Raising ravens

If feeding the birds gets to be a chore, consider the diet Bernd Heinrich fed four young ravens over a four-day period:

  • DAY ONE: One woodchuck and one snowshoe hare (roadkills frozen and then chopped up — skin, bones, guts and all — into bite-sized chunks and thawed before feeding).
  • DAY TWO: Three red squirrels, one chipmunk, six frogs, eight chicken eggs (crunched up, shells and all).
  • DAY THREE: Two gray squirrels, five frogs, six eggs, six mice.
  • DAY FOUR: One hindquarter of a Holstein calf.

After that, Heinrich writes, the ravens’ appetites picked up.

Heinrich writes about the care and feeding of young ravens as part of his fascinating book, "Mind of the Raven," written in 1999.

If you’ve ever given a thought to raising a raven or two of your own, you really should read this book first.

Consider, for instance, the effect ravens can have a neighborhood relationships.

A fellow named Konrad Lorenz had a raven named Roa, Heinrich reports, who developed an unfortunate interest in the neighbors’ laundry. This occurred because Lorenz called his raven one day just as the raven was exploring said laundry. "He came, taking a small transportable item with him, a pair of panties," Heinrich writes.

Lorenz rewarded Roa the raven for coming when he was called. It’s easy to understand how the raven misinterpreted the meaning for the reward. Thereafter, he faithfully returned home carrying women’s underthings.

 "Mind of the Raven" focuses as much on ravens in the wild as around people. Suffice to say that tracking ravens in the wild presents its own challenges.

It’s a look at a bird that has fascinated people at least as far back as biblical times. ("Who provides food for the raven when its young cry out to God and wander about for lack of food?" Job 38:41 says.) It might turn out to be more about ravens than I want to know. But I’m sure I’d rather read about them than climb up a pine tree to check on their young for myself, as Heinrich is wont to do.

You can check out "Mind of the Raven" at the Duluth Public Library … or could if someone didn’t already have it.


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Signs of spring?

My colleague John Myers, who lives in the University of Minnesota Duluth neighborhood, says he has been noticing one of the earliest signs of spring: the return of cardinals to his neighborhood.

He expects another sign soon: The returns of gulls to the neighborhood, scouting for whatever sorts of food gulls might find in the area of college campuses.

Both John and I have heard the telltale "SPRING-time" mating call of chickadees.

One of my favorite early signs of spring is the phrase "Pitchers and catchers report." This applies to some birds, such as Blue Jays, Orioles and Cardinals.

What about you? What are your favorite early signs of spring, bird-related or otherwise? And have you seen any of them yet?

Send me a note by clicking on "comment," or send me an e-mail at jlundy@duluthnews.com. And bird pictures are always welcome, too.



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Fun on the bog

People have been raving on the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union’s e-mail listserv about the Sax Zim Bog Winter Bird Festival, which took place last weekend.

Michael Hendrickson, who spearheaded the festival in its second year, was on the listserv on Sunday with a report and the numbers:

  • 155 birders from 22 states and Australia
  • 22 bird species sighted
  • But no great gray owls, no three-toed woodpeckers and no Bohemian waxwings.
  • Among the species that were seen: Boreal owl, rough-legged hawk, black-backed woodpeckers, Townsend’s solitaire, black-billed magpie, evening grosbeaks.

During the week, participants chipped in with their impressions. They’ve been uniformly enthusiastic, particularly about the kindness of the people they encountered.

Enthusiastic is the word to describe Hendrickson when it comes to birding in general and the Sax Zim Bog in particular. He frequently leads birders from other states and even from other countries in birding trips to Sax Zim and other area hot spots.

He’s talking about the possibility of a boardwalk in the bog, which would be very cool.

And yes, he’s planning a third winter bird festival for next year. I might have to take some vacation days.


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Redpolls rule

The Great Backyard Bird Count is over for another year, except that checklists from the four days (this past Friday through Monday) still can be submitted through the end of this month.

But there’s no doubt about the No. 1 bird in Minnesota during this year’s count: It’s the common redpoll, wings down.

As of Tuesday evening, Minnesotans had reported seeing 82 species during the four days, and a total of 63,641 birds. The ubiquitous black-capped chickadee appeared on the most checklists: 789. But more individual redpolls were seen than any other bird, by far: a total of 14,561. If I’m doing the math correctly — a questionable proposition — that means more than one out of every five birds seen in the state was a redpoll. No other bird was seen even half that often.

In Duluth, a total of 32 species had been reported and 1,045 birds — and 475 of those were common redpolls. On the other end of the scale, just one American kestrel was reported, along with a single northern shrike, one brown creeper and one house sparrow.

The person who reported the house sparrow would be me. I saw it during a half-hour of looking out the window on Sunday; I also counted 30 redpolls that day. I wasn’t able to find time to count on Monday, but I’m guessing I had close to 50 redpolls swarming — there is no other word — in the area of my feeders for some of Monday morning. I’m not sure of this, but it looked to me like a flock came through and briefly joined the regulars. They fed at a frenetic pace.

If you counted birds but haven’t submitted your checklist yet, or you want to find out, for example, how many American robins were counted in Duluth, you can get it all at the Great Backyard Bird Count Web site here: www.birdsource.org/gbbc/

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Q & A’s

QUESTION: Bob King heard three woodpeckers drumming on trees in the nearby woods Monday morning. Not sure what kind of woodpeckers they were, but they weren’t pileateds. And they were all drumming in the same way, meaning they were the same species of woodpecker. It was a rapid, but steady, drumming, the volume descending from beginning to end. Here’s the question: Do woodpeckers stake out territory at this time of the year? Is that what they might have been about? Any takers out there?

ANSWER: Todd Fedora posed the question; his dad came up with the answer. The question arose when a neighbor discovered a decapitated rabbit: body, legs, feet but no head. Who — or what — dunit? Actually, Todd’s dad already had answered the question. Todd provided more details in an e-mail on Monday. The answer was in the September-October 2008 Minnesota Conservation magazine. Here’s an excerpt from their answer to a question from a Baxter, Minn., woman: "DNR wildlife educator Jan Welsh says the brains seem to be the best part of the beast from an owl’s perspective. Since rabbit is generally too big for an owl to carry, the bird most likely took what it could and then left the rest."

Rabbit brain. Yum. Thanks for not sending a picture of that rabbit, Todd.

ANSWER: Henry Bird responded to my question about thistle waste and the difference between thistle and nyjer. And yes, it’s nyjer, not niger, the word I kept using. (Nyjer would be a much better Scrabble word.) I hope you’ll read her comments attached to the "Leftovers" post. Probably the main point is that I can’t neglect that waste anymore.The seed gets wet and then gets moldy, and if the birds eat it they get sick. Time to clean the snow.

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This is what it looks like below my thistle feeders.

That’s not soil. It’s what’s left over after a couple of dozen redpolls spend a month of almost constant daylight feeding on the thistle feeders. I’ve been refilling at least a couple of my thistle feeders almost every morning. This is the result.

A friend asked if thistle leftovers would produce thistles growing in the yard this summer.

I don’t think so. I’ve been putting out thistle for years, and I’ve never had prickly plants as a result.

Still, what gives? Why is there so much waste? Why don’t the redpolls and finches eat more carefully?

I learned something new (to me) in a conversation with Henry Bird the other day. It turns out what the birds actually eat is a tiny seed inside the black pods that you see. If you look closely, perhaps through binoculars, you can see the birds cracking open the shell to get at the seed. What I’m seeing on the snow below the feeders is like seeing peanut shells on the floor of a bar. It doesn’t mean the peanuts went to waste. (But it is messy.)

Besides, it’s my understanding that the stuff we feed the birds these days isn’t really thistle, it’s niger. But I can’t say that I know the difference, or why one is chosen over the other. Perhaps Henry Bird or someone else could weigh in on this question?

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Bird count, Days One and Two

On the first day of the Great Backyard Bird Count, I spent an hour looking out the window and reported seeing these birds:

  • 17 common redpolls
  • 1 chickadee
  • 3 pigeons (a flyby)

Today, I spent a half-hour and saw these birds:

  • 24 common redpolls
  • 1 chickadee
  • 3 pigeons (again, a flyby)

Not very exciting, but it reflects what I’ve been seeing recently. My redpoll population has waned, but it’s still my dominant (albeit tiny) backyard bird. Other birds are staying away. I’ve seen nuthatches, blue jays and house sparrows, but only infrequently.

But I’m confident the information I’m reporting adds to a huge data base that helps experts track where the birds are this February and compare that with other years.

You’ve still got Sunday and Monday to participate. Here’s the link: www.birdsource.org/gbbc/

From there, you just go to the little box toward the top in the middle that says Submit your list, and then click on "Go." It will guide you through the process. If, like me, you’ve only seen a few kinds of birds, it will only take about five minutes.


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Backyard bird count starts Friday

It’s a big weekend coming up … arguably even already under way.

Today (Feb. 12) is Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday. At 200, he’s as popular as ever.

For the superstitious, Friday takes on special significance because it’s a Friday the 13th.

For lovers and wishful thinkers, Saturday is Valentine’s Day.

For Minnesota Twins fans, Sunday is the day that pitchers and catchers report to spring training.

For historians and government workers, Monday is Presidents Day.

For teachers and students in the Duluth public schools, the weekend is the start of winter break.

But wait. There’s more.

For bird-watchers, Friday is the start of the Great Backyard Bird Count.

You’re not ready? No worries. You didn’t have to do anything in advance. All you have to do is look out the window for at least 15 minutes on any or all of the next few days and count the number of chickadees, redpolls, downy woodpeckers and whatever other kinds of birds you see. Then report them at this Web site:  www.birdsource.org/gbbc/

There’s even a chance of winning bird-related prizes, just for participating. I’m going to do it because it’s fun, but I have to admit I wouldn’t mind winning the Wingscapes BirdCam the National Audubon Society is offering as a prize.

To learn more about the bird count before you start, go to the Web site shown above and click on "How to Participate."

Friday also is the start of the Sax Zim Winter Bird Festival. You needed to register in advance for this, but you still can learn more about it at its Web site:  moumn.org/sax-zim/

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Back to the beginning

This blog made its debut a year ago Monday.

There’s evidence to suggest a few people are looking at it now who weren’t seeing it then. (But thanks, Mom, for being with me from the start.)

So I thought I’d reprint the original post today. It’s a sort of mission statement for the Wannabe Birder blog. The only thing I’d add now is that I welcome your bird observations and pictures at jlundy@duluthnews.com.

This is what I wrote then:

My name is John Lundy, and I’m a failure.

At least, I’m a failure when it comes to bird-watching.

I try. Oh, I try.

I start out so well: Tilley hat on my head, binoculars at the ready, Sibley bird guide in my backpack. I’ve listened to the CD of Minnesota Bird Songs. If I could only remember what I heard, I’d know if that call deep in the woods is a white-crowned sparrow or a rose-breasted grosbeak.

I hear something: Thweet. Thweet. Thweet.

It sounds nothing like what I remember from the CD. It sounds like something going thweet, thweet, thweet.

I catch a glimpse of something with wings high up in a tree. I manage to look at it through the binoculars, but it doesn’t pose for me like they do in the bird books. It’s about the size of a robin. It has a white patch on its wings. Its color is mud-splatch brown.

It flies. I look in the book. There’s nothing in the book that looks like a robin-sized, mud-splatch-brown bird with white patches on its wings.

A few winters ago, when great gray owls were everywhere, I couldn’t find one. People who weren’t even looking would spot them. I drove slowly up and down the narrow roads of the Sax-Zim bog, said to be thick with great grays. No owls.

I don’t want to be one of those competitive birders with a "life list" of hundreds of birds. I don’t want to drive 700 miles to Bland Prairie, Neb., to check out someone’s sighting of a Rocky Mountain spotted whatzit.

I’d just like to be a better bird-watcher than I have been. I’m fascinated by birds, and I’d like to know a little more about what I’m seeing.

If that also describes you, you’re invited to come along with me on this blog. Tell me about the birds you’re seeing in your backyard or on your drive to work. It doesn’t have to be exotic; if a chickadee entertains you, let me know. If you have questions, I’ll try to find someone who can answer them.

Just click on "comments" at the bottom of any of my entries. What you write doesn’t have to relate to what I’ve been thweeting about, as long as it has something to do with wild birds.

Experts are encouraged to participate. But be gentle. Remember, you were once a novice too.

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