. Hickey wrote in that inviting first chapter of A Guide to Bird Watching that birding is “anything you care to make it.” An American Birding Association slogan on their web page is “A million ways to bird.” However each of us chooses to enjoy birds, that is the right way.

Friday, January 13, 2023

Four Ways to Eat a Sunflower Seed

Mourning Dove

My little grandson Walter loves watching chickadees fly into his bird feeder, select one sunflower seed, and carry it off to eat in a tree. This week when he was at my house, we watched chickadees doing exactly that, coming and going from my big tray feeder even as the whole while, two Mourning Doves sat in the feeder eating seed after seed right there. He liked learning that some birds eat seeds in the feeder while some eat them somewhere else.  

Sunflower seeds are exactly the same no matter who is eating them. The shell is not digestible—it’s the seed within that has all the nutrition. Different kinds of birds have entirely different approaches to how they extract that nutrition.   

Mourning Doves at Feeder

Pigeons and doves swallow sunflower seeds whole, leaving it to their powerful, grit-filled gizzard to pulverize both the shell and inner seed before they reach the intestines, where the nourishing elements are extracted and enter the birds’ bloodstream and the rest get pooped out. Doves are big and tasty, and every moment they spend in the open eating seeds, they’re vulnerable to predators. So when they come down to eat, they pig out, filling not just their large stomach but also a large, expandable pouch in their esophagus called the crop. When fully stuffed, they fly to a safe place to roost—it’s there that they digest their meal.    

Mourning Dove

It’s easy to watch them swallowing the seeds whole, and if we’re lucky enough to spot a branch where they’re roosting, whether we realize it or not, we’re seeing them digest their latest meal. Pigeons and doves may visit our feeders any time of day, but they visit their favorite feeding station the two times of day when a big meal is most critical: at dusk, before they go to sleep—that bedtime meal keeps their metabolic furnace burning all night as they digest—and first thing in the morning, breakfast being the most important meal of the day for birds, when their stomachs are empty.   

Evening Grosbeak

With their large crop and relatively large body size, swallowing a large quantity of whole seeds isn’t a problem for pigeons and doves. Smaller seed-eating birds such as sparrows, finches, cardinals, and grosbeaks are just as vulnerable as doves out in the open, but being smaller, they can't afford to waste valuable space in their stomach and crop with indigestible seed shells, so they have special adaptations to extract the inner seeds quickly and efficiently. 

White-throated Sparrow

When one of these birds picks up a seed, its thick, muscular tongue instantly maneuvers it into a notch near the base of the thick, conical beak, which immediately cracks the seed open. In one quick movement, the muscular tongue pulls the inner seed into the mouth to swallow as the shell pieces drop to the ground and the bird grabs another seed. We can watch this firsthand with binoculars when a sparrow, finch, or grosbeak is eating at the feeder. Like doves and pigeons, sparrows, finches, and grosbeaks have a sturdy, well-developed gizzard to grind the inner seeds into a liquid before emptying the soupy meal into the intestines.   

At least 19 Blue Jays plus one on the squirrel baffle

Considering how many sunflower seeds my local Blue Jays consume, it’s funny for me to realize that they do not innately recognize sunflower seeds as food. They must watch other birds, especially other Blue Jays, opening and eating them to figure this out. During my rehab days, one baby Blue Jay I called Lugwig collected sunflower seeds as toys, keeping them in a little cup with his buttons, a shiny broken watch, and other tiny trinkets. One day when I was sure he was watching, I cracked open a sunflower seed with my teeth and gave him the white inner seed. He recognized that because he’d already been eating sunflower hearts, and this discovery that he could get a delicious morsel from cracking open those blackish toys delighted him.   

Lugwig the baby Blue Jay

This was before I had children. My son Joey found some Starburst candies in his trick-or-treat pumpkin on his first Halloween. Thanks to the colorful wrappers that made each piece look like a tiny birthday present, he started calling Starbursts “present candy,” instantly bringing back memories of Ludwig’s delight opening tiny sunflower “wrappers” for the delicious “present” within.   

Leucistic Blue Jay

Jays are generalists with an omnivorous diet, their bill not specialized to open sunflower seeds and their gizzard not developed to grind the shell away. So to open their “present candy,” they hold the seed in their feet and hammer it open with their bill. That takes time and effort. My trail cam once made a 30-second video of a Blue Jay laboriously opening a seed only for another to grab the inner seed right out of its mouth.   

Blue Jay cracking open seeds. Near end, another jay takes the kernel right out of its beak!

Jays passing through our neighborhood, or local jays who want a quick sit-down meal, eat like this in our feeders. But many times, a Blue Jay seems to swallow a dozen or more seeds whole and then flies away. This is a neighborhood jay who uses the feeder as a grocery store. Blue Jays pop as many seeds as they can fit into a pouch in their throat, and carry them off to hide in a cache where they will find them to eat another day.   

Blue Jay

Like jays, chickadees are generalists who hold each sunflower seed in their feet as they hammer the shell. But chickadees, with their much tinier bill, don’t have to take off the whole shell before eating the sunflower heart. They peck a small hole into the shell and pick out and swallow tiny bits of the heart even as they’re enlarging the hole to eat more of the seed. If anything scares a chickadee off when it’s not done eating a sunflower seed, it at least won’t fly away empty-tummied.   

Black-capped Chickadee

It's almost impossible to see chickadees eat at our feeders because unlike most seed eaters, chickadees don’t sit in the feeders to eat—they take turns grabbing and flying off with a single seed to hide for later or to eat in a more protected spot. As a rehabber, I had the great privilege to watch chickadees eating sunflower seeds just inches away. I no longer rehab birds, but I can still watch chickadees eating when one flits from the feeder to a branch near my window.   

Black-capped Chickadee

Ever since I started birding in 1975, I've been very focused on what they do, up close and personal. Their behaviors in and near our feeders are the easiest behaviors to observe closely. I'm so glad that now I get to share this all with my little grandson.

Black-capped Chickadee

Monday, January 9, 2023

Strangers in a Strange Land: Adapting to a Novel Environment

Sora

Last week, I saw a video making the rounds on social media in which an adorable 5-month old beaver, at a rehab center since it was rescued as a 2-month old, pushed and pulled stuffed animals and other toys, wadded paper, and a small Christmas tree into a colorful dam, rearranging elements as it added new ones. (Here is a link to a different video with a good explanation of how licensed rehabbers deal with baby beavers in a house, with the same adorable dam-building.)

Watching it brought me back to my own rehab days. I took care of a few baby squirrels and three orphaned baby raccoon siblings, but I had much more knowledge about and experience with birds. What the baby beaver video brought back specifically was how both baby and adult birds displayed some innate behaviors even as they adapted those natural behaviors to a very unnatural environment.   

Sora

I once treated a Sora with a broken leg. I taped the leg at the break and splinted it with a plastic drinking straw I'd slit lengthwise with a razor and cut to the right length. Then I made a sling from a handkerchief to suspend the poor thing for a few days so she wouldn't put any weight on the leg as it mended, and kept her in a quiet room, coming in to offer her food many times a day. When the leg seemed sturdy enough to walk on, I brought her to our living room for a few days longer to make sure she was healthy and healed enough to release. 

Soras are defenseless. While I was holding the poor thing, examining her body and then taping and splinting the leg, she never once tried to bite, and didn’t struggle hardly at all. Between her large, beseeching eyes and gentle demeanor, I fell in love with the little thing, instantly becoming more emotionally invested than was probably wise. My kids fell in love with her, too. 

Sora

Soras are small rails, in the same family with gallinules and coots, and live in marshes. They average 85 grams or about 3 ounces, just about exactly the average weight of a Blue Jay and about the same as the very heaviest robins, making them a perfect-sized meal for a lot of predators. But unlike jays and robins, Soras don’t fly fast and don’t fight back. Hiding is their only defense, so they mostly lurk in dense stands of cattails. They look plump, but their bodies are rather flattened laterally so they can move between stalks without rustling them to give away their location. If I'm very lucky when I’m standing on a platform or boardwalk over a marsh, I might pick one out below, walking leisurely along picking at food items. When one must pass through an opening, it usually scurries across until it reaches cover again.  Only rarely have I watched one in an opening for more than a few seconds. 

My living room was also the place I often kept my education nighthawk Fred, along with any nighthawks I was rehabbing—they’d snuggle against Fred, whose calm demeanor put the others at ease. 

Three Common Nighthawks

Most of the time, Fred faced the room from under the piano bench, but when the sun was shining through the south window, warming the carpet in the center of the room, he’d waddle over there, the others following. That meant I needed to keep newspapers spread in two distinct areas. When I released the Sora in the room, I figured I’d need to spread papers throughout the room, thinking the Sora would wander more randomly than the nighthawks did. 

But nope! I just needed to put papers down along the two walls where the windows were. Our living room is singularly devoid of cattails, and without dense vegetation, the little bird found the next best thing. Our draperies went down to the floor, and the Sora spent just about every minute of every day in the narrow space between a drapery panel and the wall. Our sofa and end tables blocked my access to the floor under the south window, but the east window was accessible, so I kept a shallow dish of mealworms and other food items behind one drapery panel and a dish of water behind the other. When the drapes were open, every now and then the bird would walk quickly through the opening between panels. Otherwise, we could go hours without seeing her. 

My living room was also the place neighborhood kids gathered to play with Legos. Most of them walked right in, everyone careful to look where they stepped, paying attention to where the nighthawks might be. The Sora was in the living room for only a few days, but the kids got a big kick out of watching her pass from one drapery panel to the other. The moment anyone noticed her coming out, they’d call out. She was used to me and didn’t scurry away when I brought more food or water, even inches from where she might be standing, and she didn't mind children nearby, either. Her adaptability in this unnatural setting made her recover much more quickly than if she were stressed out or panicky. 

Like that baby beaver constructing a dam out of stuffed animals when no appropriate building materials were available, this little Sora made the best of a bad situation to make herself feel at least a little at home while she healed. When I felt certain she was ready for release, my daughter Katie came along to the large marsh at Wisconsin Point. We walked to a nice stand of cattails, Katie carrying her. She gently set the little bird on the open ground right next to the cattails. The Sora blinked a bit, ruffled and shook her feathers out, and headed into the vegetation, not looking back. Within seconds, we could no longer see or hear her.  

Knowing she was in there somewhere made the entire marsh seem suddenly richer. I’ve never been able to drive along Wisconsin Point without thinking of this little bird, so adaptable when she needed to be even as she never lost sight of where she really belonged. 

Katie and Sora