Book reviews: What the Robin Knows, Life Everlasting, Young Birder’s Guide to Birds

What the Robin Knows

What the Robin Knows

Published May 25, 2012, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

2014 Update: All three books are widely available.

By Barb Gorges

What the Robin Knows, by Jon Young, c. 2012, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, hardcover, 241 pages, $22.

Includes science and audio editing by Dan Gardoqui and corresponding audio clips at www.hmh.com/whattherobinknows.

The subtitle of this book is “How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World.”

Author Jon Young takes what native trackers, other human mentors, and birds have taught him and passes it on to others through workshops and his website, www.BirdLanguage.com. Now he’s reaching a wider audience with this book.

There’s a slight New Age ring to it—after all, he’s moved from his boyhood home in New Jersey where he roamed the woods, to life in California.

In a way, this is also a self-help book. Young contends if you learn to pay attention in nature, specifically, distinguishing different bird calls and songs to understand “what the robin knows” about what is going on around you outdoors, it will make a difference to you, spiritually.

But even if you only want to learn to puzzle out wildlife secrets, you’ll find reading Young’s advice is time well spent.

Life Everlasting

Life Everlasting

Life Everlasting, The Animal Way of Death, Bernd Heinrich, c. 2012, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 256 pages, $25.

We all know about the food chain, but we don’t often want to think about how animals are recycled to become sustenance for future generations.

It is the request from a friend for a natural burial on author and scientist Bernd Heinrich’s land in Maine that causes him to examine the strategies of nature’s undertakers.

Heinrich’s in-depth look at how beetles, whales, ravens, vultures, salmon, among others, gracefully take part in the cycle of life contrasts sharply with what he shows us about human cultural practices that either use a huge amount of energy or poison extensive amounts of land with formaldehyde.

Heinrich is not only a scientist, but also a storyteller and a philosopher. If you enjoy this book, be sure to look up his others, including “Mind of the Raven” and “Why We Run.”

 

Young Birder's Guide

The Young Birder’s Guide to Birds of North America

The Young Birder’s Guide to Birds of North America, by Bill Thompson III, c. 2012, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 364 pages, softcover, $15.95.

As predictable as the spring migration of birds is the spring publication of a new bird field guide, especially one in the Peterson Field Guides series.

This one is for children old enough to read and is written by Bill Thompson III with help from his kids (whose mother, Julie Zickefoose, is one of the book’s illustrators) and Mrs. Huck’s fifth grade class.

If you buy this field guide for a child you know and hope to turn into a birdwatcher, even if you aren’t one, go ahead and read the introduction. You may find you want to buy a copy for yourself.

Only the book-wormiest kids will actually read the introductory chapter. The rest will go straight to the photos and the “Wow!” factoids—the surprising tidbits about each bird.

A generous 300 species of the 800 North American birds are included (200 of those can be expected in Cheyenne), but the volume’s dimensions still remain child-sized. My only quibble is with the range maps. You have to infer that during migration a species might be seen anywhere between the winter and summer ranges.

If this book sounds vaguely familiar, it is because Thompson and Zickefoose came out with “The Young Birder’s Guide to the Birds of Eastern North America” in the same format in 2008, which would be a better option for your grandchildren living east of the Mississippi, unless they are coming out to visit.

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Robins fledge, face cruel world

young American Robin

Fledgling American Robins may leave the nest before they are completely independent. But if they are old enough to have this many feathers, they are OK outside of the nest. Parents will find them and feed them. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published June 28, 2001 in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Robins fledge, face cruel world.”

2014 Update: We seem to get nesting Eurasian Collared-Doves more often than robins lately.

By Barb Gorges

Wind, rain and pea-sized hail over the last few weeks did not noticeably affect our resident robin family.

Every day that I checked the nest, it was normal to see one of the parents settled down over the eggs.

Then one day neither parent was there and I couldn’t see the turquoise-colored eggs either. I wondered if the nest had been raided and abandoned.

Turns out it’s hard to see into the shadows at the bottom of a nest if you’re looking sideways through a window screen. So I removed the screen.

The tiny nestlings were there. Their little bodies quivered with rapid breathing as they slept silently in a heap between feedings, eyes shut tight.

In the gloom of the nest their bright yellow gapes glowed.

When robin babies wake for feeding, these bright-yellow edges of their mouths, plus their red mouth linings, give the parents a target for dropping in food. As they mature, their beaks become totally yellow.

After a week, the three nestlings became pudgy little feather balls overflowing the nest. Their breasts were taking on an orange hue polka-dotted with brown.

When I opened the window to look at them, their eyes sparkled at me like the jet beads on a cape my ancient relative left behind.

On the 10th day after they hatched, I could count only two beaked faces staring at me. Had one already jumped ship?

But when I checked back a few hours later, the third one had reappeared. Evidently its siblings had been standing on it.

As I watched, one climbed over another and flapped its wings. As soon as I shut the window, Momma Robin returned with more groceries.

She has had the same routine each time–landing on the edge of the neighbor’s roof, at the ridge, hopping a few feet, stopping, then hopping again until she reaches the edge of the rain gutter. Then she hops across to the nest.

A worm is neatly looped up and held by her beak, yet she can still make her one-note call to her young.

Now the grackle family across the street is quite raucous. They too are nesting in junipers. I can’t see into their nest, but all the hullabaloo every time one of the adults flies into the bush alerted me to their location.

Parents, bird or human, have to deal with the unpleasant chore of disposing of baby poop. Baby birds produce “fecal sacs” which the parents dispose of by eating or carrying off.

These grackles have been departing the nest with the white blobs in their bills, but as they fly up and over our house, they lose their grips and the sacs splat on our front window.

It would be convenient if I were doing fecal analysis to find out what the young are eating. But since I’ve been digging alongside the grackles in the garden, I’d guess it is mostly pill bugs and worms.

A commune of mourning doves visits our yard every day. I can’t tell who is male and who is female and who is mated to whom. I’ve seen up to eight birds at a time. They’re probably nesting in neighborhood spruce trees.

Between the birds and the bat that zoomed by the other morning before dawn(no, zoomed is not the right word because bats make no noise; even less than a flit), we should have good insect and weed-seed control this summer.

When the young leave the nest, the parent robins will still be taking care of them. There are a lot of predators and dangerous situations out there for which they need parental guidance.

A caller the other day brought to my attention the perils of deep window wells, especially the six-foot ones at new houses. A baby bird died in hers because it couldn’t climb out and was too young to fly.

The caller suggested propping a branch against the inside of the window well or installing covers.

This week I feel a little like Momma Robin will soon. The boys have temporarily left home temporarily. Will they be safe out there in the world?

Will they know enough to feed themselves properly?

Will some kind soul assist them when needed, like the driver the other day assisted ducklings across Dell Range?

In the time it has taken to write this, the first young robin has fledged, one is sitting on the rim of the nest, and the other is on a nearby branch. An unhatched egg lies at the bottom of the nest.

Ken Kaufmann writes in “Lives of North American Birds,” that once the young are fledged, the male will take over parenting while the female prepares the nest for the second brood. At this rate I can procrastinate pruning the bushes at least another month–maybe even ‘til Christmas.

Procrastinate for the sake of the birds

American Robin family

American Robin nestlings hatch naked and blind. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published June 14, 2001, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Putting off yard work helps wildlife. It’s best to delay some chores until young birds have time to hatch and leave the nest as fledglings.”

2014 Update: My robin saga continues in the column published June 28, 2001, in the post following this one.

By Barb Gorges

Procrastination can be a good thing. Spring snowstorms will melt off the driveway by midday if I don’t shovel, and fancy computers eventually are available at garage sales.

On the north side of my house is a deep, dark and quiet forest.

Sheltered by the next-door neighbor’s house, when the wind gets there it drops in speed – and drops litter.

The junipers probably were cute little shrubs when they were planted along the foundation 40 years ago. Today they are leviathans, reaching over my head, 8 to 10 feet high and as wide and deep.

I keep thinking I should cut a few branches at Christmas – especially ones shading the window by my computer. The evergreen smell would be nice. But then I forget, and it’s May or June before I dig out the pruning saw.

Why do I procrastinate gardening and yard work, which I enjoy?

Perhaps because my other obligations are less forgiving of missed deadlines. Other than the lawn, of which the boys have charge, things grow slowly enough around here there’s never a pruning crisis – especially since I cultivate the natural look.

Well, the stars finally lined up right last week, and I found the pruning saw and headed for the woods, intent on bagging a few branches.

Actually, the hunting euphemism doesn’t translate here. We don’t bag branches. We keep them for yard projects and firewood.

I sawed around the computer window and moved to the next window, but as I grabbed a branch, it squawked.

Mama Robin flew up out of her nest and chastised me from the edge of the neighbor’s roof as I hurriedly backed away.

Deep, dark woods may be the epitome of safe bird habitat, but this is the first time the robins have chosen it over the trees out front. In fact, the nest is not deep in the juniper branches, but sort of on top.

By pressing my forehead to the window from inside the house before Mama Robin settled back in, I could see at least three eggs. When she’s on the nest, she sits as stoically as an avian Buddha.

A few days later, I had a call from someone concerned because her family cat had slightly mauled a baby bird that fell out of its nest. What should she do?

Here are some suggestions in order of preference.

First, try putting the nestling back in the nest. Some young, however, will just fling themselves out of the nest again, or the nest may be too high for you to reach safely.

Or, if the baby is fairly well feathered and close to being able to fly, let the parents take care of it on the ground. Keep pets and children away.

Once, I tried making a nest out of a bucket, placing it where the parents would visit and feed the baby, but it evidently wasn’t cat-proof.

The next option is to buy worms where fish bait is sold and start feeding the baby yourself.

Kelly, who works at the Cheyenne Pet Clinic, said baby birds only need to be fed once a day.

If you are squeamish about worms, try foods from this list she recommends: brown rice (cooked), frozen corn, cooked pinto beans, crushed dog kibble, soaked millet, lean meat, white cheese, fruit (especially oranges), green vegetables, carrots or squash. For treats, try dabs of yogurt, cottage cheese or dried fruit like raisins—but no nuts.

Kelly also said technicians at the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, located at the clinic, are happy to feed baby birds for you to get them ready for release.

Let me get on my soapbox here for two ideas.

First, nature doesn’t expect every seed to lead to a flower or every bird egg to lead to flight. Some progeny have to become food for others, whether it’s baby worms feeding robins or baby robins feeding hawks.

But on the other hand, bird blood on your cat’s paws is not part of the natural balance because domestic cats are not native to our area.

Letting your cat play with baby birds, besides doing damage to the individual birds and bird species in general, does nothing for the cat that you and a catnip mouse couldn’t do better indoors. And it’s safer for your cat, which won’t be exposed to bird-borne diseases and other outdoor hazards.

You could build a screened porch-type kennel like a friend of mine has for her cats. They still get to go outside, but everyone is safe. This is a great time of year to procrastinate over the right things.

Put off mowing the prairie, where killdeer and meadowlarks nest on the ground. Save the tree pruning and ditch clearing until the young have cleared their nests by June or July. Let the wild tangle at the back provide escape from predators.

According to Kenn Kaufman’s write-up on robins in “Lives of North American Birds,” I may have to wait 12 to 14 days for Mama Robin’s eggs to hatch and another 14-16 days for the young to fledge.

While I practice procrastinating pruning, if I open the window and let strains of Mozart float down to Mama Robin’s nest while the chicks are still in the shell, will they grow up smarter and survive better than other robins? Or will they emerge from the nest chirping the “Piano Sonata in B flat Major”?

Finding winter robins online

American Robin

American Robins overwinter in Cheyenne, in small numbers. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published March 22, 2001, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Who’s keeping count? Lots of folks.”

2014 Update: Explore the data of these Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society citizen science projects: http://birds.audubon.org/christmas-bird-count; http://gbbc.birdcount.org/; http://feederwatch.org/. The Thanksgiving Bird Count results are not online.

By Barb Gorges

Signs of spring 2001:

March 1- Robin flies over Rossman School.

March 7 – Crocus shoots visible in the school bird garden.

March 8 – Ragged skein of geese flying north but so high as to be barely visible to the naked eye. Obviously not the local overwintering flock flying low in and out of city parks.

March 8 – Distinctive killdeer call floats through open car window while driving Avenue C.

March 10 – Worm lying on sidewalk in front of B & B Appliance, while snow falls.

Seeing robins is not a very reliable sign of spring, not because we get snow so late in the spring, but because we have robins that spend the winter.

The proof came while I was comparing results of the Thanksgiving Bird Count, Christmas Bird Count, Great Backyard Bird Count and Project FeederWatch to see if together these surveys could tell me anything about winter bird abundance and movement.

Because the counts don’t use the same protocols each count’s data is best compared to its own, from year to year or by location.

The TBC and PFW are strictly bird feeder counts; the CBC surveys 15-mile diameter circles and the GBBC is a hybrid of feeder and park counts.

Each count reports data differently too. This year the CBC reported how it takes into account the number of observers and the amount of time they spend. For each species counted in a circle, the CBC lists the total number of individual birds as well as the number seen per “party hour” (because birders go out in parties).

As CBC observers are free to count anywhere within the circle, the data don’t tell you, for example, that they went straight to a preferred habitat to count geese, such as Holliday Park.

As long as observers go there each year, the numbers of geese can be compared from year to year–unless next year there are half as many geese at the park because the other half are in a feeding frenzy over some spilled corn somewhere else. But hopefully local birders know that.

Numbers reported for the GBBC have not yet been adjusted for the number of observers and there’s been an increase in participation. Last year 98 counts, or checklists, were submitted from 23 locations in Wyoming. This year 202 checklists were submitted from 35 locations.

Cheyenne submitted seven in 2000 and 16 in 2001.

PFW is probably the most reliable way to compare bird movement and abundance over the course of one winter. But again, every observer doesn’t always report for every time period.

The key to a well-designed scientific study, as kids participating in science fairs learn, is to have a minimum number of variables. A bird study should be conducted at the same time of day and year, for the same length of time, in the same place, by the same person with an unchanging level of skill, if we truly want to look for changes in the numbers of birds over time. Spring breeding bird surveys performed by ornithologists do that.

But the other hallmark of a good study is replication, or in this case, the number of observers submitting data.

This season the TBC had 449 counters from the 13 westernmost states. The latest CBC had more than 45,000 participants counting 63 million birds. About 4.5 million birds were documented in 52,000 GBBC checklists last month. Fifteen thousand people participated in PFW.

Besides tracking bird populations in a general way, another benefit of all these counts is that more people get interested in bird conservation. But us backyard bird watchers need a way to get a handle on the tremendous amount of data generated.

One way is to track just one species.

So, where has our sign of spring, the American robin, been all winter?

The TBC, held Nov. 23, 2000, rated the robin as 20th in abundance, out of 179 reported. They were reported in all 13 westernmost states except Hawaii, Alaska, Arizona and Wyoming. Montana only reported one.

There were only 23 counts submitted from eight Wyoming locations, so in a strictly feeder-based count, it would be easy to overlook a bird that in winter prefers berries hanging on trees to seed in feeders.

For the CBC, each circle’s count is one day long, scheduled sometime between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5. Three robins were seen in Cheyenne Dec. 30. That’s 0.114 birds per party hour.

Fourteen out of 18 Wyoming count circles saw robins. The Kane count, up along the Big Horn Reservoir near Lovell, listed 400 robins. Casper counted 99.

The GBBC, a feeder-based count held Feb. 16-19 this year, listed 150 robins for Wyoming. According to the map, none were seen in Cheyenne, 5-10 in Casper and a bunch in the Big Horn Basin.

PFW will have data from Nov. 11, 2000 through April 6. So far, the animated map for robins in November through February shows concentrations on the West coast and along the Colorado Front Range. Little blips of robins show up in Wyoming from time to time. A lot of robins showed up on Wayne Tree’s informal Best Backyard e-mail list for February.

Either robins are flocking to backyards in western Montana (where most of his contributors live) or birders are picking the robin as their favorite over the winter regulars because the winter’s been long and they’re ready for a sign of spring.

Robin sightings will increase with the coming of spring, partly because we spend more time out in the increasingly pleasant weather, but mostly because most robins did leave for the winter and are flocking back to southeastern Wyoming for our hospitable trees and tasty–but only seasonally available–worms.