Monday, December 29, 2008

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

How the Raven Saved Christmas

This story is about how my great, great grandmother, with a little help from some Tundra Swans, saved Christmas. The story happened on a year when there wasn't any snow in the north woods--funny to imagine that this year! It also features some crows, jays, pelicans, and juncos. Listening to it has been an annual tradition in my home for decades. It's an mp3 file, and is 4 minutes and 31 seconds long. It's called How the Raven Saved Christmas.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Jail bird

I am mortified! All I ever wanted to do was to make sure my flock would have this one perfect little tract of forest forever. When the “For Sale” sign went up, I was frantic—you never know what people are going to do once they take over a forest.

I’d been reading about capitalism and decided that although it’s not quite the way we chickadees do things, we might as well give it a try. What could we lose? One of our starling friends had been saving up money—he’d been finding it in some money contraption, and as we always say, “Finders, Keepers.” He wasn’t worried about losing his own trees—starlings can always find some place to live. But he said we were welcome to all the money he could find. He said that as fun as it was to collect, money is vastly overrated—it’s not the least bit edible and is worthless for insulating a roost or nest hole.

As it turns out, even though he’s been collecting what he kept calling “quarters” for years, we didn’t have enough to make a serious offer, but a raven overheard us, and since she was pretty worried about the forest, too, she sent her kids and friends out and they found some of that paper stuff that turns out to be even more valuable than the round stuff—who knew? And thanks to the Internet, we opened a bank account, made an offer on the property, and closed the deal, just like that.

It was wonderful feeling like this little piece of land was ours not only by our traditional standards but also by human standards. They couldn’t take it from us no matter what, ever again.

But then—not even a week after a Pileated Woodpecker stored the deed in a big old cottonwood—some beavers from out of town moved in and started gnawing on my cavity tree! I mean, holy crap! I figured what’s one tree—I’m pretty good at carving out new cavities if I do say so myself—but a Blue Jay got them to admit they were planning on making a huge dam, and would be taking out a whole mess of trees and flooding everything. We tried to tell them they had no right—we even pulled out the deed and waved it in front of them, but they just laughed! We at least talked them into postponing the inevitable, thanks to a couple of well-aimed rocks the ravens dropped on the big male’s head. We quickly put together an ad on Craig’s List, and sold the property in two days. What a relief! We really did need the money if we were going to buy a forest somewhere else.

When people buy up land, they usually chop down the trees anyway—how were we supposed to know that they sell these trees for money? A couple of months after we moved out, we got this sternly-worded email—something about fraud and false advertising. And next thing I know, here I am. Or was. Those good old ravens broke me out, but I’m marked as a jailbird forever. My mother was right. Money corrupts. We didn’t know what else to do with it so we donated it all to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and that’s it for my first and last experiment with capitalism. Money. Who needs it?

Thursday, December 18, 2008


Emerald Toucanet
Originally uploaded by LauraErickson
Some of our friends have been collecting coins, and we suddenly realized we had saved enough to buy a flickr pro account! So this is a test to see if it makes posting photos easier for us. Personally, I hate having to type--my beak is far better designed for eating fruit (and raiding an occasional nest, but don't tell anyone!) than it is for hunting and pecking.

Searching for Intelligent Life

Florida Scrub-Jays and Joe
My mate and I have been searching all over Florida for signs of intelligent life. So far this species seems the most trainable of all mammals, and some individuals might even make excellent pets. But it's impossible to communicate with them about anything of the least consequence.

Guess which side of the cat debate I'm on?

I'm not even a Piping Plover--I'm a Snowy Plover. But I definitely side with the people who are trying to protect us all from cats. Here's a story from the New York Times about the issue. If you're a human, whether you think people should be allowed to shoot cats that are killing birds or you don't, PLEASE keep your cat indoors!

Hear Hear! Thanks Mr. Snowy Owl for the previous post.

I'm another captive owl--I live with Marge Gibson at the Raptor Education Group, Inc. in Antigo, Wisconsin. Marge is the nicest human being on the planet, and I love my life, but still. I'd just as soon never hear of another owl or any other bird needing to be rehabbed because it got scared and flew across a road.

When we cavity-roosting owls have a nice, safe hole, we can poke our heads out to catch some rays, but if we get scared we just pull right in and you can't even tell we're home! But when we're new in an area and haven't found a cavity, or if some blasted squirrel or starling boots us out, it sucks to be discovered by people when we're trying to hide out on a branch. You have NO idea how scary it is for us when you ginormous people walk up, saying stuff like "Oh, look! He's so tame!" when really, we're scared out of our gourds! But if we fly away, some stupid chickadee is sure to spot us, and then all hell breaks loose. So we sit tight, quaking in our talons, and hope for the best. Hope IS the thing with feathers, after all. But sometimes I think people have no respect for us at all.

Give us a brake, and a break! A message to birders.

I'm a captive owl, living in Minocqua, Wisconsin, at the Northwoods Wildlife Center. They take good care of me, and my life is overall pretty cushy. But I'd give up the comforts of civilized life in a heartbeat to be back home on the tundra, hunting for lemmings and snowshoe hares and feeling wild and FREE again.

That's not in the cards for me. But hey--please keep that in the cards for my wild friends and relatives! Slow down when you know you're in an area where owls are spending time. Believe it or not, a lot of us get hit by cars driven by birders! You always hurt the one you love? I don't think so--anyone who is hell bent on a new tick for their list who doesn't know how and where to look, and isn't being mindful, is hardly a lover of owls.

And hey--don't walk up to us for a closeup photo. If you want a splendid photo of an owl, you can 1) take a photo at a rehab center. We're used to it. 2) digiscope. You can do that at a pretty respectful distance.

But even with digiscoping, don't press your luck. Remember, owls from the far north are not used to people. Do you know how...well, how repulsive you people look to us? I'm sorry, but that bare skin on your faces is pretty gross, and the weird whites of your eyes--we just aren't used to that. And when you focus those glassy weird eyeballs on us--ewwwwwwww! And you people overall just don't have that great a track record with us birds, so don't expect us to trust you when you saunter towards us. If you flush an owl, you were being a friggin' jerk, okay? Next time remember not to get that close. Flying around is how we get hit by cars and get stuck in a cage for the rest of our lives, or worse!

People are supposed to be smarter than us birds. So how's about you use your so-called superior brain, and also a bit of heart, and give us some space?

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Got a pigeon in your Maidenform brassiere?

We doves do not approve of war as a way of settling differences, but when drafted, we sure do serve our country valiantly. Unlike some chickenhawks I could name!

This New York Times story tells about one of the last surviving men serving with my ancestors in the U.S. Army Signal Corps, Richard Topus, who died December 5. Richard Topus sounds like he was a wonderful man, but the part of the article I personally found most interesting was this:

Pigeons have been used as wartime messengers at least since antiquity. Before the advent of radio communications, the birds were routinely used as airborne couriers, carrying messages in tiny capsules strapped to their legs. A homing pigeon can find its way back to its loft from nearly a thousand miles away. Over short distances, it can fly a mile a minute. It can go where human couriers often cannot, flying over rough terrain and behind enemy lines.

By the early 20th century, advances in communications technology seemed to herald the end of combat pigeoneering. In 1903, a headline in The New York Times confidently declared, “No Further Need of Army Pigeons: They Have Been Superseded by the Adoption of Wireless Telegraph Systems.”

But technology, the Army discovered, has its drawbacks. Radio transmissions can be intercepted. Triangulated, they can reveal the sender’s location. In World War I, pigeons proved their continued usefulness in times of enforced radio silence. After the United States entered World War II, the Army put out the call for birds to racing clubs nationwide. Tens of thousands were donated.

In all, more than 50,000 pigeons served the United States in the war. Many were shot down. Others were set upon by falcons released by the Nazis to intercept them. (The British countered by releasing their own falcons to pursue German messenger pigeons. But since falcons found Allied and Axis birds equally delicious, their deployment as defensive weapons was soon abandoned by both sides.)

But many American pigeons did reach their destinations safely, relaying vital messages from soldiers in the field to Allied commanders. The information they carried — including reports on troop movements and tiny hand-sketched maps — has been widely credited with saving thousands of lives during the war.

Mr. Topus enlisted in early 1942 and was assigned to the Army Signal Corps, which included the Pigeon Service. He was eventually stationed at Camp Ritchie in Maryland, one of several installations around the country at which Army pigeons were raised and trained. There, he joined a small group of pigeoneers, not much bigger than a dozen men.

Camp Ritchie specialized in intelligence training, and Mr. Topus and his colleagues schooled men and birds in the art of war. They taught the men to feed and care for the birds; to fasten on the tiny capsules containing messages written on lightweight paper; to drop pigeons from airplanes; and to jump out of airplanes themselves, with pigeons tucked against their chests. The Army had the Maidenform Brassiere Company make paratroopers’ vests with special pigeon pockets.

The birds, for their part, were trained to fly back to lofts whose locations were changed constantly. This skill was crucial: once the pigeons were released by troops in Europe, the Pacific or another theater, they would need to fly back to mobile combat lofts in those places rather than light out for the United States. Mr. Topus and his colleagues also bred pigeons, seeking optimal combinations of speed and endurance.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Mine's longer than yours!

Guess Who #2

I was photographed in Costa Rica. Guess who I am! Put your guess in "Comments." First to correctly answer gets extra credit toward his/her final grade in life and, if you like, an uncompressed photo of ME!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Beethoven's Birthday Tomorrow!

Ever since someone told me I start my song like Beethoven's Fifth, I've tried to listen to his music on his birthday each year. But I've yet to hear a single note that sounds anything like my song!

Oh, my! The comics curmudgeon and chickadees

I don't know what to say about The Dark Soul of the Chickadee. For one thing, we chickadees don't get dependent on feeders!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Guess Who #1

Hint: This photo was taken on a volcano in Guatemala. Who am I? Post your guesses in Comments.

Friday, December 12, 2008

I protest the 2008 "Hooters Calendar"!

Okay--it's bad enough people call us "hooters," when some of us (like me for instance!) don't hoot at all. But the 2008 "Hooters Calendar" is shocking! Whoever took the February photo was using flash at night on the poor guy! That is COSMICALLY rude.

We Guatemalan owls will be watching the moon, too!

We Costa Rican owls will be watching the moon, too!

Hoooo's going to be watching the full moon tonight?

By the light of the silvery moon, we love to hunt! And tonight's moon is going to be the closest, and biggest, since 1993! Be there, or be square!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The miracle of iridescence

Ain't I magnificent?

ON NOTICE! Methane burners at landfills

The ever-wonderful Rob Fergus does his best to help us. He just posted on the Audubon Birdscapes Blog some sad photos and a lot of information about birds being burned at landfills. As usual, he posts not just information about the problem, but also about what people can do to help. Apparently it doesn't take a rocket scientist to find a solution. But as the Lorax says, "Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not."

"Never asked a crumb of me"? HA HA HA!

Isn't it ironic that a chickadee of all birds would cite that poem of Emily Dickinson's? I mean, come on! Chickadees, jays, nuthatches, finches--they're all beggars. Even crows and ravens will sneak in and steal stuff from people. Take it from a real bird--one with a little pride! We shrikes don't need no stinkin' crumbs from anyone. And one more thing--we eat chickadees for lunch! (But maybe not that Gray Jay!)

Happy birthday, Emily Dickinson!

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all,
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I've heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Look up, Hannah! The moon!

I can't help myself. Whenever I hear interesting news about the moon, I get into full romantic mode, remembering my courtship with my dear mate--I'll never forget our first spring flight together, with a balmy southern breeze pushing us northward as we winged beneath a full moon, all the promise of spring and love and eggs and new life coming closer with every wingbeat. Every year around our anniversary we get back into that whole romantic thing, but during the rest of the year, when he's being a little too, well, goosey, all I need is a full moon to remind me why I've put up with him day in and day out for all these years. And wow--I just read that this week the full moon is going to be the closest and largest it's ever been during my lifetime! Not since March, 1993, has it been this close! Ah, it makes me think of Romeo and Juliet, though really, we geese are far more faithful than mere humans--we'd never find ourselves saying Juliet's lines:

O, swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon,
That monthly changes in her circled orb,
Lest that thy love prove likewise variable.

We geese are nothing if not faithful. So when it comes down to it, Dean Martin says it best:

When the moon hits your eye
Like a big pizza pie
That's amore!

It's lovely that this full moon filled with promise is coming right now, in anticipation of the Inauguration (we geese don't like politics and refuse to be partisan, but we can't help but feel a wee bit hopeful about more and better habitat protection and better restrictions on pesticides again!) Naturally, looking up at the moon makes me think of Charlie Chaplin's immortal, Look up, Hannah!:
Hannah, can you hear me? Wherever you are, look up, Hannah. The clouds are lifting. The sun is breaking through. We are coming out of the darkness into the light. We are coming into a new world, a kindlier world, where men will rise above their hate, their greed and brutality.

Look up, Hannah. The soul of man has been given wings, and at last he is beginning to fly. He is flying into the rainbow -- into the light of hope, into the future, the glorious future that belongs to you, to me, and to all of us. Look up, Hannah. Look up."

(Thanks, Wikipedia--we geese can never remember such long things by heart.)

Remember us cranes!

We cranes at the International Crane Foundation are thrilled that some of our children and grandchildren are wild and free again! Some, right this minute, are hunkered down in Hardin County, Tennessee--over half way down to Florida on their migration. They're following an Ultralight airplane this time around, but in the spring they'll fly back to Wisconsin on their own, and then be on their own! It's thrilling to get to play a part in this, even if I'm only donating my sperm and a few of my mate's and my eggs. Any people reading this can donate actual money! Do it for the children.

Monday, December 8, 2008

ON NOTICE! Whoever spilled oil in the Channel

Uh oh--those of us who get a "google alert" for oil spills got a heads up--better late than never--that oil was headed our way in the Channel thanks to this article in today's Santa Barbara Independent. Too bad so many of our friends here are functionally illiterate or don't have access to Internet:

Oil Spill in the Channel

Leak Near Platform A Sends More Than 1,000 Gallons Into Ocean Waters

Monday, December 8, 2008

Though details remain sketchy, the United States Coast Guard confirmed this morning that late on Sunday December 7, an oil spill near Platform A in the Santa Barbara Channel — roughly six miles offshore of Summerland — spewed an estimated 27 barrels of oil — approximately 1,134 gallons — into the ocean.

According to Doug Anthony, deputy director of the Santa Barbara County Energy Division, response teams from the U.S. Coastguard, California Fish and Game and the Federal Government’s Minerals Management Service (MMS) are currently responding to the incident and have 11 boats on the scene. About 15 to 20 of the spilled barrels are believed to have already been recovered. Still, according to MMS, the size of the oil slick 1.5 miles long and 2,000 feet wide and is headed due east towards Ventura County. There have been reported impacts to wildlife.

Platform A is the site of the historic hemorrhage of 1969 which sent more than 1 million gallons of crude into the Pacific and is widely considered to have been the mishap which gave birth to the modern day environmental movement.

(That photo above was taken on the way to Santa Cruz Island in the Channel in 2005.)

Microsoft Spellcheck Sucks

This year I decided to send a Christmas letter to all my friends. Using a computer is MUCH nicer than writing longhand--I'm just a hunt and peck typist, but you should see my penmanship! Or no, you shouldn't!

But anyway, the envelopes have a space for return address, so I typed in "Neotropics." And Microsoft Word kept telling me that was misspelled. I asked a couple of motmots what they thought, but they said they're really bad spellers and didn't have a clue. I mustered up my courage and asked a Mottled Owl--believe me, I was ready to make a quick getaway if she got that look in her eye, but she just shrugged and said she doesn't keep up on that kind of thing.

So I added "Neotropics" to the spellcheck dictionary. But still--do you know what word they wanted me to change it to? I am not making this up: Microsoft wanted me to top my return address with "Neurotics"! What do they think we're running down here?

Of course, they wanted me to change my best friend's name to "Blackburn Ian"! Our poor Parula friends are, according to Microsoft, on "parole"! But the biggest joke is that they think I'm a "Yellow-rumpled Warbler." The computer geeks who develop these programs really should get outside a little more!

Friday, December 5, 2008

Give me a break!

I've gotten several emails already asking me to change the background of this blog to something "cooler" or less generic, and to change the format of our pictures to make them easier to load, and on and on. Everyone's a critic! But, hello?! Do you know how hard it is to be the Webmaster of a site when your only qualification is your webbed feet?

Hee Hee Hee!

I was just reading about how tricky it is for people to count us birds, especially when there's background noise. Me, I've always enjoyed singing too high for a lot of them to hear. A guy needs SOME privacy, after all!

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Karma Police, arrest this man!

Okay, everyone knows I think people suck, but the more I learn, the more I see red (quite literally). So I'm starting a list of humans who are ON NOTICE. Starting with whoever is in charge of polluting these tar sands.

And yes, I love Radiohead. Wanna make something of it?

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Quiet Depredation

The mass of hawks lead lives of quiet depredation. Not me--I'm a Merlin and we make as much noise as we darned well like! You can hear how loud we are here.

Vera, Chuck, and Dave's first email

Vera here, and I'm so excited I could pop! We just got our first email!
Dear Vera, Chuck, and Dave:
Your names sound vaguely familiar. Are you famous?
Your friend, Rusty Blackbird.
The answer is, no. Like other Tufted Titmice, we are much too shy to be famous!

I asked my Aunt Lucy where our names came from. She said our Grandpa Paul was the one who asked our mother to give us those names. She said he never sang peter-peter-peter like a normal titmouse, instead singing all kinds of weird tunes like a mockingbird or something. She remembered that the first time he visited after we were hatched he crooned to us something about getting ridiculously old, chanting nonsense phrases. The words that stuck in her mind, even though they made no sense whatsoever, were, “If I'd been out till quarter to three, would you lock the door?”

Our Aunt Michelle remembered a couple of other things. She said Grandpa Paul was an entomologist! He was obsessed with singing insects. He and his brother, her Uncle John, were very competitive and always bickering about who was the best one. My grandmother fell for Grandpa Paul because he was “the cute one.” But Uncle John’s mate insisted he was the best one. Aunt Michelle said no one ever liked Uncle John's mate (well, except Uncle John--and by all accounts, she made him very happy). Sadly, when she arrived on the scene, the whole family fell apart.

Everyone loved Uncle George because he was so quiet and unassuming, and there was one other uncle, too. Aunt Michelle couldn’t remember his name (she’s Catholic and only remembers names if there’s a Pope attached). She said he was very eccentric. For a while he thought he was a woodpecker and couldn't stop drumming! When he finally quit that annoying habit, he became totally delusional, thinking he was the conductor on a little train. Aunt Michelle feels sad that she can’t remember his name because despite his eccentricities, he was very kind and funny and she always loved him best.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Vera Reviews Wall-E and Hello, Dolly!

Hi, Vera here. Chuck, Dave, and I downloaded Wall-E on iTunes this week. (Thank goodness for current bushes because my battery was low.) Everyone had been talking about what a great environmental message the movie has, but the three of us all agree that that's pure, unadulterated poppycock! I mean, yeah, the little robot with binoculars for eyes was sweet and everything, and none of the mess was his fault, but hello?!!? Every single plant on earth is dead except one tiny sprout--locked inside a dark refrigerator no less--for all those years? Have they not heard of photosynthesis?

And then, people come back, start up agriculture from scratch with nothing except a cockroach and that one tiny plant, and in the end, there's a Blue Jay??!! I don't think so. Though I must admit that since Blue Jays really did plant oak trees after glaciation, they were a good choice for that brief little cameo, though Chuck and Dave both think that, based on the obvious ignorance about birds and plants in the rest of the film, the producers probably didn't choose a Blue Jay based on their ecological importance but because of their bright colors and, if you don't mind my saying so, their jaunty little crest, since everyone knows that we crested birds are so artistically interesting.

But the movie got us all thinking about Hello, Dolly! which we hadn't watched in years--we never forget a song! So we rented the video and watched that one again. Now THAT'S a movie with a lot of birds, though they're used in a really creepy way:

And of course there's that scene in the Harmonia Gardens when one waiter rolls up an aquarium to a table and the customer picks out a lobster, then another waiter rolls in another aquarium and lets the guy pick out a fish, and then a third waiter wheels up a big covered pan, opens it, and out flies a bunch of Wood Ducks, the customer points, and the waiter shoots one. I am not making this up. Chuck said he was just shooting a blank, and you don't see the duck really fall, but how about what they rolled in to Cornelius Hackl's table, with that poor dead pheasant??! What barbarism!

But at least in the scenes at Vandergelder's Hay and Feed store, you can hear in the background a Rose-breasted Grosbeak, an Eastern Phoebe and, in a moment of gritty realism, a House Sparrow. I'd have loved to hear a Tufted Titmouse, but whoever did the sound must have realized that we didn't live in New York back in the 1890s. I love it when they get those little details right, though Chuck and Dave said it was just luck.

I read one review talking about the brilliant opening with the train going along the river between New York City and Yonkers being so evocative blah, blah, blah, but all I could see was the smoke belching out of the locomotive. Sadly foreshadowing the world in Wall-E.