MacRostie Art Center's 30th Annual Juried Exhibition
Showing "Barred Encounter in Minnesota's Northland"
The exhibition is free and open to all
Rhynchokinesis. Now there’s a word you don’t see every day. When learning about the American Woodcock, the bird depicted in my latest painting above, rhynchokinesis was an attribute of this bird. What is rhyncho- (pronounced rink-oh) kinesis? It’s the ability of some birds to turn their upper mandible upward as they probe for food. For a couple of days, I watched this American Woodcock hunt for worms in my front yard during this year’s snowy April. Little did I know rhynchokinesis was a characteristic of beaks, let alone a thing. Yep, it’s a thing.
So, there’s your geeked-out, bird word for the day. Not that you asked for it, he he, but throw that word around a few times and you might raise some eyebrows. The curious ones will want to know more.
Another interesting tidbit of the woodcock is that the male plays no part in rearing its young. Typically, four eggs are laid by the female, and the male has nothing to do with his offspring other than breeding with the female. Does the song “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” by Paul Simon come to mind?
You just slip out the back, Jack
Make a new plan, Stan
You don’t need to be coy, Roy
Just get yourself free
Hop on the bus, Gus
You don’t need to discuss much
Just drop off the key, Lee
And get yourself free
Additional traits of this bird, perhaps a bit more famous, include its courtship display and its boogie. Hoping to catch the eye of a female, the male will launch 50-300 feet into the air (that’s a wide range, but my research found all sorts of numbers) before zig-zagging back down to the ground where it struts its stuff like a miniature turkey. I have never seen this display in person, but it happens at dusk in the springtime and can continue into the night. Maybe one day I’ll be lucky enough to see it.
Its boogie has an entirely different meaning. When hunting for worms, the American Woodcock rocks its whole body back and forth, as if it doesn’t know whether to take a step forward or backward. It’s suspected that this motion may cause earthworms below to blow their cover and become dinner. For us humans, that’s hard to imagine, but let me try. One earthworm weighs approximately 0.008 ounces, and a woodcock weighs close to 10 ounces. That means woodcocks can weigh up to 1,250 times that of an earthworm. Can an earthworm, lying just millimeters beneath the ground’s surface, feel a 10 ounce earthquake? Thinking about it another way, 1,250 times my weight is about the weight of the ol' space shuttle when empty. Would I hear that, or its vibration, coming my way? I think I would.
Seeing the woodcock for the first time, and in my front yard nonetheless, was thrilling. It’s one of those birds I thought I’d never see without having to take a special trip somewhere. American Woodcocks are the only woodcock species found in North America; seven other species can be found throughout Eurasia, China, the Philippines, New Guinea, and Indonesia.
In other nature news, Northern Flickers are calling alongside cicadas during these hot July days, and thistle has flowered pink. Swamp milkweed has matured in the ditch, topped with pink blossoms by the mailbox. Valerian is abundant, white and huge. Mulberries, juneberries and currants are ripe, and black elderberries are in full bloom. Wild raspberries and blackberries will arrive shortly. Soon, goldenrod will be the star of the show.
Backyard birds hanging around include Common Grackles, Red-winged Blackbirds, Downy, Red-bellied, Hairy and Pileated Woodpeckers, Red and White-breasted Nuthatches, Northern Flickers, Rock Pigeons, American Robins and Crows, Blue Jays, Black-capped Chickadees, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Purple Finches, American Goldfinches, House Wrens, Chipping Sparrows, Common Yellowthroats, Mourning Doves and Song Sparrows. A Gray Catbird sings infrequently from across the street. Deeper in the forest, Chestnut-sided Warblers, Red-eyed Vireos, Veeries, and American Redstarts are common. Occasional Broad-winged Hawks, White-throated Sparrows and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks make appearances, and the Mallard hen can be seen with her babies, but she’s mostly secretive.
I hope you’re all enjoying summer and the birds in your neck of the woods. Thank you for taking a moment of your time.
Arlott, N., Van Perlo, B., Rodriguez Mata, J., Carrizo, G., Chiappe, A, Huber, L. (2021). The Complete Birds of the World. Princeton University Press, p. 106.
Cassidy J., & Scheffel, R. (1990). Book of North American Birds. The Reader's Digest Association, Inc., p. 480.
Information from the All About Birds website, https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/American_Woodcock © Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Retrieved July 22, 2022.
Information from the Audubon website, https://www.audubon.org/news/10-fun-facts-about-american-woodcock. Retrieved July 22, 2022.
Information from the HowtoPronounce Pronunciation Dictionary. https://www.howtopronounce.com/rhynchokinesis. Retrieved July 22, 2022.
Information from the Songfacts website, https://www.songfacts.com/lyrics/paul-simon/50-ways-to-leave-your-lover. Retrieved July 22, 2022.
Kricher, John. Peterson Reference Guide to Bird Behavior. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, New York, 2020, pp. 63, 231.
Mahnken, Jan. (1989). Hosting the Birds. Storey Communications, Inc., p. 118.
Vanner, Michael. (2003). The Encyclopedia of North American Birds. Barnes & Noble Inc., p. 149.
|Snowy Owl. Photo 1/15/2022. Sax-Zim Bog, MN|
|Male White-winged Crossbill. 1/24/2022, Duluth home, MN|
|Male/female Blue-winged Teals with Mallard. |
Photo 5/9/2022, Duluth home, MN
|Female White-winged Crossbill. |
Photo 4/17/2022, Duluth home, MN
|Eastern Towhee. Photo 5/9/2022, Duluth home, MN|
|Connecticut Warbler. Photo 5/25/2022, Duluth home, MN|
|River Otter. Photos 6/9/2022, Duluth home, MN|
|Seven male Wood Ducks. Photo 5/31/2022, Duluth home, MN|
|Father (lower) feeding son (above), Downy Woodpeckers. |
Photo 7/5/2022, Duluth home, MN
|Northern Waterthrush. Photo 5/15/2022, Moose Lake State Park, MN|
|Juvenile Tree Swallow. Photo 7/4/2022, Western Waterfront Trail, Duluth, MN|
Of all the birds that have visited my yard, two stand out as being extremely reactive to my presence, almost always noticing when I stand at the window closest to my bird feeders. It doesn’t make a difference if my approach is slow and methodical, or sloth-like; even when I try to peek around the corner showing only my head and one eyeball, my cover is blown just about every time. These two species are the American Crow and the Rock Pigeon. For this writing, I will be focusing on the Rock Pigeon.
For the first five years at my home, Rock Pigeons had never found the spoils of my feeders, even though they were breeding only blocks away atop buildings. Unbeknownst to me, my feeders were a well kept secret. That all changed on July 27, 2019 when I saw the first Rock Pigeons in my yard.
Rock Pigeons thrive in urban developments, and my home is close enough to urbanization for me to know that once the pigeons found my home, they were here to stay. With each passing year, commercial buildings encroach ever closer to my neighborhood, overtaking residential homes and stamping out treed plots of land. It’s a stubborn, unmitigated and curious trend given that Duluth’s population is no bigger than it was at the beginning of the 20th century. But, urban sprawl is another topic for a different day.
First, let me just say that I had an internal dialog with myself when pigeons discovered my feeders three years ago. I asked myself: Was I going to love ‘em or loathe ‘em? For me the answer was easy. I wasn’t going to loathe them. I was going to understand them. But if you’re wondering what you’d do, may I pose a question? At what point in life do you throw your stink eye at the negative and lean on the positive? Negative news is front and center these days, we all know it, but behind all that negativity, science is moving forward at breakneck speeds. And as it turns out, there’s a lot of positive news out there. All you have to do is look for it. Case in point: the Rock Pigeon!
Remember not too long ago when the Covid pandemic took off? It was only 2020, although it seems like eons ago. Well that year, a behavioral study about Rock Pigeons, Columba livia – the same species that visits my yard – was published in the March edition of Learning & Behavior, a journal devoted to the experimental and theoretical contributions and critical reviews concerning fundamental processes of learning and behavior in nonhuman and human animals. The news was positive.
Research from the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences from The University of Iowa and Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, University of California, Los Angeles (Victor M. Navarro, Edward A. Wasserman, and Piotr Slomka) determined that Rock Pigeons are extremely good at recognizing what they see. Well, of course they are. Aren’t all birds really great at seeing? Most are, but there are some exceptions such as New Zealand’s flightless kiwi. Rock Pigeons, however, have excellent vision. They can tell the difference between extremely complex objects, pictures, and photos. Their vision allows them to pick out a Monet from a Picasso, differentiate letters of the alphabet, recognize human expressions, and discriminate between benign and cancerous human breast images. I saved the best for last there, did you catch that? But researchers already knew this stuff, which means you might have just learned a little bit of old news. Don’t feel bad, I just learned it, too.
What this most recent study found, and in character with sorting out breast cancer images, researchers discovered that Rock Pigeons can also differentiate between healthy and diseased heart muscles. So, in addition to reading mammograms, they’ve also been taught how to read stress test scans of the heart. Pigeons as heart disease specialists? Now that’s something that doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.
For a short explanation, a person is often given a stress test to determine if they have coronary heart disease. Pseudo-colorized images are then created to show how well blood flows, or doesn’t flow, throughout the body. A cardiologist reads those visual images to determine the presence of coronary blockages. Rock Pigeons were taught how to read those same images (myocardial perfusion single photon emission-computed tomography, or MPS) and were able to discern between a healthy heart and a diseased heart. And they were pretty darn good at it, too!
Why is this important? To understand that, it’s helpful to know how reliable humans are at reading MPS scans. “The best achievable individual observer accuracy is about 86% and inter-observer agreement by Board-certified cardiology experts is about 87%” (quoted in Navarro, Wasserman & Slomka, 2020, p. 10). So, if you knew that your cardiologist was only 87% accurate in reading your MPS scan, there’s room for improvement, right? Hey, pigeons aren’t so bad after all.
Now, just in case you’re imagining a pigeon standing next to your cardiologist in the doctor’s office interpreting your MPS test, I’m pretty sure that’s not going to happen. So, here’s the meat and potatoes of the experiment. Because Rock Pigeons have a remarkable trait whereby they can extract information from extremely complex visual stimuli (superb visual cognition), pigeons may simply be able to see things better, or differently, than humans. Since medical science would like to improve upon doctors being able to successfully read coronary test results, Rock Pigeons may be able to help. Using pigeons’ models for scoring tests may “identify visual features that can improve both human and computer performance” (quoted in Navarro, Wasserman & Slomka, 2020, p. 10).
Pigeons have adapted extremely well to our human environment and provide us with enormous learning potential to help our own species. “This bird may have no particular knack for medical diagnosis, yet its eye and brain endow it with sufficient perceptual and cognitive equipment to provide researchers with practical methods for assessing human and machine performance” (quoted in Navarro, Wasserman & Slomka, 2020, p. 19).
I hope attitudes improve about pigeons, especially given their lowly reputations. To think differently about them may take a whole host of reasons to change public opinion. Self-reflection, i.e. asking ourselves why we feel the way we do, can also be helpful. Positive news and time wouldn’t hurt either. Providing arguments for consideration to help reconstruct our way of thinking occurs when each one of us learns and grows through knowledge.
The Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development of the National Institutes of Health provided support for the Rock Pigeon research cited below.
Navarro, V.M., Wasserman, E.A. & Slomka, P. Taking pigeons to heart: Birds proficiently diagnose human cardiac disease. Learn Behav 48, 9–21 (2020). https://doi.org/10.3758/s13420-020-00410-z
Navarro, V.M., Wasserman, E.A. & Slomka, P. Taking pigeons to heart: Birds proficiently diagnose human cardiac disease. Learn Behav 48, 9–21 (2020). https://doi.org/10.3758/s13420-020-00410-z
I saw this Great-horned Owl in my snowy woods on February 6th, 2020. When we locked eyes, I had less than three seconds to capture this image before it flew off to a different location. It wasn't surprised by me because I'm sure it saw me coming from a mile away, but I was definitely surprised by it.
Bird Pop! Extra Rain Is Nothing for Dickcissels To Sing About. Nov. 12, 2020. https://www.birdpop.org/pages/blogPost.php?id=58. Accessed Oct. 25, 2021.
Carpenter, Tom. Treasures in the Grass. Minnesota Conservation Volunteer, July/August 2018, Vol. 81, No. 479.
Nickens, T. Edward. Vanishing Voices. National Wildlife (World Edition), 15455157, Oct/Nov2010, Vol. 48, Issue 6.
Temple, Stanley A. Dickcissel. Birds of the World.org. March 4, 2020. Text last updated January 1, 2002. https://birdsoftheworld.org/bow/species/dickci/cur/demography. Accessed Oct. 8, 2021.
Moran, Ines G. & Doucet, Stéphanie & Newman, Amy & Norris, Ryan & Mennill, Daniel. (2018). Quiet violence: Savannah Sparrows respond to playback-simulated rivals using low-amplitude songs as aggressive signals: XXXX. Ethology. 124. 724-732. 10.1111/eth.12805.
1The Nature Conservancy, "Joseph H. Williams Tallgrass Prairie Preserve." https://www.nature.org/en-us/get-involved/how-to-help/places-we-protect/tallgrass-prairie-preserve/ Accessed Sept.16, 2021.
Adolphus Busch. Sept. 16, 2021. Adolphus Busch. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adolphus_Busch
Brainy Quote. Sept. 16, 2021. "Sydney J. Harris Quotes." https://www.brainyquote.com/authors/sydney-j-harris-quotes
Described as sounding like the English equivalent of ee-oh-lay, perhaps the first thing that comes to mind about Wood Thrushes is their beautiful song. Usually, Wood Thrushes can be heard off in the distance in mixed forests and deciduous woods, and if you have them in your neck of the woods, you know how lucky you are. There is simply no other sound quite like that of a Wood Thrush. These birds breed in the eastern half of the United States and need large tracts of forest to survive. Sadly, they’ve suffered a two-percent decline every year from 1966-2015.
The Wood Thrush is "listed as a Tri-National Concern species and is on the 2016 State of North America's Birds' Watch List, which includes bird species that are most at risk of extinction without significant conservation actions to reverse declines and reduce threats. The Wood Thrush is one of the most prominent examples of declining forest songbirds in North America.”1
Last June, I encountered this bird, its mate, and their nest in an understory about 13 feet high, not long after dawn. One of the Wood Thrushes had insects in its mouth and the other was flicking its left wing at me from a low branch. This was all by chance, mind you. I hadn’t sought out this bird and wasn’t even birding at the time. As I stood on a seldom-traveled path observing the pair in sparkling rays through the trees, I soon discovered their nest. Realizing how close I was, I immediately backed away from my position and observed the pair from afar. Later, I retrieved my camera and took some photos, some of which are below.
Wood Thrushes are one of many forest bird species susceptible to an ecological model called source-sink dynamics whereas these birds will inhabit both high-quality (source) and low-quality (sink) environments to breed. The source for Wood Thrushes is identified as a large tract of forest which allows for a high probability of reproductive success. The sink is a low quality habitat, such as a small woodlot. The sink population can survive, but their offspring will not, resulting in nest failure. To the casual observer, one might deduce that their small woodlot containing a Wood Thrush nest is indicative of a healthy population, but in a sink dynamic, no young ever fledge the nest. Without the protection of forest cover, predators such as crows, grackles, parasitic cowbirds, and squirrels are more likely to find their nest. In addition, cats can easily take these birds while they forage on the forest floor, their primary source for food.
Acid rain may be another factor contributing to the decline of the Wood Thrush. “A byproduct of burning fossil fuels for our vast energy needs, acid rain occurs when nitric and sulfuric acids combine with water in the atmosphere and return to earth as rain, snow, or mist. Acid reaction with the ground depletes soil calcium levels, leading to a host of forest ills. A calcium-poor diet can easily lead to egg shell defects and a smaller clutch of eggs. Both of these factors may contribute to breeding failure not only for the wood thrush but also for a variety of other songbirds."2 It's important to note acid rain's effect on wildlife warrants further research, but evidence suggests it may play an important role in the decline of some species, notably the Wood Thrush, primarily due to its calcium-rich diet.
Specifically, Wood Thrushes need approximately one or two forested acres to survive in their ideal habitat. The acreage from where I observed the pair of Wood Thrushes was sizable, however partially fragmented. It wasn’t apparent they were in their source habitat; and it wasn’t a slam-dunk they were in the sink either. Not more than a stone's throw away, there were open, non-forested areas on three sides of the nest. On the other hand, the birds had a fairly direct route of forested landscape to the east and southeast of their nest.
My photos revealed at least one baby’s beak rising above the top of the nest, so it was obvious the pair had reproduced provided it wasn't a cowbird's beak, but I did wonder whether there were more babies in the nest. I chose not to get better views of the clutch size simply because I didn’t want to disturb the family any more than my presence already had, but I was definitely curious!
I can only hope the trees remain standing for generations to come in the location where I discovered this Wood Thrush family. The realist in me, however, has a heavy heart. When I see homeowners chipping away at treed acreage all around my community, commercial development expanding further and further from the city, and the shocking images of expansive land-clearing from here to eternity as shown from online mapping resources, I am disheartened. I ask myself, when will it stop? How much do humans need? Why do we need so much? As a positive step forward, we have begun to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, so perhaps acid rain will one day become a thing of the past. It is my fervent belief, however, that these actions alone will never contribute towards a sustainable planet for all creatures here on Earth unless human population control is also part of the equation.
Wood Thrushes are currently migrating to the tropical forests in Central America, another area of shrinking songbird habitat.
|My photo of a Wood Thrush with suspected flea beetle, crane fly, |
and green lacewing. Special thanks to Jim (James) Walker,
M.S. Entomologist, Department of Entomology,
University of Minnesota, for insect identification.
Photo ©Becca Mulenburg
|My photo of a Wood Thrush nest. Look closely to see|
the yellow-colored beak rising above the nest.
Plastic was used for some nesting material,
which is not uncommon for this bird.
Photo ©Becca Mulenburg
1Information from the All About Birds website, https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Wood_Thrush/lifehistory, © Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Retrieved September 9, 2021.
2McLane, Eben. "The Disappearing Wood Thrush." https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803100519715. Retrieved Sept. 9, 2021.
Graham, Sarah. "Acid Rain Linked to Bird Decline." Aug. 13, 2002. Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/acid-rain-linked-to-bird/ Retrieved Sept. 9, 2021.
Kricher, John. Peterson Reference Guide to Bird Behavior. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, New York, 2020.
Ralph S. Hames, Kenneth V. Rosenberg, James D. Lowe, Sara E. Barker, André A. Dhondt "Adverse effects of acid rain on the distribution of the Wood Thrush Hylocichla mustelina in North America" Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2002 Aug 20; 99(17): 11235–11240. Published online 2002 Aug 12. doi: 10.1073/pnas.172700199 PMCID: PMC123239. Retrieved Sept. 9, 2021.
"Source-sink dynamics." https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803100519715. Retrieved Sept. 9, 2021.
While photographing the Sandhill Crane migration in Nebraska this spring, this unassuming Killdeer walked out of the cornfield towards me and stopped for a while, probably to check to see if the coast was clear before continuing on. Following close behind was its mate. Surprise moments like these are pretty special, especially when birding for another species. It's the unexpected that is oftentimes more meaningful and emotional. That was certainly the case for me, and if you're a birder, you know exactly what I mean. For this Killdeer to be in a cornfield wasn't unusual, but the only birds I was paying attention to were the Sandhill Cranes... that is until this little beauty came out of nowhere and quietly stood just feet away.
Word to the Winter Wren:
You bounce and chat with rotund roundness, my imagination cups your smallness in my palm, secure and warm. One hand envelops the other. Gently. Your feathers are soft and beautiful, as is your music. Will you sing your sweet melody one last time? Oh, how my invitation rests upon the eleventh-hour, forgive my thirst. As you stand on Auggie’s stage amongst Lil’ Red’s pinecone beads, I’ll endorse his offerings and bid you a fond farewell, too, for I know the way out has arrived. No curtain call is without reservation and October isn’t for the sluggish. Are you packed and ready to go? Where benevolence resides, all things in time, but if Auggie holds the caption, winter possesses the period. Good fortune and easy travels, little one.
Minnesota’s Arbor Day was April 30th of this year. It’s an occasion seldom marked on calendars and celebrated with little fanfare, media coverage, or huzzah. The date on which Arbor Day falls is specific to each state, so each year I make a note on my calendar when Arbor Day occurs. April 30th is considered a little too early to plant trees in Duluth because we are located in the northern part of the state, but May is right around the corner when it’s prime planting time.
This year I took a walk around my yard on Arbor Day and photographed birds and plants that looked interesting to me, in addition to snapping photos of the jack pine stand. Almost all of the initial 25 jack pines from 2015 have survived, and the conifers are growing nicely. Disappointingly, one of the larger jack pines bent over last fall and I thought it was a goner, but I decided to pull it upright and stake it. I figured, why not take the chance to help it? Lo and behold, it’s still upright after a long winter and looking good. A week ago, I noticed a small bird fly into that exact tree and not leave. Upon closer inspection, I saw a Chipping Sparrow sitting on its nest about 6 feet high. Well hidden on a branch against the trunk of the tree, I was absolutely thrilled to see a nesting bird in the very tree I helped rescue.
Back to Arbor Day… marsh marigolds were emerging, the morning cloak butterfly was visible deeper in the woods, and the chipmunk, which I first heard on March 5th, was available for the photo shoot. Later in the day, I noticed a Pine Warbler at my suet feeder, a yard list first. This painting is a depiction of that bird when it was on the ground with its foot propped up on a pine cone. Arbor Day didn’t disappoint this year and the Pine Warbler made it special.
Over twenty young trees were planted in May, including white and red oaks, red maples, Chinese chestnuts, and a mountain ash. The highbush cranberries in my front yard are currently in full bloom and swarming with pollinators. The dragonflies have been putting on quite a show in the evenings when it’s easy to see their prey in the dimming sun. The hummingbirds are buzzing, fawns are prancing, and the first bear sighting of the year occurred this morning just after breakfast.
During today’s afternoon walk, I heard Chestnut-sided Warblers, American Redstarts, House Wrens, Red-eyed Vireos, and a Broad-winged Hawk. These singing birds define my home in Duluth during the month of June, in addition to American Robins, Black-capped Chickadees, Goldfinches and the occasional Veery. Purple Finches seem quiet and sparse this spring, and this was the first year I didn’t see any Harris’s Sparrows during spring migration. In addition, there were less than a handful of Redpolls or Pine Siskins that came through, an extremely low number compared to other years.
I hope you all enjoy the summer and check out some art shows when you get a chance.
|These jack pines were planted in 2015.|
Compare with photos below. Photo 4/30/2021
|Same jack pines. Photo April 2019.|
|Same jack pines. Photo May 2017.|
|Chipping Sparrow on nest in "rescued" jack pine. Photo 6/8/2021|
|The "rescued" jack pine.|
The Chipping Sparrow's nest is approximately
6 feet high in this tree, about mid-height. Photo 6/8/2021
|Mourning cloak butterfly. Photo 4/30/2021.|
|Emerging marsh marigold. Note winged bug at tip of rear leaf.|
Here come the bugs, aka bird food! Photo 4/30/2021.
|Chipmunk on bird bath. Photo 4/30/2021.|
|Elderberry buds. Photo 4/30/2021.|
|First bear sighting of the year. Photo 6/8/2021, 7:39 am.|
Reduce plastic usage.
During the winter months of 2020, I started feeding a White-throated Sparrow that was stranded at my home here in Duluth, Minnesota. Unsure of when I first noticed it, I suspect it was late October or early November, a time when fall’s lifeboat becomes unmoored, and creatures that don’t belong here are left with few options for survival. White-throated Sparrows have short migrations and don’t need to travel very far come wintertime, but each day the bird remained carried it further into a tunnel with a dimming light. I was sad to see it hanging around and wondered about its circumstances. Predicting this little bird's future was impossible and I grew bothered by stories that seeped into my head uninvited. So, I concentrated on what I could do to help it. Perhaps by making sure this bird was well fed, one day it would fly south to join others of its kind. That’s what I was hoping for. And on the double, too! I figured if I gave it plenty of nourishment before the onset of winter (which in all honesty seemed like it was already here), it might stand a chance.
If there was a reason the White-throated Sparrow was stranded, weather may have been a major factor. That October, both snowfall and temperature records were set in Duluth. It was the second snowiest October ever (12 inches) and the second coldest from October 16-31st. The sparrow was frequenting two areas for shelter; one was a covered, outdoor wood pile enclosed on three sides (this was its favorite hangout), and another was a depression underneath an unused sauna about fifty feet away. Neither of these areas were heated, but at least they provided some protection from the wind and snow. Once I knew where it hung out, I tossed it seeds every day, but only by the wood pile. Each time, it responded by coming out for food.
Compared to the Arctic Tern which has the longest migration of any bird (from the Arctic to the Antarctic), the White-throated Sparrow’s migration is short. All this bird had to do was make it to the Mississippi River near Minneapolis to reach its northern-most safety point, a mere 150 miles south. Yet each day that it remained, the hurdles towards its survival grew higher.
December arrived, and I was still feeding the little sparrow. I enjoyed watching it sunning itself on a stump by the woodpile, all fluffed out and absorbing rays. November and December weren’t terribly cold, but on December 23rd the first blizzard of the season rolled in. It brought heavy wet snow and 55 mph winds. I was worried about the sparrow, especially because I hadn’t seen it for days, but eventually it showed up and I was relieved. Still, my sense of relief was fleeting, there were three or four more months of winter to go. When it comes to nature, I am a realist, a pessimist, and an optimist, all rolled into one. I know how cruel nature can be, and despite feeling encouraged that it had made it through one-third of a Duluth winter, plenty of obstacles remained. The coldest nights brought me the most worry.
Days turned into months and by mid-January I was growing ever more hopeful this sparrow would make it to April. After all, it survived a blizzard and several nights of below-zero temperatures. Would this be the first White-throated Sparrow to ever survive a Duluth winter? Probably not, but I envisioned the stories it would tell its friends, and the happiest of reunions come spring. I was feeling very optimistic.
My one downfall was that I hadn’t considered predators, at least not the flying kind. Sure… I’d thought of the red squirrel who owned the woodpile, but it was a nuisance at best, not a predator, and only showed up occasionally. Besides, the sparrow’s best defense was that it could fly and its hiding places were secure, or so I thought. But birds of prey are tenacious and patient, they will wait for the perfect opportunity to strike.
The White-throated Sparrow that I worked so hard at keeping alive through that Duluth winter died on January 18, 2021, when it was killed by a Northern Shrike – the bird represented in this painting. Little did I know that sparrows are among its favorite food. I first noticed the shrike when it flew up into our apple tree near the sauna. Not even thinking of the White-throated Sparrow at the time, my focus was on the shrike and its behavior, but I soon realized there was more going on than just a shrike in my apple tree. It was keeping an eye on a White-throated Sparrow it had likely attacked just moments earlier.
Located in a depression at the edge of the sauna, the sparrow was injured and dying. Occasionally, the shrike flew down to the sauna to observe the bird before flying back up into the tree. At one point, it flew a short distance to my feeders looking for more prey, but after finding none, it flew back to the apple tree and eventually down to the sparrow. Was it the same sparrow I was trying to save? Undoubtedly. There were no other White-throated Sparrows around and I never saw that sparrow again.
Northern Shrikes are winter birds the size of American Robins, and my personal observations of them have only been in winter. Interestingly, I’ve noticed them most often during the onset of a cold front preceded by a heavy snowfall. It can be calm or windy, sunny or overcast, but I stand a fair chance of spotting a Northern Shrike during those conditions.
During wintertime, their food sources are typically small birds and mice; whereas they’ll eat large insects, voles and other small rodents at other times of the year. Also known as butcher birds, Northern Shrikes impale their prey on sharp objects or secure them in a crotch before eating them. Sometimes their prey is left for a later meal. Other times, shrikes kill more than what is needed.
One of my friends asked me why I painted one of my not-so-favorite birds, especially the one that killed the little sparrow; and did I consider putting a big black "X" through the painting after I painted it.
I try not to give in to my emotions when it comes to nature because there are many ways of looking at what happened to the White-throated Sparrow. Easier said than done, though. Yes, the sparrow’s death saddened me, but it didn’t take away from the fact that Northern Shrikes like to eat small birds. As much as I wanted the sparrow to survive a Duluth winter, the shrike had found an attainable food source, one of its favorites nonetheless, and acted upon it. Sure, I wish the shrike had found mice or voles instead, but vole tracks were slim pickings this past winter, the fewest I’ve seen in years. As for mice, our indoor traps caught a few, they know where to hide.
I’m glad the Northern Shrike eats mice, voles and insects, but wish it hadn't preyed upon that adorable stranded sparrow. I’ll just leave it at that.
|The White-throated Sparrow sitting in|
its favorite spot. Photographed January 5, 2021.
|Snapping Turtle, Barkers Island, Superior, WI. Photo 9/11/2020.|