Saturday, October 18, 2014

Little Katherine, the Big City Squirrel

Little Katherine, photo by Michael Geraci
My daughter Katherine, who I still call Katie, lives in Brooklyn with her partner Michael and their sweet dog Muxy. When Katie was walking Muxy one Sunday night a few weeks ago, she came upon a tiny squirrel in big trouble. The not-quite-weaned little thing was on the ground, not far from some rat poison, and blood was coming from its mouth and nose. Katie and I both suspected that it had eaten some of the poison, and knew time was of the essence in getting it help.

When I was a wildlife rehabber, I never had to deal with victims of rat poison, and wasn’t sure what to tell Katie to do if she couldn’t get help that night. Here in Duluth, we now have a really good local rehab center, Wildwoods Rehabilitation Center, but I didn’t know much about what was available in the Big Apple. Katie had already had an interaction with the Wild Bird Fund, not far from Central Park, but this was a Sunday night, when the rehab center was closed and no one would be answering phones.

But she knew that someone would be on site providing routine care and evening feedings until 8 pm, and because she and Michael are both kind and optimistic people, they decided to bring it there and ask what they should do. It was already after 7 pm, and since no one would be there after 8, public transportation was out of the question. So they took the squirrel for a taxi ride.

If New York City is thought to be cold and impersonal, New York City cabbies have an even scarier reputation. Katie and Michael had the squirrel fairly well concealed, but at some point, the cabbie realized they were transporting wildlife. When they explained, he could have kicked them out or at least scolded them. Instead, he turned his meter off. It’s ever so easy to become jaded about the human race, but individual human beings can be far, far kinder than a cynic might expect.

Anyway, it turned out that that rehab center was mostly focused on birds, but the person on duty told them that the Urban Wildlife Alliance (a.k.a. Woodland Kingdom), a short walk away, actually specialized on squirrels, so they rushed right over. The woman who is treating her, Arina, verified that the squirrel was a female, and started calling her “Little Katherine.” She said that rat poison was not the issue at all—the baby was still too small to be picking up solid food, and was very emaciated. Something had apparently happened to her mother, and she must have gone searching for her and fell hard out of a tree. They received a message from Arina the following morning:

Dear Katherine and Michael,

I have good news regarding little Katherine. While I was a little worried last night she is now doing much better and developed quite an appetite. She still has some trouble drinking but with the medication the swelling in her mouth is going down and she is feeling much better. She has two friends so far, both new arrivals.

Arina followed up several days later with this:

Little Katherine is doing fantastic. She is growing and gaining weight each day. She loves her new siblings, especially her best friend Florence.

Though Katherine and her group belong to the youngest, I'm planning on letting them overwinter in "winter-camp" in the Berkshires. We work together with a bird sanctuary that has big outside enclosures that are empty during the winter. We can use them for the young squirrels who this way have several months to grow big and strong instead of fending for themselves through their first harsh winter. They do very well up there and then go free in spring. The doors will be left open and there will still be food inside so the squirrels can come and go, explore the woods and find their own territories in their own pace. A perfect scenario.

I’ve had a few more squirrels than I should in my own yard, pigging out at our feeders. But there’s something impossibly endearing about them, especially baby squirrels, and something lovely about living on a planet where people do what we can to alleviate the suffering of even lowly little rodents.

Bird Stamps: A Little Golden Activity Book

Little Golden Activity Book: Bird Stamps

When I was four years old, my Grandpa gave me my very first book: Bird Stamps: A Little Golden Activity Book, originally published in 1949. Being rather precocious, I’d already memorized the entire entry about birds in our family encyclopedia, but that encyclopedia was in black and white. So was my new stamp book, but it came with 18 big, full-color stamps to stick on the pages. I pored over the entries, reading the simple descriptions of each species and imagining a world where a person might actually see a Bluebird, a Baltimore Oriole, a Hummingbird, a Red-Wing, a Red-Headed Woodpecker, or a Horned Owl in real life. (I'm using the spellings used in the book here.)

Red-headed Woodpecker

Bird Stamps included the only three species I knew personally from my own neighborhood: the Robin, Cardinal, and House Sparrow. The other 15 were nowhere to be seen in Northlake, the blue-collar suburb of Chicago where I lived, at least as far as I could tell. So for the most part, this was a book of tantalizing mysteries. When my family went to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, when I was 5, I saw a Blue Jay, which I recognized from the book, and I was thrilled. I wondered if there were 14 other places where I could go to see the remaining ones.

Blue Jay page (Little Golden Activity Book: Bird Stamps)

I left my Bird Stamp book on the swing set when I went in for my nap one day, and it rained that afternoon. We weren’t the kind of family who knew how to deal with this sort of damage, when the book was still at least somewhat salvageable, so although I could picture some of those 18 birds in my mind’s eye, my precious book was gone forever. Fifteen or so years later when I started birding, I couldn’t remember all the birds in the book, so didn’t know exactly when I finally saw all 18 species pictured in the book, but thanks to the miracle of the Internet and eBay, now I do.

During my first spring of birding, spent in Lansing, Michigan and home in Chicago, I saw 10 of the 18 species: the Robin, Baltimore Oriole, Cardinal, House Sparrow, Blue Jay, Red-Wing, Red-Headed Woodpecker, Starling, Ring-Necked Pheasant, and Mallard. When summer rolled around, I took a field ornithology class in southern Michigan and added six more: the Meadowlark, Bobolink, Barn Swallow, Belted Kingfisher, Ruby-Throated Hummingbird, and Bluebird. The sheer richness of those first months of discovery, seeing 78 species for my lifelist between March 2 and the end of June, kept me in an almost constant state of euphoria. 

By year’s end, I’d seen 17 of the Bird Stamp species (adding Herring Gull in northern Wisconsin that fall), and on January 15, I added the last one, the Horned Owl. Appropriately, that was in Baker Woodlot on the Michigan State campus, the same place where I’d added my first bird, the Black-capped Chickadee (a species not in Bird Stamps), just 10 months earlier.

Great Horned Owl

In today’s digital world, children have access to a far richer wealth of full color and video images of just about anything in the world than I could have imagined in the 1950s. That rich source of information is a wonderful treasure, but I often worry about how drab real life might seem in comparison. My father-in-law used to tease me that he could see birds way closer up, doing more interesting things, by sitting in his living room watching Marty Stauffer, than I could by going out birding. He didn’t really believe that, but I wonder how many children would rather look at Internet videos of pandas and polar bears, usually produced in zoos, than of real-life meadowlarks and bobolinks made in the wild? So much of the artwork of today adds a fake layer of cuteness and drama to real-life images of birds, setting up weirdly false expectations about nature. And even as the virtual world expands, the real world grows increasingly diminished: today some of the species in my golden book are far rarer than they were when I was a child.


Baltimore Oriole Population Trend, 1966–2013 (Breeding Bird Survey data)

Barn Swallow Population Trend, 1966–2013 (Breeding Bird Survey data)

Bobolink Population Trend, 1966–2013 (Breeding Bird Survey data) 

Red-headed Woodpecker Population Trend, 1966–2013 (Breeding Bird Survey data)

Eastern Meadowlark Population Trend, 1966–2013 (Breeding Bird Survey data)


Nostalgia about my childhood makes the reality of the 1950s rather rose-tinted. On windy days, the sky was dotted with puffy blobs of soapsuds churned up where our polluted creek gushed through a dam. The DDT truck ran through our neighborhood on summer nights. I did actually see a Baltimore Oriole once in my yard, but it was dead, the morning after one of those sprayings. This was hardly an idyllic world to reminisce about, and there is so much about today’s world worth celebrating. But I wish that everyone could experience at least one season filled with the joy of discovery that I had in 1975, when I saw so many of my first birds through eyes filled with a child’s elation and wonder. The more we appreciate this world’s real life treasures, the more likely it is that we’ll protect them so young people of the future will also be able to thrill at a glorious season of discovery.

Baltimore Oriole

Keep the Minneapolis Star Tribune in Perspective


The Minneapolis Star Tribune just published an editorial about the proposed Vikings Stadium titled “Keep Bird Deaths in Perspective.” They write, “Altogether, fewer than 3 percent of the U.S. bird population dies each year from collisions with buildings,” as if 3 percent is insignificant.  To put that in perspective, the two largest killers of the U.S. human population are heart disease and all forms of cancer, which, combined, kill less than 0.4 percent of us each year. That means that collisions with windows kill almost 10 times more of the bird population each year than our two biggest killers, combined, kill us. Insignificant?

Of course, some species of birds have much higher rates of reproduction than we humans do, and other confounding factors complicate the picture, but most human mortality is concentrated on the oldest and weakest among us. Collisions with windows are entirely random, taking out huge numbers of healthy young birds and adults in their prime as well as more fragile individuals. 

That still doesn't say exactly how the Vikings Stadium, with its almost 200,000 square feet of clear, bird-killing glass, would affect bird populations. It’s impossible to say, just as it’s impossible to say how many children would really die from lung cancer or heart disease if we were to lower the age for buying cigarettes to 6. In either case, people with any conscience know it’s worth something to prevent that needless potential mortality.

The Star Tribune cites University of Minnesota ornithologist Robert Zink saying “People keeping their cats indoors would have a far greater impact on bird survival than whatever happens with the stadium.” Zink, the secondary author of a discredited paper about bird mortality at windows,* does have one thing right. Collisions with windows and predation by cats are indeed the two largest human-caused direct killers of wild birds, taking out, together, at least 6 percent of all American birds each year. Both causes of death are unacceptable and should be prevented whenever and wherever possible.

The Star Tribune says, 
Pesticides kill 72 million birds directly and many more over time. Power lines, communication towers, motor vehicles, wind turbines and bi-catch fishing operations take a big toll. Tree-cutting, swamp-draining and other habitat destruction is thought to be the biggest killer. Slaughterhouses kill 25 million chickens and turkeys. Cats, both domestic and feral, kill several times that many birds, more than a billion per year, by some estimates.
I'm not exactly sure who on the Star Tribune staff thinks the deaths of farm poultry are relevant here (and that number is wildly inaccurate, to boot!), but we already know that too many things kill wild birds. This year's State of the Birds reports on some very bleak outlooks. The Star Tribune editors and Robert Zink would apparently have us shrug and say, “Oh, well, what can we do?” I say the first thing we do is prevent the construction of brand new killers as we figure out how to reduce the death toll from the already existing ones.

As a Minnesota taxpayer, I don’t like that any of my tax dollars are paying for a football stadium I will never ever use. But these decisions are made for the totality of Minnesotans, including some of my family members and friends who love the Vikings. Lots of factors went into the decision for public financing to cover half the cost of the stadium. I can accept that. But I sorely resent my tax dollars being used to pay for bird-killing glass that will not help the Minnesota Vikings in any way. Going forward with this misguided project will do nothing for football, but will simply prop up one architectural firm’s concept of aesthetics. We do not have to make a choice between birds and football. We can have an aesthetic stadium without bird-killing glass—if one architectural firm is too lacking in creative skills to build it, the solution is the same as it would be in dealing with an incompetent football player: terminate the contract and find a better one.

But speaking of contracts, 22 current Vikings players are each, individually, guaranteed to earn more than the one million dollars that changing the glass would cost. Christian Ponder, ranked at just #15 on the list of highest contract values, is guaranteed to be paid more than 10 times what changing the glass would cost. Adrian Peterson is guaranteed to make 36 times more and, if he serves his entire contract, 86 times as much as changing the glass. But it's not like switching to safer glass would come out of the players' pockets anyway: the budget for the stadium includes millions for cost overruns--money that would easily cover changing the glass. So yes, let's put this in perspective.

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune says, “A wall of glass with huge pivot doors opening to a plaza and affording a clear skyline view, would add to the feeling of being outdoors.” Do they honestly believe that the feeling of being outdoors during an indoor football game is worth more than killing the very creatures that make being in the real outdoors so wonderful? If that feeling of being outside is so important, why not just build an old fashioned outdoor stadium? Oh, yeah--because football fans and players don't like the feeling of really being outdoors in Minnesota during football season. Building this stadium will kill birds year-round to give football fans, for less than forty hours a year, an utterly false "feeling of being outdoors." Where exactly is the perspective here?

The editors end with “When controversial buildings are involved, bird collisions make for high drama. But they don’t amount to much in the larger scheme of things.” Just how much does the Star Tribune think “the feeling of being outdoors” during eight home games a year amounts to in the larger scheme of things?

* Here are some sources refuting Zink's paper. If you know of even one peer-reviewed paper supporting his conclusions, please send me the citation! Otherwise I stand by my statement that his paper has been discredited.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Audubon Chapter of Minneapolis on the Vikings Stadium Glass

Vikings Poster

Jerry Bahls, the president of the Audubon Chapter of Minneapolis, is trying to get the word out about four myths about the Vikings Stadium glass issue. He writes:

1) “The fritted glass will be less than perfectly transparent and provide ‘murky’ light and ruin the design.” (This is repeatedly stated as the reason they cannot use bird-safe glass.)

Many buildings use fritted glass, including the Dallas Cowboys new AT&T stadium, and there have been no problems about the visibility. The Javits Center in NYC is an especially good example because of its transparency. It’s difficult to claim that any Vikings fans or other citizens would be concerned at all about this, or that it justifies killing migratory birds.  Here is link to Javits Center that has photos. http://www.bdcnetwork.com/first-look-jacob-k-javits-convention-center-renovation-and-expansion-slideshow

2) “Changing the glass will be too expensive.” (The MSFA and Vikings say cost is not the issue, but cost is a valid concern for taxpayers.)

It will add 1/10 of 1% to the budget – think a couple of hundred dollars on a typical house – and will save energy. The Vikings have plunked down tens of millions on extra amenities, and there are construction contingency funds with way more than what would be needed.

3) “MSFA is still in good faith negotiations with Audubon MN to find alternative solutions to mitigate the bird collisions, other than changing the glass.”

Audubon Minnesota has stated continually for over a year that the current glass is unacceptable and must be changed. Apparently the MSFA has recently agreed to some “lights out” policies that would reduce bird deaths at night, which is welcome, but this is totally separate from the choice of glass.  Here is link that shows dramatic decrease in bird fatalities.
http://sustainability.thomsonreuters.com/2014/09/16/executive-perspective-birds-glass-sports-stadiums/

 4) “The decision has been made and it is too late to change the glass choice.”

The team was made aware of their oversight over a year ago and, just because they stalled making the change and may have incurred some extra costs doesn’t mean birds have to die. It’s the same Minnesota company (they made the glass for the Javits Center) that would make the bird-safe fritted glass, and there is no reason it cannot be manufactured in time.  Here is link to get more info, including who manufactured Javits Glass.  http://www.nycaudubon.org/images/pdf/Fall_2013_Urban_Audubon.pdf


 Audubon Chapter of Minneapolis,

 Jerry Bahls

President

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Fox Sparrows

(Script of For the Birds program that originally aired on October 25, 2010)

Fox Sparrow

Of all the autumn sparrows that visit our feeding stations, the one who catches our eye simply by its vigorous activity is the Fox Sparrow. Fox Sparrows throw their whole bodies into scratching the ground, their feet kicking up leaf litter and soil or snow as they expose seeds and occasional grubs. Much of the year, Fox Sparrows are omnivorous, eating a mixture of fruits, seeds, insects, and occasionally buds of plants; in spring and early summer they gravitate toward high-protein insects.

Fox Sparrow

These oversized sparrows are hardy as well as vigorous. They breed in northern reaches of the east, and high in the mountains where their range dips south in the West. The bulk of their eastern population winters south of Minnesota and Wisconsin, but individual stragglers can be seen in the North Woods throughout even severe winters. They survive the coldest nights by pigging out and putting on extra body fat before sunset. Their shivering overnight causes them to lose appreciable amounts of weight as they sleep.

John James Audubon was the first European to find their nesting grounds, on his expedition to Labrador. The birds up there were part of the same eastern population that winters in the East, with a lot of foxy red in their plumage. Eastern Fox Sparrows are even easy to identify even as they fly away from us thanks to their bright rusty tail. But Audubon had no idea that there are three other color forms, far less rusty. Indeed, the Fox Sparrow is one of the most geographically variable of all songbirds. Fox Sparrows from Alaska are very dark, appearing to be an entirely different species from the eastern population that migrates through Minnesota and Wisconsin. My husband and I saw some when we were walking trails near the Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau, Alaska in 2001. Fox Sparrows are rather shy, but if you’re quiet and slow, you can often creep up on them without alarming them, so I managed to get a few photos with my inexpensive point-and-shoot camera, which had only a 2x zoom. I was thrilled to see this bird, but left feeling very lucky that the Fox Sparrows on our side of the continent are so much more colorful.

Fox Sparrow

I stayed in Port Wing, Wisconsin, quite a bit this fall, and spent a lot of time watching my mother-in-law’s sparrows. As many as ten Fox Sparrows were present many days in mid-October. Some of them were aggressive toward the other sparrows, making loud chuck calls and darting toward them. The other sparrows don’t seem to take umbrage at this, nor to take it as a serious threat. They merely step aside and go back to feeding.

During the peak of sparrow migration, 50 or 60 sparrows gathered at her feeding station, all intent on building up their fat to continue their migration. White-throated Sparrows make up the core population in September, with Dark-eyed Juncoes taking over in October. A few White-crowned and Harris’s Sparrows as well as Fox Sparrows can join them. I doubt if these birds migrate together or associate beyond the feeding station, but they probably do recognize the assortment of sounds by birds enjoying good dining, and join in.

Fox, White-throated, and White-crowned Sparrows
(Taken in autumn 2014 in my own yard)

Sparrow numbers are dwindling now, but one or two Fox Sparrows may linger through the Christmas Bird Count. One year three Fox Sparrows remained in my yard through the end of February. I felt lucky. The birds got a head start on migration that spring, so perhaps they felt lucky, too. Ornithologists haven’t teased out a lot of basic information about Fox Sparrows yet—how the birds feel about luck may never be known.

Fox Sparrow detail

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Auto Collisions and Birds

Swainson's Thrush
Swainson's Thrush killed on Touve Road in Port Wing on October 6, 2014.

In my book, 101 Ways to Help Birds, one of the more important suggestions is #60, “Drive at the slowest speed that is safe, courteous, and convenient.” This saves birds in many ways. The slower our speed, the more quickly and safely we can react to wildlife in the road, avoiding many collisions. In 2010, I started a blog, "Who Pays for Our Driving Habits? Birds Pay," that includes information and heartbreaking photos.

My daughter and her partner Michael took a bicycle trip from San Diego to the Florida coast in 2008, and stopped to document every single vertebrate animal they saw dead along the way. They put their findings on Michael's webpage, Roadkill Across America. On the data page, they note that they recorded 1,338 dead vertebrates over 2,846 miles, or 0.47 animals per mile, and explain how they conclude that if their route was fairly typical, well over 500,000 vertebrates may be killed every day on U.S. roads. 

Anyone driving anywhere in Duluth during this season’s heartbreaking migration fall-out, when cars have been massacring warblers everywhere, knows the huge toll autos make under these unique circumstances. I almost hit a Yellow-rumped Warbler on Big Pete Road in Port Wing yesterday, when I was going only 5 miles per hour. The poor little guy had managed to catch a huge insect larva—at least 3 inches long—and was struggling to subdue it right there where he found it, in the road. Food is such a critical resource right now—an item like that larva could mean the difference between life and death—that the warbler could not risk letting it go. Fortunately, I could see what was happening and stopped and waited. Within 30 seconds or so, the warbler had downed a nutritious and filling meal and we both went on with our day.

Most of the time we humans have other things on our minds. If I hadn’t known what was happening, this could have ended differently.

Driving more slowly not only prevents collisions--it also helps birds in less obvious ways. Roadkill subsidizes crows and other scavengers. I saw dozens of dead birds along Highway 13 on the drive, along with at least a dozen crows and two ravens patrolling the highway for fresh morsels and two crows on the side of the road ripping apart dead warblers. I love crows—they’re intelligent, devoted to their families and neighbors, and overall about as humanlike as a bird could be. Henry Ward Beecher reportedly wrote of them, “If men had wings and bore black feathers, few of them would be clever enough to be crows.” But it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. By providing such abundant free meals along our highways, we maintain the crow population at levels that aren’t good for other birds. During spring and summer, crows raid the nests of other species to feed fresh eggs and nestlings to their own chicks. The more crows there are, the more dangerous this becomes for small songbird populations.

Feeding on roadkill can also lead to collision deaths of some scavengers, especially Bald Eagles, which are awkward when taking off, especially when frightened by a loud car or truck.


By driving more slowly, our gas efficiency rises, too, which helps birds. The less gas we use, the less we contribute to the many ways extracting, transporting, and refining oil kills birds. All in all, driving at the slowest speed that is safe, courteous, and convenient is not just good for birds—it's good for everyone.

Good mileage day
My gas mileage after one trip home from Rhinelander, Wisconsin, when there was very little traffic and I could mostly go 50 mph. 

One Special Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warbler
All these photos were taken through the glass window.

During any migration fall-out, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of birds. I described a huge songbird migration from when I was counting at the Lakewood Pumping Station in my 1994 book, For the Birds:

October 1, 1988, was the closest I’ve ever come to wishing I’d never see another robin or warbler… Our five-hour total … was 95,948 migrants, including 62,707 robins, 29,330 warblers, and a smattering of longspurs, siskins, crows, ravens, geese, eagles, etc. If Kim [Eckert] could have stayed [for the entire time], we would easily have topped 100,000. When I got home, still in a daze, I walked smack into a bag of sunflower seeds. Sweeping them into a dustpan, I reached 738 before I realized I was still counting.

This past week, Karl Bardon and Steve Kolbe, the official counters at Hawk Ridge, counted in just three days 43,543 robins, 7,811 Rusty Blackbirds, 405 flickers, and over 4,000 warblers. 

Whenever we are dealing with huge masses of birds, or even of people, we start thinking in terms of masses or hordes, and it’s easy to forget that even the hugest crowds are made up of individuals. But on Monday, one special Yellow-rumped Warbler reminded me of just how unique and individual each bird is.

Yellow-rumped Warbler


On October 6, I brought my mother-in-law to Port Wing, Wisconsin, for her biweekly card club at the house of one of her friends. I spent most of my time on a birding walk. The game took longer than usual, so when I got back to the house, I spent a half hour at the window watching at least six Yellow-rumped Warblers trying to find food on the deck. 

Several of them kept flying up to the windows—not colliding, but picking at insects in the framing and occasionally trying to get some of the cluster flies that had erupted on that sunny day. Most of the houses along Lake Superior get these cluster fly outbreaks during sunny fall days. I’m not sure where the flies come from or why the outbreaks are always indoors—these are not the same species as the iridescent houseflies or bottle flies drawn to garbage. The flies always gather at windows, and the warblers could see the movement, but unfortunately it was mostly on the wrong side of the glass. They’d make a swipe or two, and sometimes managed to grab one that was working its way outside from the bottom of the window, but then they’d spot a bug somewhere else—on the grill, the deck flooring, or in flight—and take off after that one.

Usually I’m a live-and-let-live kind of person, and so when cluster flies gathered at my mother-in-law’s house, I’d open the window and screen and send them off. But those hungry warblers made me lose all compassion for the poor flies—suddenly they were nothing more than food, and I found myself swatting at them. I’d scoop up a dozen or so and put them in a flower box on the deck. Some of the flies were merely stunned, and when they took off, one or another warbler would notice the movement and snap them up in midair. But one little warbler took notice of the fact that the flies were taking off from the flower box whenever I went over there. Within a few minutes, it was flying into the box and gorging on flies the moment I went back indoors.

Yellow-rumped Warbler


Yellow-rumped Warbler


Yellow-rumped Warbler



These little yellow-rumps started off in the Canadian and northern Minnesota wilderness, and are headed to the southern states and some all the way to Central America. Between their summering and wintering grounds, they pass through a lot of unfamiliar habitats. Every single one of them will have to fly over Interstate 80. They take off in the dark and fly all night, and at the end of an exhausting flight can find themselves in all manner of unexpected places, from big cities to Iowa cornfields. And wherever they find themselves, these strangers in a strange land, they must figure out how to deal with the unfamiliar or they'll die.

Many people think of birds as avian automatons, following instincts rather than reasoning, but as that adaptable little yellow-rump showed me, these birds are more intelligent than one would think. I felt sad leaving—if I’d had my druthers, I’d have spent the rest of the day swatting flies and bringing them outside. Other warblers would have made the connection to me, or followed the example of the smart little one, and soon at least six yellow-rumps would have had enough protein to rev them up for the night’s migration. But instead, all I could do is wish them, especially one endearing and unique little bird, a safe journey.

Yellow-rumped Warbler
Safe journey, little fella! (Well, this is probably a female.)

Fall-Out!

Fox, White-throated, and White-crowned Sparrows
White-throated Sparrows, one Fox Sparrow, and several White-crowned Sparrows cover the ground in my own backyard, where I scatter white millet for them. Not one sparrow has hit my windows this year.

Right now, the western end of Lake Superior is in the midst of a massive migration fall-out. Everyone seems to be noticing—I’ve been getting lots of calls about it, and it made Sam Cook’s October 5th blog. And on October 7, Sam wrote a front page article in the Duluth News-Tribune about the dark side of this fall-out—the huge number of birds being killed in collisions with windows, cars, and even bicycles. I was so concerned that on October 2, I started a webpage, birdcollisions.blogspot.com, where people can report birds killed at windows in Duluth and Superior.

This is hardly the first time we’ve had a huge fall-out here, and whenever we do, there is a lot of mortality. On the September 25 entry of my 1994 book, For the Birds: An Uncommon Guide, I mention one of these migration events:
On frosty mornings when the soil is warmer than the air, yellowrumps and Palm Warblers gather on lawns and roadsides, picking up insects and being picked up by cats in huge numbers. When they’re grounded under these conditions, they’re also killed by cars. On September 25, 1991, in the “Great Highway 61 Warbler Massacre,” thousands of inexperienced pedestrians were killed as they followed the lakeshore and were attracted to the sun-warmed pavement. Warblers are fairly good at evading most falcons, but they’re simply not equipped to deal with the Ford variety.
That same fall of '91, my son Tommy was a kindergartener. He and I picked up dozens of warbler carcasses on our walks to school. In a single morning, we found 17 dead Palm and Yellow-rumped Warblers on a two-block stretch, all of which had been killed by a single neighborhood cat—that’s what gave me my first big push to start fighting for a cat leash law in Duluth.

Duluth is at the epicenter of a major migration flyway, but we don’t get these huge events very often. What caused this year’s fallout? There seemed to be two different weather factors at play. 

First, this year we had a very cold, late spring, which probably delayed nesting for a lot of birds, keeping them north longer than what would be ideal. Lots of people noticed how late hummingbirds remained—I’ve often had a straggler or two in late September and even October, but never before had I had daily hummingbirds through September 20—the vast bulk of them are usually gone by the first week of September.  It’s not our wonderful backyard habitat or feeders holding them longer than normal—hummingbirds and other nectar- and insect-eating birds tend to migrate when their most important foods are especially abundant, to fuel their flights. Rather than enticing them to stay, abundant food actually encourages them to bulk up and leave. The late hummers included adult females who needed to recover from their last, late nesting, and the result of all those late nestings—lots of young hummers. The huge number of late warblers were almost certainly the result of late nesting, too.


That explains the late timing of migration and why so many birds are on the ground—by this late, the bulk of caterpillars in trees are gone, leaving insectivores to search for their food elsewhere. 

Yellow-rumped Warblers at my suet and peanut butter feeders.
I've had as many as 12 Yellow-rumped Warblers in my suet and peanut butter feeders at the same time this week. This is not a typical visitor at bird feeders, but they're desperate.

The ground temperature can be quite a bit warmer than the air temperature, especially during high-wind days. But in many years with late nestings, birds still manage to slip by in much smaller numbers—at least as far as we notice. What's different this time? 

The massive numbers of migrants around here are almost certainly the result of so many days of westerly winds—exactly the conditions for pushing maximum numbers of migrating birds from northern Canada to somewhere along Lake Superior—from there, the birds follow the shoreline, at least during their daily movements as they feed, rest, and mosey in the right direction.

Sadly, when temperatures are cooler and it's windy, birds require more calories just to maintain their body temperature, not even counting all the added calories they need to build up their fat reserves for long nocturnal flights. They’re so focused on food right now that they can’t afford to pay attention to unfamiliar hazards like cars and bikes. And so, despite the thrilling birding conditions, it’s a mess out there.

Friday, October 3, 2014

First reported window collision: MY house.

Yellow-rumped Warbler

We're having a huge migration today, and at mid-morning, this poor Yellow-rumped Warbler hit my window. He flew off within 5 minutes, but I can only hope he survives--about 50 percent end up dying from complications from head injuries.

I'm hoping people will start sending photos or at least reports of window collisions in Duluth. We need to make people aware of this horrible problem, especially for getting some kind of protective netting over the obscenely huge windows at the airport and some downtown buildings, but also to make regular homeowners aware of the problem. I've made several of my windows bird-safe, but obviously not all of them. Please email me with reports of ALL window collisions--if you know the species, and how it turned out, let me know, but also the date and time, where it happened (whether you send me your address or not, I will only post neighborhoods of private residences), and what kind of window. I want to get all the reports up on my new Bird Collisions website. For now, I'm restricting reports to those in Duluth.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Duluth International Airport's Hazardous Windows

American Redstart and Tennessee Warbler

I went down to the Twin Cities this past weekend to join the protest against the proposed Vikings stadium windows. The clear glass is guaranteed to kill birds—at least hundreds and more likely thousands every year. 

Ironically, as I was traipsing 150 miles away to talk about one glass project, birds were dying in collisions with glass right here at home, at the newly constructed Duluth Airport. On Wednesday, I got an email from Penny Schwarze, who wrote,

I…wondered if you knew that the new Duluth airport terminal also has problem windows. I arrived there on a flight about ten days ago and was very upset to see the bodies of many birds (about twenty, I'd guess) on the ground below the windows. As you said, seeing corpses completely ruins any aesthetic experience one might hope to have. 
I assume others have noticed this problem, but I don't know if anything is being done about it. So that's why I'm getting in touch with you. Do you have any information about this? If not, what do you think a good next step would be?
Penny added,

The date and time were Sunday, Sept. 21, around 2:30 p.m - a sunny day. They were small birds - yellow/light brown, as I recall (I'm not a birder). Although I'm not an emotional person, I tear up thinking about it...

Those birds were almost certainly mostly warblers, though other migrating songbirds were probably also involved. These Neotropical migrants travel by night, and lighted structures jutting into their airspace disorient them, often luring them to their deaths. I’m embarrassed to admit that the airport construction has been completely off my radar, even though I should have registered that the design was going to be a bird killer from the start. I’d contacted County Commissioner Steve O’Neill regarding what we could do about glass in the design of the huge new Maurice’s building in downtown Duluth, but that was just before he got sick—since his devastating illness and death, and my own general busyness, I’ve not been paying attention to either project.

But what CAN we do? At this late date, the only way we can protect birds with the airport already constructed would be to cut the lighting visible from the outside at night, when migrating birds are passing through, and add netting to reduce the impact on birds that do hit by night or by day, when thousands of tiny birds are passing through in low vegetation and hit glass that is reflecting plants and sky. The trick is that the airport will never do this simply because it’s the right thing to do. And the US Fish and Wildlife Service has a long track record of not getting involved in these issues. In 2011, a wind facility in West Virginia killed over 500 birds in a single night because of gross negligence in leaving outside lights on at a substation against clearly stated rules. This was the third time a major kill had happened at that facility, and yet, for the third time, they weren’t fined a penny.

People are so tired of being constantly angry about so very many issues swirling through our lives. Ebola, engaging in an all-new war in the Middle East, climate change, uncertainties about jobs being outsourced—with so much anger and fear about so much, people feel powerless to change anything at all. Yet ironically, it’s that very sense of powerlessness that makes us powerless. In the 70s, individuals working together forced Congress and President Nixon to enact the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Endangered Species Act, and end the war in Vietnam. Now we don’t work together, and too many organizations, including those that do some good, seize on every problem more to solicit contributions than to actually work on solving that problem.

I’m just one little voice, unconnected formally to any organization, and without a Ph.D. or other formal credentials. On the one hand, that makes me an easy target when corporations and government regulators disagree with me. On the other hand, I am not following anyone’s agenda—my only goal for most of my adult life has been to speak for the birds, as honestly and fairly as I can. And I guess that’s really all I can do here.


I don’t have many opportunities to get over to the airport, or downtown Duluth, but I’m asking that anyone who comes across dead birds in Duluth take photos—if it’s our high-tech world causing birds so many problems, we might as well use the high tech we keep right in our pockets to document the destruction. 

Send the photos to me at chickadee@lauraerickson.com, with the date and place you took them, and I’ll post every one at www.birdcollisions.blogspot.com. I’ll limit this site for now to Duluth bird collisions. Documenting the kill in an absolutely accurate albeit dramatic way is the only way we’re ever going to get the people who make these decisions to pay attention.