Sunday, November 23, 2014



I was walking to Stanley Park from my hotel in downtown Vancouver on November 10 when I came upon a boat named Velleity. What a perfect name for a boat sitting in a harbor! Of course, the word velleity has always seemed singularly descriptive of me, ever since I discovered it in an Ogden Nash poetry book. He died in 1971, when he was just 68, but his daughters compiled a collection of their favorite poems, I Wouldn't Have Missed It, that came out in 1975. I read about it in a newspaper and when my father gave me some birthday money that year, I headed straight to a bookstore to buy it. Now that I think about it, that may be one of the very few instances in my life when I did not suffer from velleity.

Ogden Nash is one of my favorite poets for many, many reasons. He wrote a great many cool poems about birds and a long one I often recite from memory titled Up from the Egg: The Confessions of a Nuthatch Avoider. His poem about velleity may have nothing to do with birds, but it has a lot to do with me.

Where There's a Will, There's Velleity

Seated one day at the dictionary I was pretty weary and also pretty ill at ease,
Because a word I had always liked turned out not to be a word at all, and suddenly I found myself among the v's.
And suddenly among the v's I came across a new word which was a word called velleity,
So the new word I found was better than the old word I lost, for which I thank my tutelary deity,
Because velleity is a word which gives me great satisfaction,
Because do you know what it means, it means low degree of volition not prompting to action,
And I always knew I had something holding me back but I didn't know what,
And it's quite a relief to know it isn't a conspiracy, it's only velleity that I've got,
Because to be wonderful at everything has always been my ambition,
Yes indeed, I am simply teeming with volition,
So why I never was wonderful at anything was something I couldn't see
While all the time, of course, my volition was merely volition of a low degree,
Which is the kind of volition that you are better off without it,
Because it puts an idea in your head but doesn't prompt you to do anything about it.
So you think it would be nice to be a great pianist but why bother with practicing for hours at the keyboard,
Or you would like to be the romantic captain of a romantic ship but can't find time to study navigation or charts of the ocean or the seaboard;
You want a lot of money but you are not prepared to work for it,
Or a book to read in bed but you do not care to go into the nocturnal cold and murk for it;
And now if you have any such symptoms you can identify your malady with accurate spontaneity:
It's velleity,
So don't forget to remember that you're velleitous, and if anybody says you're just lazy,
Why, they're crazy.

By Ogden Nash from I'm a Stranger Here Myself, 1938, and also in I Wouldn't Have Missed It: Selected Poems of Ogden Nash, 1975 (Simply the best collection of Nash poems until someone puts together a Complete Works, which I really hope happens someday.)

Friday, November 21, 2014

A Visit to the Audiologist

Twas the month before Christmas, when all through the house,
Not a creature was stirring—not dog, cat, or mouse.
Or maybe there was—I sure couldn’t tell.
My ears are so old that my hearing’s gone to hell.
So up to Essentia in my Prius I flew
To the audiology office up on Floor 2.  
A hearing test taken, and a graph in bright red
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread—
Well, if sixty-two hundred in cash could be paid.
I can solve all my woes with a new hearing aid.
My life will be better, the audiologist said,
With bionic assistance stuck into my head.
Well, into my ears, where the problem began.
By spring, again kinglets could be heard in the land.
Her eyes how they twinkled. Her dimples how merry.
She made the bad news sound cheerful, not scary.
And I heard her exclaim ere I drove out of sight,
"Happy hearing to all, and to all a good night!"
Or did I hear that? You just never can tell
What a person can hear when her ears go to hell.
So I’ll scrape up the money—I hope I succeed—
Because hearing those birdies is something I need.

Le Conte's Sparrow
Le Conte's Sparrow
From the moment I started birding, I’ve loved learning how to recognize birds by their voices. And I was lucky enough to have especially acute hearing in the high frequencies. I had no trouble picking up Le Conte’s Sparrows even at a distance when birders I was with couldn’t hear them at all, or Golden-crowned Kinglets singing, or other high-pitched bird songs. To make up for it, my hearing of low frequencies wasn’t very good at all—I’d need to be way closer than other birders to hear hooting Great Horned Owls or drumming Ruffed Grouse. Sometimes my body could feel the rhythmic drumming of a grouse while my ears didn’t detect it at all.

Golden-crowned Kinglet
Golden-crowned Kinglet
I taught an Elderhostel with a wonderful young guy named Troy Walters at Trees for Tomorrow for several years. For the first year or two, Troy was still learning a lot of bird songs, and I usually picked up on birds before he did. But by the third year, we were hearing things simultaneously, or took turns picking out things first. But in the past four years or so, he was consistently hearing birds before me, and sometimes I never did pick up on some songs. In 2012, for the first time ever, I watched a Golden-crowned Kinglet in full song, beak open, breast heaving, but I never heard a note. I was suddenly struggling to hear Golden-winged and Blackburnian Warblers, and had also been noticing that some songs well within my hearing range are sounding different—losing the high frequencies means I’m missing out on some of the harmonics of those songs, changing the overall tonal quality.

WXPR Cedar Waxwing
Cedar Waxwing
This fall, I used a Cedar Waxwing recording in a “For the Birds” program I was producing. That’s a song I was still picking up on in the field, and thought was still within my hearing range, but when I played the recording, even at top volume, I couldn’t hear a whole section. That’s when I knew I’d waited too long already. I made an appointment with an audiologist.

Chandler Robbins in Guatemala
Chandler Robbins
Although the very thought of needing hearing aids is sobering, I’m in excellent company. My birding hero of the universe, Chandler Robbins, told me that he got hearing aids long, long ago. His younger brother, the late Sam Robbins, was Wisconsin’s foremost birder, with legendary ears. As Sam reached his 50s or 60s, he was starting to lose some of his high frequencies, but refused to think about hearing aids until he and Chandler were birding in Wisconsin one spring morning. Standing in one spot, Chandler could pick out four Winter Wrens singing simultaneously, while Sam couldn’t hear any at all—that's when he got his own hearing aids. I use a Winter Wren song as my phone’s ringtone, so if I lost that one, I’d be in trouble in more ways than simply losing a splendid and favorite bird song.

Winter Wren
Winter Wren
I’m lucky that my excellent hearing lasted as long as it has, and even now my 63-year-old ears still pick up on some sounds that others miss, probably because I’ve been so focused for so long on noticing bird songs. But my ears do need help now, at least if I’m going to keep mixing my own radio programs and leading field trips and recording and listening to birds on my own. Unfortunately, the kind of hearing aids that can help pick up the sounds I need to hear are extremely expensive—a pair will cost $6,200. It would be much less expensive to go with a cool new invention that simply lowers the frequencies of high-pitched sounds so we can hear them within our hearing range, but to use that, I’d need to relearn all my bird songs, and they wouldn’t sound the same. So I’ll have to squirrel away all my earnings for a while to cover the hearing aids, which I'll get in early April so my test period extends through warbler migration. I will commit when I know I can hear those warblers again. It's a heck of a lot of money, but it’ll be worth it for me to hold on a little longer to the bird songs that have so enriched my life.

(This is not as bad as it sounds. Our insurance will cover some of the expense, and we'll put enough money in that "health savings account" thing so we won't have to pay taxes on the money for this. So don't worry about this!)

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Overview of My Trip to Vancouver

Russ and Laura on the ferry to Vancouver Island
The only photo of Russ and me from the entire trip, from the ferry to Vancouver Island.
This month, Russ attended a scientific meeting in Vancouver, British Columbia, and I got to tag along as his plucky sidekick. I’ve never been to Vancouver before, so I wanted to prepare before we left, buying used copies of the two out-of-print birding guides about the area, Keith Taylor’s The Birder’s Guide to Vancouver Island, and the Vancouver Natural History Society’s The Birder’s Guide to Vancouver and the Lower Mainland.

I didn’t have as much time as I usually do to plan for the birding—usually I’ve done a complete study of what birds I might find, and where the best places would be for me to go to find each one—but this time I was heading there pretty much cold. I’ve wanted to visit Vancouver Island since I started birding, and so Russ and I decided to take the ferry there on Saturday because Russ had the day off. That turned out to be fortuitous because we ended up chatting with a birder named Ken Kennedy, who gave us lots of suggestions and information.

Laura and Ken Kennedy on the ferry to Vancouver Island
Laura and Ken Kennedy

Thanks in part to him, we spent Sunday at Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary—an unforgettable day.

Wood Duck
People are allowed to purchase bags of nutritious food to handfeed the ducks and chickadees, so a great many birds are wonderfully approachable at Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary.

Stanley Park is well known for birding and was less than a mile from our hotel, so when I arrived on Friday, we spent the afternoon there together, and I hiked to Stanley Park on my own on Monday.

Fox Sparrow
I love the western Fox Sparrows!

Russ took Tuesday morning off from his meeting so we could bird in Queen Elizabeth Park.

Queen Elizabeth Park

I went to North Vancouver on Wednesday. That was actually to meet my favorite composer in the known universe, Michael Conway Baker, but I managed to get in some quality bird experiences, too.

Steller's Jay
One of Michael Conway Baker's Steller's Jays

I spent Thursday, the last day of the trip, at Jericho Park.

Pacific Wren
Pacific Wren on the icy, rocky beach at Jericho Park

Russ and I rented a car to get to the ferry and to get to Reifel Sanctuary, and did all the rest of our travel on foot or using public transportation. As it turned out, we could have managed without the rental car entirely without changing the birding itinerary. That would have been both cheaper and less fraught—driving through Vancouver early on weekend mornings was a piece of cake, but getting back in late afternoon or early evening, even on weekends, was pretty awful. But Vancouver’s public transportation system was wonderfully easy to negotiate. The transit website gave perfect directions telling me where to catch the bus or train, which one I’d use, and where and how to transfer. All in all, I took the Sea Bus, trolley buses, regular buses, and Sky Train.

My Vancouver birding books are both over 13 years old, and Vancouver has seen a lot of development over the past decade, but the parks I visited hadn’t changed much, so the out-of-print guide books were still quite helpful. Just as useful was eBird—the bird-reporting website operated by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Audubon.

I didn’t get any lifers on this trip—I’ve birded too long to have many opportunities for those over most of North America anymore—but did see plenty of one species I entirely missed last year on my Big Year. Northwestern Crows are all over the place in the Vancouver area, but I never got far enough north along the Pacific last year to see them.

Northwestern Crow
Northwestern Crow

I also got to see a few Ancient Murrelets on the ferry ride to Vancouver Island—that’s another that I missed last year.

Ancient Murrelet
Ancient Murrelets

But even though I seldom see new birds anymore, I did get some of the best photos I’ve ever taken for some species, and my first photos ever for Ancient Murrelet and White-winged Scoter.

White-winged Scoter
White-winged Scoters

The best thing about this or any trip is getting to experience birds in a whole new place. We lucked into a long stretch of amazingly clear weather, and even if most of the species were familiar, I got to see them in new places doing new things. I got a series of photos of a common, everyday Double-crested Cormorant swallowing a surprisingly large fish.

Double-crested Cormorant swallowing a fish
Looks like a snuff film for a poor striped bass

Double-crested Cormorant swallowing a fish

Double-crested Cormorant swallowing a fish

I also photographed a Common Murre swimming and diving wonderfully close to where I was standing on a pier.

Common Murre
Common Murre

I haven’t spent nearly enough time birding in the West, so every day was a treasure. It’ll take a long time to get through the thousands of photos I took, and to write about the most exciting things that happened, but for me, much of the joy of travel comes from savoring the wonderful experiences after I get home. Birding trips are like a gift that keeps on giving, long after the trip is over.

Black Oystercatcher
Black Oystercatcher

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Laura's Top Ten List: Best things about being 63

1. The number 63 is ASCII for the question mark—the perfect symbol for how I go through life.

2. It's also the number of chromosomes found in the offspring of a donkey and a horse (both hinnies and mules).

3. Michael Jordan scored a record 63 points in a Chicago Bulls –Boston Celtics (double-overtime) NBA playoff game on April 20, 1986, just two weeks before my radio show "For the Birds" began.

4. It's also the sum of the powers of 2 from 0 to 5 (1+2+4+8+16+32).

5. I saw my first Common Yellowthroat on June 26, 1975—it was #63 on my lifelist.

Common Yellowthroat
Common Yellowthroat

6. Sixty-three is the minimum age for drinking plus the answer to life, the universe, and everything! Of course, when I've been drinking I always think I know the answers to life, the universe, and everything, but this year it's official.

Deep in the bowels of the New York City Subway lies the answer to life, the universe, and everything.

7. Sixty-three is the number of years Ulysses S. Grant was on the planet.

8. In 1963, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds came out.

9. The 63rd species on the official Checklist of the American Ornithologists' Union is the extinct Labrador Duck—sobering and sad, but a bit of trivia that gives me renewed energy to work to prevent more extinctions of wonderful birds.

Labrador Duck
Labrador Duck in Philadelphia at the Museum of Natural History

10. Sixty-three is my daughter Katie's favorite number, backwards.

Katie and Gepetto
My daughter Katie in the late 90s

11. Sixty-three is 111111 in binary. Pretty cool for someone born on 11/11!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Michael Conway Baker


Did you ever look forward to something with as much eager anticipation as a 6-year-old before Christmas, knowing full well that it couldn't possibly turn out to be as thrilling as you hoped, but when it finally happened, it was even better than you dreamed?

Back in 1993, our family went to see Dorothy Hamill perform a wonderful ice ballet titled Cinderella, Frozen in Time, when it was produced in Duluth with the Ice Capades. I was entranced by the production. The skating was wonderfully beautiful and expressive and the storyline charming. But what captivated and enraptured me was the music--so Tchaikovsky-esque that I was certain it had to from a ballet he'd composed that I wasn't familiar with, though I couldn't imagine how anything as evocative and ethereal was not better known. I don't usually get blown away by these kinds of performances, but when it was over, I simply had to get a program, and wanted to find out more about the music. It turned out that Dorothy Hamill had commissioned Canadian composer Michael Conway Baker to write the score, which was performed by the Sinfonia of London Orchestra. The CDs had already sold out, but there were order forms, so of course I ordered one the very next morning.

That was the music I listened to over and over while I was writing my first two books, For the Birds and Sharing the Wonder of Birds with Kids. In that way, I think I'm rather like most songbirds, who pick one song and stick with it. But this wasn't just one song--it was a whole hour-long work with lots of beautiful numbers, and I simply could not get enough of it.

Then I discovered Michael Conway Baker's website, and of course I wrote him a fan letter when I ordered more of his music. And that's when I discovered one set of music, his Vancouver Variations, that struck as deep a chord in me as the Cinderella soundtrack. Now I had more music to listen to as I wrote 101 Ways to Help Birds and the five books after that. It's also how I started up a little correspondence with his wife Penny.

When Russ attended a professional meeting in Vancouver this month, he brought me along so we could celebrate my birthday together. I mentioned I'd be going there on facebook, and suddenly Michael Conway Baker himself invited me to come meet him while I was there! And that's how it came to be that this morning I took the seabus from downtown Vancouver to North Vancouver, where he met me and brought me up to his house.

He lives at the end of a short road, his house right at the edge of a gorgeous natural park, a rushing stream gurgling through where dippers occasionally feed on the rocks, especially in winter. He and his wife love wildlife as much as I do, and seeing birds and Douglas squirrels coming up to the door hoping for peanuts was charming.


A gorgeous male Varied Thrush came into the open a few times, but was very skittish and did not approve of my camera--the only photos he permitted were through the glass door.


The Steller's Jays were far more approachable.


One comes to the door and taps to get their attention. I've never had such an opportunity to photograph them before. One crippled raccoon has been visiting them for quite a while--I lucked into seeing it and getting a few handsome portrait photos.


Michael brought me up to his studio, and he even played his piano for me. Then, to make a sublimely wonderful day beyond perfect, he brought me to the Wild Bird Trust of British Columbia's Conservation Area at Maplewood Flats. Yep. I got to go birding with Michael Conway Baker!

I've been an exceptionally lucky person, who has had more than my share of wonderful days in the past and will almost certainly have plenty of wonderful days in the future. But today, November 12, 2014, will always stand out as one of the very best days of all--the day I got to spend time with Penny Baker and met and birded with Michael Conway Baker.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Oldest Wild Birds of Many Species

Atlantic Puffin

For humans, 63 years of age is in some netherworld between middle age, senior citizenship, and being outright elderly. I bought my national park Senior Pass last November when I reached 62, and I’ve been getting the senior discount at some movie theaters and motel chains for a couple of years, but I feel like I’m somehow cheating, since for the most part I don’t feel any different than I did at 30 or 40.

Most birds don’t live to be nearly as long as we humans—at least, not as far as we can tell. Based on the longevity records from the USGS Bird Banding Lab, we know that most of the birds that survive for three full decades or more are oceanic species—five species of albatrosses have reached the 30-year milestone, along with the Bonin Petrel, Ashy Storm-Petrel, and Red-tailed Tropicbird. One Great Frigatebird made it to 43.

A Western Gull made it to 33, a Sooty Tern made it to 35, a Royal Tern to 30, and one incredible long-distance migrating Arctic Tern lived to be 34 years old. That bird was caught at a banding station and its band replaced in 1970. If it were caught again, it would take some digging to trace it back to the original band number. The original band was left on a 33-year-old Atlantic Puffin that was caught alive and released.

Terrestrial birds and those associated with freshwater aren’t as long-lived as oceanic species, though several have made it at least 30 years. One Canada Goose lived to be 33. A Bald Eagle banded on the nest in Maine in 1977 survived for 32 years and 10 months before being killed by a car in New Brunswick. The oldest known Golden Eagle, from Utah, was also killed by a car—that one at 31 years of age. And a Michigan Red-tailed Hawk made it 30 years before being found dead, though the cause of its death wasn’t noted. One Sandhill Crane banded in Wyoming survived 36 years before being found dead in New Mexico—again, the cause of death wasn’t recorded. Despite being the most heavily hunted species in all of America, at least one banded Mourning Dove lived to be 30 years old before a hunter killed it and sent in its band.

Individuals of four different species of hummingbirds have lived at least 10 years—the Buff-bellied, Magnificent, Black-chinned, and Broad-tailed.

Not one songbird is listed on the USGS Bird Banding Laboratory longevity website as having survived 30 years; indeed, individuals of only two species of songbirds are known to have lived into their twenties. A Chihuahuan Raven was caught alive when 21 years 9 months old, and released with the same band. And at least three Common Grackles have made it to 20. The oldest was killed by a car when it was 23.

A few species of jays and an American Crow have lived over 15 years. More surprising is the Gray Catbird that was caught alive when it was 17 years 11 months old—that one was released with the same band. One cardinal lived over 15 years, and an Evening Grosbeak banded in Connecticut in 1959 was killed by a car in New Brunswick when it was 16.
Individuals of 10 North American warbler species have lived over 10 years—at least one Yellow Warbler, Ovenbird, and Louisiana Waterthrush were caught at banding stations when they were at least 11 years old, all alive and released. One Black-and-white Warbler was found dead when it was 11.

Finally, the oldest known wild chickadee, from Minnesota, was at least 11 years 6 months when it was caught alive and released in 2011. Chickadees have to pack a lot of living into those 11 years—I feel darned lucky to have been given 63 and counting. Luckily enough for me, no one’s trapped me in a net and stuck a metal ring around my leg. Let’s hope my luck holds out.

Oldest Albatross

On November 11, I turn 63 years old. Many people my age and even some who are substantially younger find it embarrassing to admit how many years they’ve lived on the planet, but to me, every year is a triumph. My lifespan is already several times the maximum known lifespan of many of my favorite birds—for example, I’ve lived more than 5 times longer than the oldest wild Black-capped Chickadee known to science. That one, known to be at least two years old in May, 2002 when it was banded in Minnesota, was caught again, alive, in December, 2011, when it was at least 11 and a half years old.
The US Geological Survey’s Bird Banding Laboratory keeps track of banded birds, and posts the longevity records of these banded birds on their website.

According to those numbers, there is only one bird who has ever survived to reach my age: a female Laysan Albatross who made international news in 2011 not only as the oldest known bird, but one who was still successfully raising young when she was at least 60. This past winter she raised another chick.

My hero Chandler Robbins is the scientist who banded her as a breeding adult on Midway Island on December 10, 1956. It takes a minimum of 5 years for females to start breeding, and they aren’t successful until at least 10 years old, so the estimate of her having been hatched in the first months of 1951 is a very conservative one. She may be a few, several, or many years older, but she’s at least 63, and soon to turn 64.

This albatross, nicknamed Wisdom, was banded as part of a project worked out between the US Fish and Wildlife Department and the military following World War II. The Naval Air Station Midway was decommissioned in 1950, but in the face of the Korean War, was re-commissioned, and at that point, with planned jet aircraft take-offs and landings for the first time on the island, the military thought it best to exterminate the nesting albatrosses to avoid collisions. Robbins and others thought if scientists could figure out what vegetation the albatrosses preferred, what substrates they avoided, and their patterns for takeoffs and landings, they could perhaps set the runways where the birds wouldn’t affect safety. That was back in the olden days when many decisions were worked out among different government agencies actually working together to find the wisest long-term solutions for everyone concerned. Imagine that!

So on December 10, 1956, Robbins caught and banded 99 adult albatrosses as they were incubating eggs—they’re quite clumsy on land, so they weren’t all that hard to catch. He put band number 587-51945 on one bird. Those leg bands are sturdy, but affixed to the leg of a bird flying about 50,000 miles low over salt water every single year, they get corroded and wear out. Some birds probably lost their bands altogether, but Wisdom was re-trapped five times while her leg band was still legible—each time the worn out band was removed and a new one put on. Each time, the old number was recorded along with information about the bird’s condition and the new band number.

But bird-banding recaptures happen infrequently, bands are replaced even more infrequently, and replaced bands are virtually never replaced again, so the computer system that tracks banded birds wasn’t programmed to track such a long line of replacement bands. It was Chandler Robbins himself, now in his 90s, who started wondering about how far back any birds with replacement bands could be tracked. He’s the one who looked at an albatross with a bright red plastic band, number Z333, and dug into the data to find out what her previous band was numbered, and what the one before that was, and the one before that one, to realize this particular albatross was one of the ones he had banded on his first trip to Midway Island back in 1956. I don’t know if anyone has dug into the data to see if others from that cohort are still alive. As I said, any of them that lost their worn out band over the years would be impossible to recognize now.

As far as what we know for certain, other birds haven’t survived nearly as long as Wisdom, but thanks to banding, we do know that many birds lead surprisingly long lives. In my next post I’ll post some longevity records for other species.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Music: Human and Avian

Transcript of "For the Birds" for 7 November 2014. Listen here.
Northern Mockingbird

On October 23, NPR’s All Things Considered ran a story about the mockingbirds in New Orleans. One of the 4-note phrases heard in mockingbird songs there sounds a lot like a short phrase New Orleans musicians use to call their bands together, and the story was titled, “Who Sang It First?”

The story quoted Trumpeter Leroy Jones, who said that mockingbirds "pick up everything — essentially, they mock everything that they hear." He said that he's heard them making that distinctive note pattern. "He's probably heard that — being, you know, in the neighborhood. And he's emulating what he's heard."

But Peter Yaukey, a geography professor at the University of New Orleans and its resident ornithologist, thinks that musicians got the phrase from the mockingbirds. "That particular whistle sounds very much like the phrases a mockingbird would use," Yaukey says. "It's repetitive. It's got the right pitch. It's got the right amount of substance to the notes."

Yaukey apparently hasn’t spent too much time listening to mockingbirds away from New Orleans—I’ve not heard that exact note pattern in most places. Mockingbirds don't have any kind of an instinctive song pattern. Each bird creates his own song out of the sounds he's heard somewhere during his life. I can hear the distinctive notes of a Black-capped Vireo when listening to mockingbirds in the Wichita Mountains in Oklahoma, but not in mockers in Florida or California. They mimic traffic and machinery noises, car alarms, pure notes, and anything and everything in between, including what they pick up from street musicians.

NPR quoted ornithologist Kim Derrickson, of Loyola University in Baltimore, who studies mockingbirds. He says perfect fourths are pleasing to people — and maybe birds, too. "I think that there are certain sounds that kind of propagate through the environment and sound good."

Hermit Thrush

Interestingly, this week a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that the melodies of Hermit Thrushes employ the same mathematical principles that underlie many Western and non-Western musical scales. By analyzing spectrograms of 71 songs containing 10 or more notes made by 14 of the birds, they found that 57 of these songs closely resembled what musicians term a harmonic series.

Some news organizations reporting on the paper make a claim far beyond what the actual researchers wrote, stating that this is the first time this has ever been seen in any animal outside humans. The patterns the researchers found are indeed fascinating, but noting that birds and humans use similar musical note patterns is exactly what what the story about mockingbird note patterns in New Orleans was about. Indeed, back in 1904, F. Schuyler Mathews wrote a book, Wild Birds and Their Music, in which he transcribed a great many bird songs using musical notation.

People have been listening to bird songs and other natural sounds since beyond history—it would be surprising if our music didn’t share qualities with the very music we were hearing as we were vocalizing our own primitive first songs and creating our first musical instruments. The avian syrinx is a much more complex organ than our larynx, so we can’t imitate a great many bird songs, but it’s lovely to think about how much we picked up from them, and fun to realize that in return, mockingbirds imitate a lot of our sounds as well. You can't blame them for gravitating to strains they hear from New Orleans musicians—those sounds are indeed much sweeter than those from chainsaws and car horns.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Earth to Enterprise: Help! (In which Laura boldly goes where no man has gone before)

Yellow-rumped Warbler

I have always been of the mindset that individuals matter. As a social animal with two arms and one lap, we humans are evolutionarily programmed to empathize and interact with and minister to individuals rather than whole large groups. When looking at pictures of crowds, our eyes are drawn to individual faces. Even as society becomes ever more technologically advanced and we are pulled further and further back from directly assisting people and animals in need, with hospitals, agencies, institutions, and organizations acting for all of us, we have never lost that impulse to focus on individuals. In order for many of us to contribute to a cause or help at a food bank or work to restore habitat, we need to feel viscerally connected to an individual. That need for specificity is fundamental human nature.

Some conservationists decry this impulse because to protect species and biodiversity, we really must focus on populations rather than individuals. But caring about individuals does not negate caring about the larger picture. On the contrary, some of the world’s finest conservationists were originally sparked by a magical face-to-face encounter with one individual animal. I’d argue that in order to be fully human—the best of all we can be—our hearts and our minds must both be fully engaged. 

Yet some conservationists and biologists ridicule wildlife rehab centers because of their focus on individual creatures, and a few, like Robert Zink of the University of Minnesota and Paul Kerlinger of Curry & Kerlinger, “Consultants to the Wind Power Industry,” even pooh-pooh efforts to stop construction of potentially massive bird killers like the proposed Vikings Stadium or the AT&T lighted, guyed tower on the edge of the Boundary Waters. Individual bird lives mean absolutely nothing to them—they both have claimed that even egregious deathtraps causing the deaths of hundreds or thousands of birds each year won’t affect populations. By rejecting, or perhaps not even sensing, the impulses of their own human hearts, these scientists may believe they’re espousing Spock-like wisdom, but their cold and unfeeling message makes the human beings hearing them turn away from both them and such a coldly scientific approach to other issues as well, adding fuel to the anti-science sentiments that are so polarizing our society. This is ironic, because their claims are not  even supported by science.

I’m not normally one who sees the world through the prism of the original Star Trek series, one of the rare TV shows with nary a bird in the soundtrack, much less mentioned in the dialog. Space may be the final frontier, but as Robert Frost almost said, “Earth’s the right place for birds: I don’t know where else they’re likely to live.” Even so, Star Trek can at least give us a model for how in wildlife and conservation issues, attention must be paid on both the Spock-like scientific front and the McCoy-like heart front. It’s Captain Kirk who embodies both.

The human heart is not supposed to take precedence over our brain—a world of all McCoys would be at least as dangerous as, and far more backwards than, one of all Spocks. For example, people who look at individual feral cats and can’t bear the thought of euthanizing a single one even as they realize they can’t find them all homes as indoor cats are the ones who started the fundamentally flawed Trap-Neuter-Release projects. Now that many of these programs have been in existence for several years, it’s increasingly obvious that they haven’t helped—the number of feral cats continues to climb even within these colonies, and because people provide supplemental food and veterinary care that extends individual feral cat lives far beyond what natural predators enjoy, these subsidized killers take out many times the number of prey animals in their territories than natural predators possibly could. The human heart focusing entirely on individuals willfully closes its eyes to all this collateral damage. Finding a truly wise solution to the feral cat situation, and all kinds of other important conservation issues, requires integrating mind and heart. The Spocks and McCoys among us have valuable input, but it’s the Captain Kirks among us who must synthesize it to find the wisest solution. Where we’ll find them, I just don’t know.

Feral cat

I lean toward the scientific Spock more than the emotional McCoy. The underpinnings of virtually all the advances that have made our lives as rich as they are today were based in the sciences. My husband is a scientist, much of my own training is in science, and I was actually awarded the Frances F. Roberts award at a joint meeting of the Cooper and Wilson Ornithological Societies for a scientific paper I presented back in 1991. I am not one to discount the importance of science in making decisions on all kinds of issues.

But science is a particular and painstaking process of finding answers based on making hypotheses and experimenting, and the more complex the questions, the more difficult and time consuming it can be to tease out clear answers. Meanwhile, it can be disturbingly easy to twist scientific data so that it appears to answer a question that it does not. As a society confronted with immediate problems, we often believe a scientist citing numbers to make a claim without considering what those numbers actually mean. And we often need to make decisions before all the data are gathered, much less synthesized into irrefutable scientific fact. If this were a Star Trek scenario, what’s a Kirk to do while Spock is still mulling, a Romulan is making false claims, and McCoy is yelling his head off?

The Honorable Philip D. Bush had to play the Kirk role in the Boundary Waters case. On every issue, he found on behalf of the plaintiffs—the Friends of the Boundary Waters—who were claiming that the proposed guyed, lighted tower on the very edge of the Boundary Waters Wilderness Area would harm the wilderness values. The Minnesota Environmental Rights Act defines these values carefully, and requires that if a proposed project does in fact cause any demonstrable harm to the state’s natural resources, and if a less harmful alternative can be found, regardless of cost, it should be chosen. 

Paul Kerlinger, presenting himself as the objective, scientific Spock, testified under oath that at most, 48 birds a year would be killed at the tower—where he pulled out that purely speculative, unscientific, and most unSpock-like number was anybody’s guess, but AT&T was clear that the Ph.D. after Kerlinger’s name gave him far more credibility than the Mrs. in front of mine did. Judge Bush wrote in his findings: “He is a private consultant and testifies exclusively for the wind and cell-tower industries. The Court does not find Kerlinger’s opinions about very low probable bird mortality at the Proposed Tower to be credible.”

AT&T could have built a single 199-foot tower on the same site rather than their 450-foot tower, which they did not argue would provide significantly more coverage. Alternatively, they could have built two 99-foot towers spread apart, which would definitely have provided significantly more coverage for little more cost. Judge Bush’s 58-page decision included 239 findings of fact and 69 conclusions of law in his summary finding for the Friends of the Boundary Waters. AT&T appealed, and the Appeals Court, in bizarrely non-analytical, rather Klingon-like fashion, from the gut rather than the heart or mind, threw out Bush’s carefully weighed findings, saying simply that the Boundary Waters was not “pristine wilderness” anyway, and that public safety was critical. The Minnesota Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

In the current Vikings stadium issue, Robert Zink, like Paul Kerlinger, agrees that the proposed windows will kill birds. He even agrees that the number may be large. His argument is that it doesn’t matter, because one building, even with 180,000 square feet of glass on a major migration flyway, won’t hurt bird populations any more than a litany of other things hurting birds. He said that people keeping their cats indoors would protect more birds, but that was hardly based on scientific analysis: individual cats kill fewer birds per year than many individual large glass structures do, and overall cats and collisions with glass cause bird mortality of the exact same order of magnitude. The real Spock would never make such unwarranted claims. Kerlinger and Zink both trust that judges and public opinion will be swayed not by scientific analysis of their statements but by their Ph.D's, even though neither has a background in population biology.

Both Kerlinger's and Zink’s main contention is fundamentally flawed, scientifically. They say that lighted, guyed towers or buildings with large amounts of glass don’t hurt populations, when what the data actually say is that we don’t yet know the precise effects of any individual human-caused bird mortality on populations, even as we can clearly see that some populations are declining precipitously. They carefully skirt the question most people think they’re answering: when a species such as the Golden-winged Warbler—one Zink himself calls a “super-collider” because it’s killed in collisions in numbers far above average—is already dangerously declining, how well can that species absorb additional mortality?

When there are so many unknowns, how do we make decisions in these cases, and who is to judge? And even if Captain Kirk were to show up, how would we deal with his overacting and insufferable arrogance? My favorite single line in any Star Trek movie or episode comes from the end of Star Trek IV, when the pretty whale biologist kisses off Kirk with a satisfyingly final “See ya ‘round the galaxy.” Nobody’s perfect—that is the nature of human beings, even Captain Kirk. And there are no perfect answers to the important conservation issues facing our world. But as human beings, we must use the tools we have to solve them. Brains and heart. Without either, we lose our way.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

On the Face of It

Black-capped Chickadee about to feed babies

UPDATE: I now have appointments with the dermatologist to remove the lesions and with the plastic surgeon for skin grafts on December 24 and 26. Yay!


Right after my third baby was born, when I was still recovering from a long labor and not quite back to myself, I received an advertising postcard from a local plastic surgeon, whose name I have mercifully forgotten, suggesting that this would be a perfect time for a facelift. As I recall, the message had just a bit of an ominous tone about how marriages are vulnerable during this time because of the toll pregnancy and childbirth take on “gals.” This was one of those occasions when I considered the real value of a 5-day waiting period before one can buy a handgun.

I’m very comfortable in my own skin, though I'm a rather shy person and have always been self-conscious. If I were a male songbird, I'd be like the chickadee singing from within the branches, so others could hear but not see me, rather than the mockingbird singing on the pinnacle of a tree and doing amazing loop-the-loops in flight, flaring out conspicuous wing patches as I sang to draw everyone's eyes as well as ears to myself.

Like most birds, I spend as little time around mirrors as possible, but haven't minded getting older. Indeed, I feel darned lucky to be 62 years old--my life has already lasted 12 years longer than my father's did, and 9 years longer than my little sister's. I’m perfectly comfortable doing radio, as long as no one is watching me do the recording—that’s why I was so motivated to learn to do my own sound editing when I started doing “For the Birds,” and why I started recording at home the moment I figured out how to do all my production work digitally. Back in the 1980s and early 90s when I’d be invited to speak in front of people, I often couldn’t get a single word out until the slide projector was on, the lights were out, and I was safely situated in the back of the room. It wasn't that I didn't like how I looked—I was just very self conscious about speaking in public. It would have taken way more than a mass-mailing postcard to get me to a plastic surgeon. 

I can understand why people whose appearance is an essential part of their careers turn to surgery and Botox procedures and such, but that hardly seems in order for me, and billboards, TV commercials, and postcards on behalf of physicians designed to make people, perhaps especially post-partum women, feel inadequate and embarrassed about their appearance seem both tawdry and unethical.

Black-capped Chickadee fledgling
The upper left bird is the fledgling, in perfect plumage. Dad or Mom is the bedraggled one
who just gave the chick a mealworm.

I always figured people would be happier if we were more like birds. For example, a few summers ago, I took photos of a male chickadee at the end of his season of raising babies. All parent chickadees look messed up at that point, but he looked especially bedraggled—several people who saw the photos thought he was at death’s door. 

But ironically, the photo that seems to show him at his very worst was taken while he was in full song, belting out his "Hey, sweetie!" without a trace of self consciousness, making sure his young all learned exactly how a virile male chickadee is supposed to sound. Beauty is as beauty does, and he would be in top form the following spring to raise a new batch of healthy young.

Bedraggled Black-capped Chickadee

I’ve been thinking about superficial beauty for the past few weeks, since I had a speaking engagement in Rochester. A couple of people approached me after my talk to tell me I should get a spot on my face checked out. I’d already had my doctor check that very spot a few months ago, when it looked more like rosacea than cancer, and I felt embarrassed that my talk hadn’t been compelling enough to keep everyone’s attention on birds rather than my face, but I figured I might as well go back to the doctor. She biopsied the conspicuous spot and one hidden on my forehead, and sure enough, they’re both basal cell carcinomas—the least dangerous form of skin cancer, but cancer nonetheless.

So I was referred to the dermatology department at our medical provider. When I called them, they put me on hold for about 15 minutes, and then when I did get through, they could not connect me to the appointment desk and told me they’d get back to me in “two to three weeks.” When I do finally reach the appointment desk sometime before the Christmas Bird Count, the appointment they finally set up will not take place until spring migration kicks in. If only I’d wanted a facelift or Botox and didn’t depend on insurance, I’d be in and out quickly, assuming I survived, and soon people could be ridiculing my face job as they feel free to do with any self-conscious Hollywood actress who's had work done.

Imagine explaining cosmetic procedures to a chickadee, or any other bird. Birds of both sexes tend to judge potential mates by age and experience—the older and more experienced, the better. In species that have physical changes indicating increasing age, potential mates are virtually always drawn to the older, rather than the younger, bird because all those life experiences point to success in the things that really matter. Waxwings grow more of those red spots on their secondary wing feathers as they get older. 

WXPR Cedar Waxwing

Accipiter hawks develop a redder eye as they age. 

Sharp-shinned Hawk

Male chickadees work their way up the flock hierarchy rather steadily as they grow older and more experienced, the feathers on their cap and bib growing in increasingly black, and those on the cheek whiter, showing off each bird’s age as a badge of honor, not something to cover up with plastic surgery or dermatological procedures. As bedraggled as my male looked at the end of his child-rearing responsibilities for the year, his attractiveness to females was enhanced, not harmed.

The chickadee visiting my feeder last winter with the deformed bill never did succeed in nesting this year—it was having enough trouble obtaining and eating food for itself with such an elongated bill, and would have had even more trouble feeding young. 

Black-capped Chickadee with deformed bill

I suspect it was old enough to have had a mate before the deformity developed, considering that the moment I offered it mealworms this winter it came instantly to my hand—I’d not put out mealworms since before my Big Year, so this one had to have remembered me from early in 2012. 

Black-capped Chickadee with deformed bill

Sometime in the spring, the bizarrely elongated tip of the upper bill broke off, and now the bill looks almost normal, but that happened after the other birds in the flock were all paired off. That particular chickadee is also missing the three front toes on the right foot. 

Black-capped Chickadee with deformed bill
If you look carefully, you can see both the bill deformity and the missing toes.

It seems that that may have been a fairly recent injury, because the right side of its head often looked somewhat poorly groomed, and in the winter and spring it didn’t always seem to be holding on securely to branches. Months later, it seems much steadier on its feet and is better groomed, though I can still see a bit of difference on its face, making it easy to pick out even when the feet aren’t visible. 

Black-capped Chickadee

It’ll be interesting to learn whether its bill gets overgrown again this winter, the time of year when deformed bills seem to appear most in feeder birds, and also whether it will attract a mate. But if it can’t, that won’t be for looking its age. For birds and sensible mammals, every day is a triumph, not something to hide with cosmetic surgery.

Meanwhile, as I wait rather impatiently for my turn to make the appointment for the procedure to remove the cancerous lesions on my face, I've been trying to figure out what the holdup is. According to an article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune from this February, there’s a huge shortage of dermatologists throughout the state. Apparently the University of Minnesota’s medical school currently graduates only about 5 new dermatologists a year, and more and more dermatologists are spending more and more of their time on unnecessary cosmetic procedures. And more and more dermatologists insist on payments by cash or credit card—many no longer accept payment via insurance, even for patients with medical needs. What some doctors are calling “entrepreneurial medicine” is exactly what I found so offensive when I got that postcard telling me I should get a facelift 30 years ago. These are the people preying on aging actors and insecure people of all ages, and limiting their medical services to people wealthy enough to pay cash. 

Thanks to the increase in cosmetic procedures and to competition because of the shortage of practitioners, dermatologists as a whole have seen a 50 percent increase in their incomes since 1995, while primary care physicians’ incomes have grown only 10 percent. Meanwhile, the very dermatologists who prioritize cash-paying cosmetic patients are blaming the shortage of doctors dealing with skin cancer on Medicare cutbacks that leave less money to fund the residency programs that produce more doctors, despite evidence that the current medical establishment intentionally limits the number of new doctors who would be competing with them. It’s supremely ironic that the same so-called professionals who owe their lucrative careers to the publicly financed residency system that trained them now defend the free enterprise system, even as they whine that medicine needs more public financing if we’re to have enough doctors. The entire system is poisoned.

As I said, basal cell carcinoma is the least dangerous form of skin cancer, and I’m sure melanomas get much more prompt treatment. Even though the more conspicuous of my lesions grew very quickly and now I seem to be developing a third one, there's a pretty low probability that my cancers will spread far. Some people say my wait is reasonable “triage.” Of course more urgent needs should come before the least dangerous form of skin cancer. But meanwhile, if I’d wanted a Botox treatment, or a face-lift, or breast augmentation or reduction, I’d be recovering now rather than seeing cancerous lesions every time I look in the mirror. How can anyone defend a system in which someone frowning into a mirror at a few wrinkles gets top priority over that?

A few friends have suggested ways I could finagle my way higher up in line, but that doesn’t seem cricket—chickadees take turns and follow a regimented procedure for waiting in line at food sources, but are of the mindset that "we're all in this together," so no cutting in line for them. If the line waiting for essential dermatological care is too long, that’s not the fault of the people ahead of me—it’s the fault of a cancerous system that keeps the number of dermatologists so much lower than what we need at a time of ever-increasing skin cancers.

Every social species, from ants to chickadees, has important strategies to protect the social structure underpinning every individual's survival. Watching my own chickadees, I can easily see how even as the system rewards the fittest chickadees as individuals, every chickadee, from the highest to the lowest on the flock hierarchy, honors its flock's needs. Each chickadee squirrels away as much food as it can against future shortages, but if one chickadee's stores are wiped out, the others don't mind sharing their stores with it.

We like to tout the myth of the self-made man, when it is our society—our schools and infrastructure and the people who produce our food and clothing and other needs and services and pleasures—it's our whole flock that allows individuals to thrive. Sadly, the one scale on which we humans outstrip every other animal is our species’ amazing ability to rationalize greed and selfishness and cutting in line and stepping on others to claw our way to the top. Chickadees are far, far wiser. I'd rather be like them.


Please don’t comment that I need to be using sunblock. I’ve been consistently using sunblock since I was in my 20s, and I haven’t gone out without 50-SPF sunblock on my whole face and neck, plus a 30-SPF on top of that on my nose and chin, plus a hat, since I was in my early 30s. Indeed, as a birder who has spent so very many hours outdoors over the years, in the tropics and the southern US and high on mountains as well as in my northern birding haunts, not getting any skin cancers at all until I reached my 60s is evidence that my precautions have served me well. But even if I hadn’t been so conscientious, that kind of advice after the fact seems at best hollow and uncaring.