Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Friday, March 15, 2019

Book Review: The Sun Is a Compass: A 4,000 Mile Journey into the Alaskan Wilds, by Caroline Van Hemert



Part I: Why I don't normally enjoy reading books about epic adventures. You can cut to the chase and go straight to the review by scrolling down to the the cover picture lower down.

I’ve often said that if I were to start a rock group, I’d probably be the only member, and I'd call myself the Pathological Moseyer. I’ve always been a plodding, lackadaisical sort of person, not the least bit inclined toward athletics or tests of physical prowess and endurance. Surprisingly, I was on a sports team once—as an undergrad, I was on Michigan State’s women’s fencing team. I loved fencing's precision and strategizing, and I could muster the necessary physical grace for foil fencing that I didn’t have for dance or anything else. I was skinny back then, providing a smaller target than most competitors, but my height was a handicap—being shorter than every woman on our college team and every woman I faced in competition meant I had to be quicker mentally to lure them close enough for me to touch before they realized they should have already touched me. 

The only photographic evidence of my short-lived fencing career
The only photographic evidence of my fencing days, though this was from high school. I'm not one of the fencers here. I'm the scorekeeper standing closest but with my back to the camera. 
That was before the Big Ten had women’s fencing, but the men’s coach found that horrifying, so he started up a women’s team on his own time and let us work out and practice with the guys. Because this wasn’t sanctioned or official, he didn’t require us to do the entire men’s workout routine, but we wanted to. I took pride in running five miles with them each day and keeping up with them on pushups, too. I could have done without the pushups, but I loved running, at least I did back before I was a birder. I tried a couple of times to get back into running after I started noticing bird songs, but the urge to stop and look at birds was far, far stronger in me than the urge to press on, so that was that.

Since becoming a birder, the most physically taxing thing I’ve ever done was to ride my Schwinn 3-speed bicycle 60 miles from home to my in-laws’ place in Port Wing, Wisconsin one June day. I love biking, but again, it didn’t work as well as I expected. The soft purring of the gears when I coasted interfered with hearing Le Conte’s Sparrows, Sedge Wrens, and several warblers, meaning I kept coming to a complete stop to hear birds whether I was going past pastures or woods along Highway 13. It took over 6 hours to make it the 60 miles. 

I’m a good if poky walker, but no one in my family likes to walk with me because I'm so slow. On family hikes, if the trail forms a loop, they invariably lap me, and even when they go around twice, they’re all done well before I get back from my first loop. I always see a lot more birds than they do, but even going faster, they notice plenty of things I miss. Their eyes and ears may not be as quickly receptive to the movements and sounds of birds, but unlike mine, their eyes and ears don’t filter out everything else

So except when leading a bird hike in Duluth or on a birding festival, or hiking on a birding tour, I usually hike by myself. The riskiest hike I ever did entirely alone was a 12-mile loop trail in Big Bend National Park in July 2013 to see a Colima Warbler. That hike took 10 1/2 hours, was entirely out of cell phone range, and was the only time in my entire life that I've come upon a mountain lion. When I had my heart attack two years later, a cardiologist told me about my congenital aneurism in a coronary artery and said that the heart attack could have happened at any time in my life, adding that if it had happened on this hike, "That would have been one happy mountain lion."

I have cross-country skis, but the shish-shish drives me crazy. I much prefer moving about on slow, quiet snowshoes. Even then, I’m a moseyer—If I’m snowshoeing with anyone else, I always bring up the rear.

Photon in the Wichita Mountains

Despite being poky and non-athletic, I do engage in some adventures that friends, including other birders, consider too risky, not even counting mountain lions. I’ve camped in a small tent or in my car, all alone or with a small, friendly dog, in lots of places over the years.

My campsite in the Wichita Mountains

During my Big Year, I camped alone at Lake Umbagog State Park in Maine, the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma, and Water Canyon Campground near Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico, as well as camping with my friend Eric Bowman at Yosemite that year.

On long road trips during my Big Year, I didn’t bring camping gear except my sleeping bag, an air mattress, and my pillow, depending on a supply of Fig Newtons when I didn't have a chance to shop for food, and I often slept in my car. People said they hoped that I at least kept the car locked all night and brought a gun, but no, I did the opposite. When I was a teenager, I was almost killed by a family member suffering from PTSD, and after talking him down with that gun pointed straight at me, there is no way I’ll ever own or travel with one, or allow one in my home. When camping, I always slept with my car windows open except when it rained—you can’t hear birds in a locked up car. The night I spent at Water Canyon I kept the hatchback of my Prius open all night. That’s where my head was, and all night long I dozed to the wonderful music of a Flammulated Owl.

Camping in my Prius in Water Canyon

Maybe because I’m not athletic and not particularly willing to take most kinds of physical risks, and am perfectly happy moseying through life, I’m not particularly drawn to fictional or true-life adventure tales. And I do very few book reviews on For the Birds—as much as I read and love books, I seldom go bonkers over them, and have never fallen in love with an adventure tale. So some people may find it strange that I’m devoting this entire week to a book about one adventure of the kind I'd never consider doing.


Part II: The Review.

Caroline Van Hemert’s The Sun Is a Compass: A 4,000 Mile Journey into the Alaskan Wilds is ever so much more than one woman's beautifully written account of a thrilling, dangerous, triumphant wilderness journey that she and her husband made in 2012, traveling from Bellingham, Washington, all the way up to the Arctic Ocean and across the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, just the two of them, with a few pre-planned drop-offs of food and supplies via the US Postal Service and Van Hemert’s parents.

The Prologue pulls us right into the story. She writes:
When we committed to this project—to travel from rainforest to ice-filled sea, from the edge of the continental United States to the edge of the earth—we decided it would be completely on our terms. No roads, no trails, and no motors. We would travel by foot, on skis, in rowboats, rafts, and canoes. We would use only our own muscles to carry us through some of the wildest places left on earth. This wasn’t a mandate borne purely of stubbornness, though Pat and I each possess a healthy dose of that trait, but because it would allow us to know the landscape as intimately as we knew each other. Just getting to remote places wasn’t the point. We could have hired a plane to drop us off at any number of locations that would qualify as the middle of nowhere. But we wanted something different. We wanted to hear the crunch of lichen beneath our feet, to smell the tundra after a rainstorm, to understand how it felt to walk in a caribou’s tracks or paddle alongside a beluga whale.
Photos Copyright 2019 by Caroline Van Hemert and Patrick Farrell
The details of their trip preparation and logistics were fascinating. I related to their decision not to bring a gun—they'd factored in the weight of a gun with all their other supplies and the low probability that they'd actually need it, and stuck with bear repellant. They did have frighteningly dangerous encounters with three species of bears, and may well have used a gun during one particularly scary encounter had they brought one. They got into several other dangerous scrapes involving capsizes in treacherous water and near starvation, but—SPOILER ALERT—they made it through the trip alive and well, as did the bears they encountered. About two thirds of the way through, I was so invested in these two young people and Van Hemert's riveting retelling of their adventure that I simply could not put the book down to go to sleep. I stayed up that entire night, finishing it just before dawn. I spent that day a little sleepy but very happy and satisfied.

Caroline Van Hemert is a prominent ornithologist doing important work—I knew her name from her seminal research on deformed bills in Alaska’s chickadees—and so her weaving in birds throughout, especially chickadees, was certain to please my sensibilities. She has spent a lot of time in the laboratory, and a lot of time writing scientific papers, but despite providing plenty of enlightening information, her conversational yet lyrical, elegant prose would make all her references to birds and other wildlife enjoyable for even the most determinedly non-birding reader. Her encounters with two baby Rough-legged Hawks and a family of Brant geese were especially moving and lovely.

Photos Copyright 2019 by Caroline Van Hemert and Patrick Farrell
Beyond the adventure, the wild splendor, stories about the wildlife, and the chickadees, woven throughout every page is a wonderful love story about two entirely different people—one a laboratory scientist and writer, the other a dyslexic artist and carpenter who has difficulty writing a postcard—who are so similar in essential ways that their fundamental differences combine in a genuine synergy that carries the two of them through their epic adventure.

Photos Copyright 2019 by Caroline Van Hemert and Patrick Farrell
The Sun Is a Compass is graced by beautiful line drawings at the start of every section done by Patrick Farrell, Van Hemert’s husband, who also took many of the photographs in the book.

Caroline Van Hemert was kind enough to give me a nice long phone interview yesterday. I’ll be excerpting from it all week on For the Birds, and making the whole conversation available on a bonus podcast as soon as I can. The Sun Is a Compass will be released on March 19.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

A New Glass Tower in Duluth

Boreal Owl
The Boreal Owl was one of the splendid birds that drew me to Duluth in the first place. Boreal Owls are frequently killed by windows when hunting in backyards. 
Last night, the Duluth Planning Commission heard public comments about the Environmental Assessment Worksheet that was completed regarding the glass tower that our biggest medical provider, Essentia, is planning to build downtown. A couple of people from Duluth's Dark Sky organization spoke about keeping the lights compatible with their mission, and I talked about the need for the glass to be fritted to protect birds by day and to have a very low light transmission to protect birds by night. What follows is the gist of what I said.

Notice that even the architects' conception of this project includes birds. 
When my husband Russ got his Ph.D. in 1980 and was fielding job offers, I lobbied very hard for him to take the one in Duluth, Minnesota, entirely because of Duluth’s amazing birds. A lot of other features have held us here for 38 years, not least our medical establishment. Russ and I have both had to deal with cancer and I had a heart attack, and so I can personally vouch for the excellent care we received, both during the immediate emergencies and the follow-up.

Now Essentia, the provider he and I have been using for decades, is going to be building a state-of-the-art facility, a glass tower that will stand far above the surrounding buildings. I’m hoping against hope that they will use glass that prevents birds from hitting the building both by day and by night. 

At least a billion birds a year are killed at windows in the United States, which is 5 to 10 percent of the total bird population of North America. As a city on a huge migration path, Duluth takes out more than our share. 

Many birds die outright in any collision with glass. We take hope when we find one still alive, and if it flies off, we enjoy a palpable sense of relief, but in truth, at least half of all birds that fly off after a collision die later, thanks to brain swelling and other injuries.

Vikings Poster

Etchings in what is called fritted glass help birds see it by day. That is what we desperately needed on the U.S. Bank Vikings Stadium, because the huge expanse of glass in that whole green area near the river makes the flood of birds feeding, resting, and moseying through the area in spring and fall vulnerable to collisions. I’ve personally found dead warblers in downtown Duluth that smacked into relatively low buildings, and people working at UMD, the airport, and Essentia as it is now have documented plenty of bird kills from collisions with glass at all those places. Fritted glass would have protected many of these birds.

American Redstart and Tennessee Warbler
I found these dead warblers below a fairly small window in downtown Duluth at sunrise in fall 2005.

But birds collide with glass at nighttime, too, and fritted glass doesn’t help them. What lures them in to collide with communications towers and tall buildings are lights. 

Most of our songbirds that pass through Duluth in spring and fall do their long-distance travel by night, when conditions are cooler and less windy, and when hawks aren’t about. As these songbirds take off after dark, they head straight for one bright light—which their instincts tell them is the moon—to know they have a clear path up above all obstructions. Once they reach altitude, they can use the stars, geomagnetism, and other guides to navigate, but if they get confused because of clouds or fog, they head straight for lights, which they instinctively know must be the moon or stars, which are impossible to collide with.

When I was rehabbing, I had to be careful at night during spring or fall if I entered a room with warblers—if I turned on a light, the little birds all instantly flew directly toward and into it. That gave me a pretty clear idea why so many birds are killed by colliding into windows and lights on high rises. These deaths are especially numerous when there are dense clouds, drizzle, or fog—weather conditions especially prevalent in Duluth during spring and fall migration. When birds lose sight of the moon and stars in these conditions, they go for the brightest light they can see.

Full Moon

Some glass has been developed to vastly reduce light transmission—this is now used in some coastal areas of Florida to keep baby sea turtles from heading the wrong direction when they hatch and must head toward the sparkling water. It would be great to use this low-transmission glass on the new tower. Having that darker glass fritted would protect birds 24-7.

Nature is such a part of our quality of life here in Duluth that many healthcare companies, from pharmaceuticals and insurance companies to Essentia itself, use nature in their advertising, as a palpable symbol of the quality-of-life issues their services and products help give us. Quality health care should not be incompatible with the survival of birds. Let’s hope Essentia selects glass for their new tower that will make this building state-of-the-art for healthcare and for the birds that help us to enjoy our healthy lives.

Katie and Orange-crowned Warbler

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Cathy Zimmerman's Bobwhite in Cornucopia, Wisconsin

Cathy Zimmerman's Bobbi the Bobwhite. Copyright 2019 by Cathy Zimmerman. All rights reserved.
On Saturday, I got a wonderful email from Cathy Zimmerman. She wrote: 
On October 8, 2018, two female Northern Bobwhites wandered around our home outside Cornucopia, Wisconsin. I posted a picture to the Chequamegon Bay Birders Facebook page, and was quickly informed that they were likely used for training dogs and had escaped. A little research revealed that their northernmost range is far southern Wisconsin.   
Almost three months later, one female became an almost daily presence at the house. Because of her captive rearing, she was fairly tame, and quickly came to identify me with food. The turkeys, red squirrels and blue jays were more aggressive getting to the sunflower seed and corn that I put out in the morning, so I started to keep an eye out for her and would give her some food of her own.   
I immediately grew very fond of her, and each morning that she had successfully survived this most bitter of winters, my spirit rose with joy. She would come to me so trustingly, and make the cutest little noises as she quickly ate. Of course I had to name her, and of course I named her Bobbi!   
The Lake Superior winds and heavier than average snowfall, and presence of coyotes and other predators caused me to worry about her survival. According to The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior, “Northern Bobwhites usually roost on the ground, often in a tight circle of 5-15 outward-facing birds. Roosting coveys may be essential for survival in this species, since lone bobwhites may not generate enough warmth to survive a cold night.” Well, my little lone Bobbi proved them wrong, and 300 miles north of her usual range, and I was quite proud of her!   
I knew even if she survived the winter, she would likely never meet another Northern Bobwhite, and even less likely a male to mate with. Yet I hoped that she would get to experience the relief of spring, when life wouldn’t be so difficult. I took many pictures of her, knowing that ultimately they would be pictures to remember her by.   
We had a routine, and when she didn’t appear on the morning of Tuesday March 5, I was worried. There had been other days I hadn’t seen her before work and I tried to be optimistic. At 5:45 PM I happened to look out the kitchen window and saw not a bobwhite, but a bobcat!   

Lurking bobcat. Copyright 2019 by Cathy Zimmerman. All rights reserved. 
I can only conclude that the bobcat ate my bobwhite, and I guess that’s not too bad a fate. And I will always have the sweet memories and photographs. It will almost be like looking through a family photo album—“ Here’s Bobbi with the Ruffed Grouse that decided to check things out.” “Here’s Bobbi with the rabbit who decided to help itself to her seeds.” “Here’s Bobbi with her most beautiful feathers that outdoes any supermodel’s costume.”   
Copyright 2019 by Cathy Zimmerman. All rights reserved.

Copyright 2019 by Cathy Zimmerman. All rights reserved.
Some will find this sort of bond with a bird silly, but I know you will understand. I would often go to work and try to tell people with excitement about the Northern Bobwhite that had adopted our home, and they would nod politely, some venturing to ask, “So that’s a bird?”   
Yes, she’s a bird, but also a friend, and I miss her. And she is why Northern Bobwhite is my Best Bird Ever.  

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Birds in the News

Greater Prairie-Chicken

My treasured friend Mick Fiocchi sent me a link to a story this week from the Wisconsin DNR, from their Snapshot Wisconsin newsletter, regarding 15 trail cams they set out, three each on five Greater Prairie-Chicken leks in central Wisconsin. Direct monitoring for prairie chickens involves a lot of human hours, because at each spot, the person must arrive while it’s still dark and remain until the displaying birds depart, often not until mid-morning. Arriving late or leaving early risks frightening the birds off their display grounds, disrupting them at their most vulnerable period of the year.

The cams picked up prairie chickens at all five sites, while humans detected the birds only at three sites. At the sites where they did detect them, the human observers saw more prairie chickens than the cams picked up, so human observers are still important, but the cameras provided photos not just during the morning displays but also in the evening, interestingly, taking more photos per hour during the evening than morning displays. Those Snapshot Wisconsin cameras also collected over 3,000 non-prairie chicken images including badger, coyote, deer, other birds, and more.   

Rather brazen black bear at my mother-in-law's

An article dated February 26 in the national Sierra Club magazine titled “Does a Bear Think in the Woods” focuses on studies of bear behavior and intelligence, centering primarily on Ben Kilham, who has studied bears in New Hampshire since 1996. His work is utterly fascinating, and author Brandon Keim mentions in passing about research into intelligence and communication in other species, including birds, noting that “ravens can plan for the future and demonstrate a degree of self-control comparable to great apes'” and “Japanese great tits, songbirds related to chickadees, use syntax—a linguistic property long thought unique to human language.” He also mentions that magpies can recognize themselves in a mirror. 

Keim writes, “This research highlights an intriguing possibility: Could it be that much of North America is populated by hundreds of thousands of exceptionally intelligent nonhuman beings?” I’ve been harping on “this intriguing possibility” since the earliest days of producing “For the Birds,” but 33 years later, it is still apparently more intriguing and cutting edge than clear and obvious for anyone to speculate out loud about animals being intelligent creatures capable of genuine communication. 

During Turner Classic Movies’ “31 Days of Oscars,” I watched the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I still find it hilarious that we can accept the idea that people could somehow forge communication with aliens based on musical tones—how could we be sure the aliens were ascribing the same meaning to  each tone that we did, when here in Minnesota, right this very moment, we can hear pure tones clearly meant as communication yet we still don’t have a clue know how to communicate with chickadees? Wouldn’t you think the scientists who think about finding and communicating with other forms of life “out there” would start by learning how to communicate with other forms of life right here on earth? 

One day, the anthropocentric people who dismiss animal communication and intelligence as being of an entirely different order than human communication and intelligence will be dismissed the way people who once believed the earth is flat and at the center of the universe are now dismissed.

Bald Eagle

Our final "Birds in the News" story took place on February 23, in the world of college baseball, when Jacksonville State University was playing against Jacksonville University. You can see a short video with charming color commentary online. In the top of the eighth inning, an Osprey flew over John Sessions Stadium carrying a fish. When a Bald Eagle divebombed it, the Osprey dropped the fish into the outfield. The eagle circled lower, apparently trying to retrieve the fish, but before it could reach it, one of the Jacksonville University players ran out, grabbed the fish, and carried it off, giving his team a double win. They beat Jacksonville State 5-2 and the Bald Eagle 1-0.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Abnormal Plumage, Part II: Leucistic Birds

Leucistic Black-capped Chickadee; photo Copyright 2019 by Gayle Friday
On February 26, I received an email from Gayle Friday, who lives in Lakewood Township. She sent me three photos of a very odd Black-capped Chickadee. This bird was extremely pale in all the body areas where it would have any melanin—the cap was a light brownish-gray rather than black, the back lighter gray, the wings and tale extremely light gray, and the sides a very soft yellowish buff. I thought about the possibility that it could be a leucistic Boreal Chickadee, but the bright white on the cheeks is too extensive, and too precisely matching that of a black-cap.

Leucistic Black-capped Chickadee; photo Copyright 2019 by Gayle Friday
Gayle wrote back with more details: 
He first appeared  on Feb 4 and what caught my eye was the white flash. He seems a bit larger than some of my other chickadees and they seem annoyed with him. His cap is lighter , kind of chestnut colored. He seems to like both suet and feeder but picks feeder over the suet. He is still coming daily. I live in Lakewood on 10 acres of mostly spruce pine aspen with some hardwoods. He is still visiting daily.  
Leucistic Black-capped Chickadee; photo Copyright 2019 by Gayle Friday
Any bird with lighter than normal plumage or unusual white areas on the body is called leucistic. This chickadee is the first one I’ve ever seen that was in what might be called dilute plumage—the definition of the word leucistic as I learned it in ornithology classes in the 1970s. I’ve seen several other leucistic chickadees over the years, but they were what I’d prefer to call partial albinos—parts of their bodies were normally colored while other parts were pure white.

"Leucistic" Black-capped Chickadee
I took this photo in Brimson, MN, some time in 2006.

"Leucistic" Black-capped Chickadee
I photographed this one in Esko, MN, on November 8, 2012.

The word albino is now used in ornithology only to refer to a bird that is genetically incapable of producing any pigments, so it would have pink eyes and pink or dull tan legs and beak. And now the term “partial albino” is also out of favor, but in my opinion it’s rather useful to have two different terms to distinguish between patchy white birds and overall pale birds.

As rare as leucistic birds are, and as exceptionally rare as this particular leucistic bird is, I don’t feel the inner urgency to see it as I would if it were a Brambling or Fieldfare. Birding is rather an acquisitive endeavor, and what we mostly list are new species.

Matt Mendenhall, BirdWatching magazine’s editor, wrote about the gynandromorph cardinal in Erie, Pennsylvania, under the headline, "Half-male, half-female cardinal is cool, but it's not drawing a crowd." Because gynandromorphism is a plumage condition even rarer than leucism, he wondered why a bird that had been so prominent in the media has been so ignored by birders, at least as far as going to Erie to see it. He writes:
I checked the Pennsylvania and Ohio birding listervs and did not find a single notice from members about this bird. No one posted directions to the yard, or additional photos, or tips for when to go.   
If the Caldwells were hosting a Calliope Hummingbird, Black-headed Grosbeak, or some other vagrant from thousands of miles away, you can bet they would be enjoying the company of many, many strangers toting thousands of dollars worth of optics. They would all, with good reason, be trying to add the wayward bird to their life lists — and a large percentage would be shooting photo after photo of the visitor.  
But no birder would travel to Erie or anywhere else to add Cardinalis cardinalis to their life list. Nor do I know anyone who keeps a list of gynandromorphs they’ve seen.   
I actually do keep a list of the gynandromorphs I’ve seen, or I would except that I’ve only ever seen the one back in 1986. I’ll be trying to head to Gayle’s sometime this week to photograph her bird, to add images of it to my small collection leucistic chickadee photos. I hope her little bird makes it through this long, hard winter and many, many days to come.

"Leucistic" Black-capped Chickadee

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Abnormal Plumage, Part I: Bilateral Gynandromorphs

Bilateral Gynandromorph in the Bell Museum collection, between a normal male and female.  
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away—well, my own backyard in 1986—I spied an oddity among the scores of Evening Grosbeaks at my feeder. I almost rubbed my binoculars in disbelief when I realized I was looking at a bilateral gynandromorph—a bird that was half male and half female. The left side appeared to be in perfect female plumage, the right almost perfectly male, though the tail was pale and the forehead wasn't quite as black as on other males. I studied it for five minutes, but then the flock flew off in a flurry of wings and I lost it. The male wing was probably longer than the female wing, but I didn’t notice how it flew in the bustle, and I never saw it again.  

I knew about bilateral gynandromorphism because there's a gynandromorph Evening Grosbeak at the Bell Museum in Minneapolis, and Bud Tordoff wrote about it in the journal of the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union, The Loon, in the Spring 1983 issue of Volume 54. The only way it’s possible to recognize a gynandromorph bird is when it belongs to a species with a strong difference between male and female plumage. It’s rare to spot one, and they’re usually hard to keep track of or photograph before they disappear. 

But this winter a gynandromorph cardinal turned up in Shirley Caldwell’s backyard in Erie, Pennsylvania. The bird is amazingly cool-looking, so of course photos of it went viral, and stories about it appeared in the New York Times, Forbes, and more. 

Shirley Caldwell's photo of a bilateral gynandromorph Northern Cardinal. 
Most of the news stories focused on the unique elements of bird physiology and morphology that allow such a thing to happen. The secondary sex features of us humans are influenced much more heavily by hormones than by genetics; in birds, it’s the opposite. Plumage characteristics and wing-length on the female side are completely different from those on the male side, not because of the hormones produced by the bird, which after all flow in the bloodstream throughout the body, but because of how male and female cells respond differently to those hormones in birds. 

A 2010 study investigating three bilateral gynandromorph chickens, "Somatic sex identity is cell autonomous in the chicken," by D. Zhao & D. McBride, published in Nature, established that gynandropmorph birds are not the result of something affecting the chromosomes early in development, but rather, that these birds are genuine male:female chimeras—that is, single animals produced by the merger of two different fertilized ova. In birds, usually if two ova are fertilized at the same time, the result is fraternal twins developing in a double-yolked egg; they usually die before hatching. Chimeras are entirely different. 

Gynandromorph chicken from paper in Nature
It’s easier to do scientific research on chickens than on wild birds, which are protected by law and hard to track in the field. Most birds, including chickens, have only one functional ovary, on the left side. In the chicken study, of two gynandromorphs that appeared male on the left half, one had an ovary on that male side, but couldn’t produce eggs. The bird that appeared female on the left side had an ovary on the left side and a testis on the right. 

A gynandromorph cardinal was discovered in Illinois several years ago—in that individual, the “female” side was the right side. Intriguingly, although that bird was tracked for 40 days, it was never heard vocalizing at all, and it kept to itself away from other cardinals. This year’s Erie cardinal is female on the left side, so it may have a functional ovary. And this one seems to have paired with a male—the two are fairly inseparable, and vocalize back and forth as normal mated cardinals do.

Shirley Caldwell was interviewed for the Forbes article. She's been taking photos and making videos of this bird, and is documenting the behaviors and vocalizations. With luck, she’ll be able to track the birds into the nesting season and find out if the pair mates and produces eggs and ultimately viable young. Field studies are far trickier to do than studies of captive birds, but I’m hoping this star-crossed, or genetically-crossed, bird has a long and happy life.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Laura's Best Bird EVER: House Sparrow Lullabies

House Sparrow at Bar Harbor

The first birds I was ever aware of were little sparrows who gathered in bushes all around our two-flat apartment building in Chicago. I’d watch them hopping about in the weedy lawn when I was riding my tricycle on the sidewalk, and I could see and hear them from our living room or my bedroom. The cheeps came loud and clear when our windows were open, but even in winter, if I listened very hard, the comforting sound seeped through the closed windows into my hungry ears.

House Sparrows were the quintessential city birds—I noticed them at my Grandpa’s house and various picnic grounds in Chicago forest preserves as well as at home. And they were there when we moved to a blue-collar suburb, right there beneath my bedroom window yet again. I could hear them through the open windows of St. John Vianney Catholic Elementary School, and sometimes even when I was at Mass. When the first McDonalds restaurant opened in our town during the late 50s, it was my little sparrows who hopped up and looked at me with a very Oliver Twistian, “Please, Laura, I want some more” look, which I of course obliged with French fries.

Central Park Zoo House Sparrow

House Sparrow cheepings formed a warm and comforting, ever-present background in the soundtrack of my earliest memories. I grew up in a home of strife and violence, and when my parents were on the rampage, if I hid behind our juniper bushes or retreated to my bedroom, I could close my eyes and focus on my sparrows’ friendly chattering. I’d imagine that they were telling one another about their day’s adventures, giving warm encouragement and loving advice, or simply gathering around what passed for a happy kitchen table in their world, telling stories and jokes. I especially liked imagining that they included me as part of their circle of family and friends. This was long before the TV show The Waltons, but I’d settle into bed each night hungrily listening to their soft good-nights to one another, and maybe even to me. After I said my prayers, I’d always whisper good-night to my sparrows. I knew that not even God forgot about them.

House Sparrow

On my first day of school in first grade, an assistant pastor came to our class and asked if anyone could say their ABCs. I waved my hand in a most Hermione Granger sort of way, and he called on me. When I finished, he smiled warmly and handed me what we Catholic children called a “holy card.” It depicted the hand of God cradling a tiny baby bird—what I assumed must be a sparrow. Now I looked at that card when I said my prayers at bedtime, listening to the music of cheeping sparrows in the background. These tiny birds seemed to be carrying my prayers directly to heaven. 

(Not the same card. I can't find a photo of it anywhere.)
I knew my sparrows were properly called House Sparrows from as far back as I can remember. My parents and Grandpa must have been calling them “sparrows” from the start, and when my Grandpa gave me the “Little Golden Activity Book” Bird Stamps when I was five, a male was clearly pictured and labeled as a House Sparrow.

House Sparrow in Little Golden Activity Book: Bird Stamps

It wasn’t until I took ornithology in 1975 that I learned how damaging they’ve been to bluebirds and other cavity-nesting birds as an invasive species in North America. I can appreciate that and feel sad that this Pandora’s box was ever opened during the 1800s when sparrows were brought here by homesick Europeans, even as I can’t see a House Sparrow in any urban area or theme park without smiling at these Artful Dodgers who bring back some of my loveliest memories of childhood.

House Sparrow

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Kitty (circa 1997 — 2019)

Kitty
We got Kitty in the summer of 1998. When she was spayed, the vet said she'd already had kittens at least once, and was somewhere between one and three years old. My son Joey took this photo, and developed and printed it, in a high school photography class in 1999 or so. She was a good 'un. 

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

—Dylan Thomas

From The Poems of Dylan Thomas, published by New Directions. Copyright © 1952, 1953 Dylan Thomas. Copyright © 1937, 1945, 1955, 1962, 1966, 1967 the Trustees for the Copyrights of Dylan Thomas. Copyright © 1938, 1939, 1943, 1946, 1971 New Directions Publishing Corp. Used with permission.

Chickadee Day!

Black-capped Chickadee

I’m writing this on March 2, 2019, 44 years to the day after I set out on my very first birding adventure and saw the #1 bird on my lifelist, a Black-capped Chickadee. I celebrate every March 2 as Chickadee Day. My Minimum Daily Requirement of birds always includes at least one chickadee, but somehow, seeing a chickadee on Chickadee Day seems even more urgent. 

Black-capped Chickadee

So I started out the day at my home office window, where I whistled a chickadee song. Within seconds, in flew a chickadee, then two more, then another half dozen. I cranked open the window and held out a handful of live mealworms; one by one in they flew. A few are shyer than the rest, so after the brave ones flitted off with their first course of breakfast, I put the rest of the mealworms in a window feeder.

Black-capped Chickadee

This being Chickadee Day, before I closed the window, I took a bunch of photos, but only for a minute. My windows are the crank-open type, and I didn’t want to risk collisions—injuring or killing a chickadee on Chickadee Day would be even more unforgivable and ironic than on any other day.  In the 38 years we’ve lived in our house, we’ve not yet had a chickadee window collision that we’re aware of, and we’ve been pretty vigilant. Any window-kill is a tragedy, but because I get so much inspiration and joy from them, seeing a dead chickadee is even more gut wrenching for me than seeing any other innocent dead bird. 

Chickadees aren’t very colorful to human eyes—a realistic painting would require a palette of just black, white, gray, and buffy brown. To their own eyes, chickadees are much more colorful, but we mere humans can’t see in the ultraviolet range.

I gave a talk about chickadees at the TEDx-Bemidji event in October. During break, Maureen O'Brien led a chickadee-painting workshop. I went in to observe, and somehow found myself trying my own hand at it. Chickadees are so simply patterned that you’d think they’d be an easy subject, but the most important element of any bird photo or painting is the eye, and getting an almost perfectly black eye to stand out against the almost perfectly black cap is hard to do even for someone with experience. This was the first time in my adult life that I held a paintbrush. My effort was very primitive, but I'm hanging onto it anyway. 

Laura's first painting ever: Black-capped Chickadee 

I took my first chickadee photographs in 2002.

My first decent Black-capped Chickadee photo, from 2002

One of my earliest, a perfect profile, turned out well, but I keep taking more. I now have 12,931 Black-capped Chickadee photos and videos catalogued in Lightroom, and 665 in my online Flickr photostream, yet I’m still capturing new things. Just last month, I got a close-up of a chickadee eating a sunflower seed, showing exactly how they do it.

Black-capped Chickadee


Chickadees don’t crack open the shell and then pull out the heart. Rather, they peck a tiny hole in the shell, bite off and eat a tiny bit of the heart, and take another bite of the heart or another peck at the shell, little by little chipping away half the shell as little by little they eat the heart. If they get scared off, dropping the seed, they’ve still taken in some calories. I’ve seen this close up when I was rehabbing, but wasn’t taking pictures yet, so I was thrilled to finally get a photo of this.

Yes, 44 years after seeing my first chickadee, and paying an awful lot of attention to them throughout every one of those years, I’m still learning and observing new things and finding ever more reasons to hold them dear, and ever more reasons to provide nourishing, tasty food to my backyard chickadees and to try my hardest these interesting and endearing little beings.

Black-capped Chickadee


Thursday, February 28, 2019

Laura's Best Bird Ever! Chicago Loop Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl

In 1975, my first year of birding, I spent every free moment watching birds outside or studying them inside. When Russ and I headed home to Chicago from Michigan State for Christmas break, my lifelist was over 100 and I was hungry for more, so Russ and I went birding three times in the week we were in that toddlin' town. But the very best bird of that trip—one of the best birds of the entire year—wasn’t seen on any birding jaunt—it wasn’t even seen through binoculars.

On December 18th, we went to the Loop for some last minute Christmas shopping. We finished up with time to spare, and so visited a couple of museums along Lake Shore Drive. Because this was not a birding trip, I’d of course left my heavy 7x50 binoculars at home. 

Suddenly, as we walked along on the bustling sidewalk, what to my wondering eyes should appear but an enormous, mostly white bird flying toward us just a few feet over the mass of pedestrians, staying directly above the sidewalk. Its thick, rounded wings flapped slowly. Its huge yellow eyes, facing forward within its huge round white face made it unmistakably an owl. This was the first owl I’d ever seen, and it wasn’t just any owl. This was a Snowy Owl!

I spotted it when it was perhaps a hundred feet away still, but even though it seemed to be flying at a leisurely pace, it was moving in fast. My heart raced, oxygenated blood rushing to overloaded brain circuits as I tried to process and memorize every detail. When it was a mere 10 feet away or even closer, its eyes suddenly looked straight into mine; it held eye contact until it started passing over my head. I’d stopped dead in my tracks, too dumbfounded to even gasp, and Russ didn’t notice at first—he made it back to me, now facing the opposite direction to watch the bird retreat. Russ arrived barely in time to get a quick glimpse.

That encounter was a significant step in my growing competence as a birder—this was the first lifer I’d ever seen without binoculars, and I could appreciate that as it flew in, it was too close for my binoculars to focus on anyway. I was knowledgeable enough to realize that Snowy Owls do appear here and there along the Lake Michigan waterfront in winter and are often active in daytime, so spotting it wasn’t exceptional in any larger ornithological context than as an addition to my life list. But what an addition!

Birding is ever so much more than ornithology and lists, and this bird was ever so much more than a generic Snowy Owl. Something magic happens when our eyes meet anyone else’s—a spark of recognition of individuality, a momentary but real connection between two beings who are simply in the same place at the same time, but then unexpectedly and inexplicably join together in a single shared moment. This was certainly no Vulcan mind-meld, nor even what could be called a meeting of minds. Just a momentary connection, as sudden and electric as a synapse, lasting less than a second and ending the instant the owl broke eye contact. I kept following his retreating form with longing, tracking him as he grew smaller and smaller in the distance, moving on toward the rest of his life.