Archiving bird columns shows changes


Hard copies of 16 years of Bird Banter columns published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle are filed away. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Jan. 11, 2015, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Archiving bird columns shows changes.”

By Barb Gorges

I’m afraid to mention this, lest the editor of the Wyoming Tribune Eagle think I’ve been doing this too long, but next month is the beginning of my 17th year writing this bird column.

It started because Bill Gruber, the Outdoors editor in 1999, asked me if I’d be interested.

I protested that there were people in town more knowledgeable—and there still are. But I had the time. And I could always research and ask the experts.

Besides Bill, I’ve worked with these other editors: Ty Stockton, Cara Eastwood Baldwin, Shauna Stephenson, Kevin Wingert and now Jodi Rogstad. All have been kind in their editing, catching style and grammatical errors.

A year ago, I had this great idea to archive all of my past columns as blog posts. I’d taken an online course in blogging as part of my teaching recertification and I was intrigued. For one thing, I could add a widget that allows me to search all my past posts. So I could find out how many times I’d written about say, the Christmas Bird Count (about a dozen times).

I decided to make it a publicly accessible blog, So far, I have 86 followers from all over the world without actively publicizing it.

Because bird topics are seasonal, and because there might be followers, strict chronological order wouldn’t be best. So I used chronological order within each month, starting with February. The first post was the column I wrote that month, in 1999, followed by the one from February 2000, and so on.

Then I realized that these old columns could be outdated. So each one is accompanied not only by the date it originally was published, but by a short update on the topic.

There are some things that just don’t change in the bird world, but technology has. I can now find an incredible amount of information online, and I can ask experts questions without having to call them long distance or mail a letter to them.

The most dramatic change in the bird world has been the advent of eBird, of course. The first column mentioning it was in 2003. It seems like every six months they come up with a new way for all of us citizen scientists to explore the eBird database—and more easily contribute to it. Amazing scientific studies are generated by it too.

The birds themselves continue to change. Mostly, it’s population numbers and distribution.

For instance, there are more crows in Cheyenne today. There are way too many more Eurasian collared-doves now than there were in 1999, a year after the first one in Wyoming was identified in Cheyenne.

Do we have fewer numbers of any species? Evening grosbeaks don’t seem to be visiting anymore. But a few years ago, lesser goldfinches started becoming regular, if still uncommon, visitors.

There is never a lack of topics to explore in the bird world. Feedback shows that a lot of WTE readers are willing to come along on these sometimes intellectual excursions with me.

Hearing from readers is what makes writing these columns better than merely writing in a diary or notebook.

Information from readers has driven me to investigate topics, especially when there are several calls about the same thing. What to do about flickers drilling holes in wood siding is a column I’ve forwarded often since writing it.

Interestingly, for a while if you googled my name, the column that seemed to come up most often—because a friend in Colorado reposts my columns to his blog—is the one I wrote about the University of Wyoming graduate student studying hummingbird metabolism. In fact, it has been included in some online science anthology I can’t access without buying a subscription.

There are now more than 300 Bird Banter columns posted. It has been fun looking back at them, seeing how, between the lines, they reflect my family’s life. And I’m happy to have become the community bird lady, a responsibility which I appreciate.

More conventionally, I can be classified as a science writer. Actually, that isn’t too far off from my course of study in college—and what one of my professors thought I should be.

Well, thanks, WTE editors and readers, for this monthly privilege. What’s up at your bird feeders these days?


Writing Bird of the Week educates author

Birds of North America Online

The Birds of North America Online is a great website for finding a summary of what is known about a species. However, there is a subscription fee.

Published Oct. 10, 2010, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “What the ‘Bird of the Week’ has taught me.”

2014 Update: When I finish archiving Bird Banter columns at the end of January 2015, I will begin archiving “Bird of the Week.”

By Barb Gorges

In the summer of 2008 I committed to writing “Bird of the Week” for the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s ToDo section for two years.

My idea was to help readers learn about birds more often than this column, known informally as “Bird Banter,” with its publication dependent on the WTE’s available space.

Two other developments inspired this idea. The first was the redesign of the WTE which introduced “sky boxes” at the top of pages that feature paragraph-long bits of information accompanied by attention-grabbing headlines and photos.

The second was Pete Arnold’s bird photography which he shares via email. I asked him if he would be interested in sharing his photos via newspaper.

Next, I examined Pete’s list of bird photos (I really don’t know how bird photographers get shots of such “flighty” animals!), identified 104 species WTE readers might see easily in the Cheyenne area and then assigned them to a week in which they might actually be seen here. Naturally, there was a dearth of species for winter and an abundance of species for summer.

How to sum up such interesting creatures in few words is a challenge I faced about 10 years ago when I wrote an educational CD for the National Audubon Society and the Wyoming Department of Game and Fish called “Wyoming Birds.” It was easy to write for children who might never have noticed birds before.

However, “Bird of the Week” readers would span bird appreciators, owning no binoculars or field guides, and local bird experts.

I decided on a mix of generalization—a glimpse of the bird in its Cheyenne area habitat—plus some unsuspected trivia I was betting more experienced birders might not know or had at least never mentioned to me.

My reference was Birds of North America Online,, available for the annual subscription fee of $42 per year. Accounts include video, photo and sound files as well as updates and search capability. Glad I didn’t have $2000 to buy the original 18,000-page print version when it first came out.

So how long does it take to write 60-80 words? About five minutes. But first it takes one to two hours to read the BNA species account. And it took an infinite amount of time to edit each bird’s paragraph—I make changes every time I read through my own writing.

Eventually I learned to give preference to the interesting factoids appropriate to the season the bird was featured. If it was spring and I was writing about a warbler that only visits Cheyenne during migration, I might focus on its interesting migration facts rather than its nesting or wintering habits.

Sometimes the reading in BNA is pretty tough sledding, unraveling sentences that are little more than diagrams of technical terms. Bird of the Week was a lot like a two-year home-study course in ornithology. So now I have a much broader understanding of how different birds solve problems of survival of the individual and perpetuation of the species.

There are another 220 more obscure species on the Cheyenne bird checklist. However, the problem with continuing the series would be whether Pete has photos or if readers would be disappointed if a species is not as easily seen as the first group.

Reader feed-back has been positive. Once I heard from a reader who noticed her first green-tailed towhee the same day it was featured. I consider that “mission accomplished.”

Thanks to the cooperation of Pete and the WTE staff, more people are more aware of what’s around them.

I wonder what else readers would like to know—and what I would learn by researching it.