A Bird in the Hand…

On Friday we finally–FINALLY–had temperatures above freezing, so I decided to take advantage of the heat wave and go try my hand at hand-feeding the birds at Kensington Metropark. This park is well-known around here for its brave feeder birds, but since it’s all the way on the other side of the metro area, 45 miles from me, I’ve never made the trek over there. But thanks to a bad case of cabin fever, my desperation drove me to jump in the car and head over. I texted my friend Janet and suggested she meet me there and I’m so glad she was able to come, because we spent a very enjoyable 90 minutes taking pictures of each other with birds on our heads and in our hands.

A Black-capped Chickadee eats seed from my hat!

A Black-capped Chickadee eats seed from my hat! (Photo copyright Janet Hug)

I’m still amazed at the thrill I got the moment the first chickadee landed on my bare hand. Its sharp little claws gripped the tips of my fingers, it looked up at my face as if to make sure it was safe, then grabbed a seed and flew to a nearby tree to crack it open. In the next 15 minutes dozens of birds came down and took seeds from my outstretched hand. At one point I had three birds on my hand at once, so I decided to put some more seed on my head so they could spread out a little bit. Immediately I felt them landing on top of my hat, their wings stirring the air beside my head as they landed and took off again with their bounty.

Taking pictures of each other with birds on our heads was such fun! (Photo copyright Janet M. Hug)

Taking pictures of each other with birds on our heads was such fun! (Photo copyright Janet Hug)

Janet feeding a Chickadee.

Janet feeding a Chickadee.

Tufted Titmouse

Tufted Titmouse (Photo copyright Janet Hug)

I cannot believe I let so many years go by without having this magical experience! Often here at home our chickadees will chatter at me as I refill the feeders, sometimes even buzzing my head as they land on a feeder beside me as I’m filling the next one. I’ve tried many times to get them to eat from my hand, but always ended up frustrated when they were too timid. But the Kensington birds had no hesitation at all. I had Black-capped Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, White-breasted Nuthatches, and–get ready for this–a Downy Woodpecker, all eating from my hand and head. Here’s a video of the Downy Woodpecker on my hand:

And here’s a longer video of the titmice and chickadees:

I already knew that birds weighed very little, but if I hadn’t felt the claws of those chickadees on my fingers, I wouldn’t even have known they were there. It gives the phrase “light as a feather” a whole new meaning for me. What precious little creatures they are! A chickadee weighs less than a half ounce. That’s less than 14 paper clips, or a half of a slice of bread. Heck, you could afford to mail two chickadees for a first class postage stamp (not that I’m suggesting you do that, of course).

Hey Janet, what's that on your head?

Hey Janet, what’s that on your head?

Along with the birds eating from our hands, we were lucky enough to see a Field Sparrow that has been hanging around there, very unusual for this time of year. We also saw a Song Sparrow, lots of Blue Jays, Cardinals, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers, and even some Wild Turkeys trotting along the snowy path through the woods. And this is funny: Just before we got in our cars to leave, I’d mentioned my recent sightings of a Pileated Woodpecker in my yard, and said how I wished I could predict its visits so I could share it with our friend Dr. Bob, who is very eager to see one of those large woodpeckers. We said our goodbyes and I left as Janet was loading her camera gear into her car. If I’d only stayed a bit longer I would have seen the Pileated Woodpecker that flew right over her head in the parking lot, can you believe that?

Field Sparrow, an unusual winter visitor in our area

Field Sparrow, an unusual winter visitor in our area

I am so grateful to have had this amazing experience. It was exhilarating, but at the same time it also gave me such a sense of peace. And I really really really needed that. Now I’m feeling better about making it through this difficult winter. But I wouldn’t be surprised if I need another dose of ecotherapy at Kensington Metropark in the very near future.

Posted in Birdfeeding, Birds, Ecotherapy, Happiness and Gratitude | Tagged , , , , | 12 Comments

Jane Goodall Knows

Like many people who care about social and environmental issues, I sometimes get discouraged. Can I really make a difference? What impact can I have by writing a letter to my representative, or signing a petition? Petitions are a dime a dozen nowadays anyway, right? Don’t you ever wonder if they really have any impact? I do. Or, I should say, I did.

Two weeks ago I got involved in an effort to stop the airport in Grand Rapids from shooting Snowy Owls. Very personally involved. And I think the experience has changed me forever.

Snowy Owl petition screenshot for blog

This is a screenshot of the petition on Change.org. The photo was provided by Charles Owens.

If you’ve read my blog for any period of time, you know how much I care about protecting birds and their habitats. So when someone in a birding group found out that the airport was killing the owls instead of the more humane method of trapping and relocating them, birders were up in arms. And something clicked in me right then — I decided to start a petition on Change.org. I’d seen how fast a similar petition had gotten results when JFK airport was caught shooting the owls in December (story here), so I decided to try and harness the passion of all my birding friends to see if we could do the same here in Michigan.

And boy, did we. My petition quickly got 2,000 signatures (and would have 3,500 in a couple more days). Lots of people started sending emails to the airport and the local media in Grand Rapids. Links to the petition were spread throughout social media so fast I couldn’t keep up with them all. Within 24 hours we’d been joined by some “big guns” — Black Swamp Bird Observatory and the American Bird Conservancy. Michigan Audubon also helped spread the word. While those more-experienced leaders continued their attempts to speak with airport officials, I focused on putting news updates on the petition site and encouraged people to keep sharing the link.

Anyway, to make a long story short (too late?), the media picked up the story and aired it on the evening news right after the MLK holiday weekend. I was thrilled to see that my petition was mentioned in every story done in the next few days. (Although, thankfully for an introvert like me, the media didn’t contact me or mention my name — whew!) I’m generally more comfortable as a behind-the-scenes type of person, but I’m really glad I stepped up this time and put myself out there, even if it was just as a petition author. Because when we were successful in getting the airport to increase their efforts to trap-and-relocate, I felt a personal victory and a newfound sense of power. Don’t misunderstand, I don’t mean that I was responsible for the success of this campaign. No, there were lots of people involved in making this happen. What I mean is that I saw, very clearly and up close, that a petition and social media can make a difference.

I was blown away at how easy it was to spread the word about this petition. I’ve purposely kept a short “friend list” on social media, so I knew I personally couldn’t reach that many people. But it didn’t matter because my short friend list includes people who have very big networks, so all I had to do was ask them to mention the campaign and it took off like wildfire. I was gobsmacked by the whole thing (just wanted to use that word today).

One of the best things about the whole episode was seeing this photo of the first Snowy Owl the airport trapped after this story broke:

Photo by Gerald R. Ford International Airport. Used with permission.

Photo by Gerald R. Ford International Airport. Used with permission.

In the photo is Aaron Bowden, a licensed bander with the USDA, who manages the whole trapping and relocating process. I think it’s safe to say that our campaign saved the life of this beautiful owl. And I hope the airport continues its stepped-up efforts to trap the birds for the next two months until they head back north to their relatively peaceful home — the one that doesn’t have airplanes and cars and people everywhere.

And just as I was finalizing this post today, we got news of another very big and hard-won victory for birds. Again led by Black Swamp Bird Observatory and American Bird Conservancy (they make the best team!), we have been fighting the installation of a wind turbine at Camp Perry on the Lake Erie shore, right in the important migration corridor used by millions of birds each spring and fall. As you can see by this victory announcement by ABC, the project has–finally!–been stopped in its tracks for the foreseeable future. It’s a good day for bird conservation.

It’s so easy to get discouraged in some of these battles that pit birds or other parts of the natural world against the powerful profit motives of corporations or the campaign funding of politicians. The problems seem overwhelming in size and scope, flooding my email and social media feeds every day. (Also today, for instance, we had a dire report on the continued drastic decline of the Monarch Butterfly, an important pollinator in the ecosystem.) It’s tempting to just give up and stick my head in the sand. But I was reading “The Ten Trusts” the other day (a fabulous book, by the way) and in it Jane Goodall said:

The Tenth, and final, Trust is, perhaps, the most important of all. It reminds us that every action we take to make the world a better place is important and worthwhile, no matter how small. Because there are millions of others like us, and as long as each of us does our bit, the cumulative result will be massive change for the good.

That was reassuring to me, because if anyone understands the power of individual action, it’s Jane Goodall. And the way I see it, what’s the point of being on this planet if I can’t be bothered to do my part to protect what’s left of the natural world?

Use what talents you possess; the woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang best. ~Henry van Dyke

Posted in Birds, Humans vs All Other Animals, Michigan, Threats to Birds | Tagged , , | 12 Comments

26 Letters

{ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z }

There’s a lot of power in those 26 simple symbols. That small set of letters is our entire tool kit for communicating with one another in the English language. Every word we write or speak is formed from nothing more than these few building blocks arranged in various ways: letters into words, words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs. Endless combinations to express innumerable thoughts and ideas. The U.S. Constitution. War and Peace. The Bible. Your grandmother’s love letters. The owner’s manual for your car. The script of the latest blockbuster movie. It’s really remarkable when you stop to think about it.

Kindle keyboard (1024x683)With these 26 letters we can convey our feelings upon witnessing something wondrous like the birth of a baby, or something horrific like a car crash. We can give names to each other as well as to every species of plant and animal on the planet. We can tell bedtime stories to our children.

We need no more than these 26 letters to explain why the leaves turn those brilliant colors in the fall, where birds go when they migrate, or how a caterpillar becomes a butterfly. These same letters can be combined to form something as important as your birth certificate or as mundane as a grocery list.

We educate, entertain, compliment, insult, soothe, incite, encourage, and irritate each other with words made from this very small group of symbols. Think about some historic inspirational speeches: Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” or John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address (“Ask not what your country can do for you…”). Combinations of these twenty-six letters, that’s all.

There’s such power in language, whether it’s written or spoken. Because of our mastery of language, our species has been able to dominate the world. We’ve done good things with this power. And we’ve done bad things. I often wonder what the other animals would say to us if they could use our language. I’m sure they would teach us some valuable lessons.

I believe we have an obligation to use this powerful gift to make the world a better place for all of us, not just those like ourselves. I’m saddened when I see words used to tear down or belittle other people. So much potential is wasted by those words, so much unnecessary hurt inflicted. On the other hand, when I hear language used to uplift and encourage people, my heart smiles with hope. I push aside my doubts about the future, cast off the weight of my fears, and am inspired to try harder to be a part of the solution.

If you ask me, these 26 letters have the power to save us all.

Posted in Writing | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Yank Yank!

The Nuthatch Patrol are sounding their “yank yank!” alarm as I trudge through the silent woodland, knee-deep in drifts of heavy, wet snow. Red-bellied woodpeckers bicker high up in the naked oak tree. A lone gull flies overhead, like a ghost in the gray sky.

As I write this we’re in the middle of The Big One. Not since the Blizzard of ’78 have I heard so much talk about a few inches of snow. Well, ok, it’s more than that. I think we’ve added seven or eight inches today, making the snow almost a foot deep on our deck. It’s been snowing continuously for 22 hours now. And the difficulties of all this snow will be compounded by some Arctic temperatures in the next few days. Our forecast for tomorrow says the high will be 11F and the low will be -16F. Then Tuesday the high will be 4 and the low -16 again. Those temperatures worry me more than the deep snow we’ve got on the ground.

That's me exploring the fresh snow this morning. Pointing at--what else?--a bird.

That’s me exploring the fresh snow this morning. Pointing at–what else?–a bird.

So I took advantage of the relative warmth of today’s 30F temperature and spent some time wandering around in our woods taking photos and pumping some fresh air through my lungs in preparation for a few days of being cooped up indoors. As much as I dislike winter, I do enjoy the first day of a new snow. I think the thick snow acts as an insulation against sound, allowing a rare opportunity to stand in my yard and hear….silence. Such bliss. And I love the fresh white snow blanketing every branch of every tree, turning them into exquisite winter sculptures.

Snow-covered bittersweet berries

Snow-covered bittersweet berries

Whenever fresh snow covers the ground we see a higher level of activity at our feeders. I went out first thing this morning to scatter some extra seed piles for the Juncos and Mourning Doves who feed on the ground. The nonstop snow has covered them up quickly, so I went back out there a couple times to uncover them. I’m concerned about the little birds surviving the coming brutal cold without enough energy. I’m always awed at how such tiny creatures manage to live through bad weather, over and over again. Well, I know many of them don’t make it when the weather turns nasty, but many more do. And unlike us, they can’t fill their cupboards with food and then sit in a warm house sipping hot chocolate and watching the snow fall. They have to be on the move constantly, back and forth from feeders to the shelter of inner tree branches, grabbing bits of nutrition, seed by seed, all day long. Think about that. It’s a lot of work just to stay alive.Male Cardinal in snow (1024x731)

I’m glad there are still some berries on the trees. The goldfinches were getting their fill of these red berries this afternoon.

Goldfinch eating red berries in snowstorm (1024x684)

Here are a few more photos I took on my walk around our yard and woods this morning.

Grandaddy spruce tree and baby Korean Fir beside our driveway

Grandaddy spruce tree and baby Korean Fir beside our driveway

Our deck

Our deck

Deck railing and snowy woods (1024x683)

Looking down our slippery road that, for once, is quiet.

Looking down our slippery road that, for once, is quiet.

Red bow and snow-covered birdhouse (709x1024)It’s dark now and we’re hunkered down waiting for the cold winds to come in overnight. I’m hoping the power manages to stay on for the duration, but we’re prepared in case it doesn’t. And I also hope our snowplow guy shows up tomorrow. Stay warm everyone.

Posted in Birds, Living in the Woods, Michigan, Walking in the Woods | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

Winter Birding in Michigan

I’ve never liked winter very much. Sure, the first snow of the season is pretty, but after a couple days the charm fades away and it turns dirty and slushy. And all the leaves are gone on the trees, making our home less hidden from the busy road. And it’s so cold. No thanks.

But all that changed when I discovered the thrill of winter birding. Early winter is a time for taking my spotting scope out to Lake St. Clair or Lake Huron to scan the migrating ducks that sometimes float on the lakes in rafts of thousands at a time. It took me several years to get motivated to go looking for ducks, and a couple more years to commit to it after I found out how brutally cold the winds can be on the shores of the Great Lakes in January and February. I had no idea that icicles could hang from my nostrils. Seriously.

The trick is to look for the unusual one that's sometimes mixed in there.

The trick is to look for the unusual one that’s sometimes mixed in there.

But now I’m prepared for the weather–stocked up on long johns, hats, mittens, and wool socks–and I enjoy the challenge of learning to identify the ducks. I’m even getting pretty good at it (except for the Greater and Lesser Scaup that still give me fits). I’m still not too keen on learning the complexities of gull identification, but the ducks are much easier.

It may sound crazy if you’ve never done it, but it’s surprising how invigorating and refreshing it can be to brace yourself against those cold Canadian winds.

A mixed flock of Horned Larks and Snow Buntings

A mixed flock of Horned Larks and Snow Buntings

And then there are the songbirds that come for the winter. The first to show up at our feeders are the lively flocks of Dark-eyed Juncos, like the one I showed you in last week’s Wordless Wednesday photo. But other birds feed in winter flocks in farm fields and along country roads, like the American Tree Sparrows, Snow Buntings, and Horned Larks. (Actually the Horned Larks are here year-round in Michigan, but they feed in big flocks with the buntings and sparrows in wintertime.) I just found my first Lapland Longspurs today, mixed in with one of these flocks feeding on a snowy road east of Ann Arbor. I wish I’d gotten a photo of them.

I was also surprised to find a lone Rusty Blackbird in that flock, standing a couple inches taller than everyone else. I had to use my amateur Photoshop skills to selectively lighten up the bird in this photo; I have a lot of trouble trying to photograph birds on snow.

Rusty Blackbird from Superior Twp, Michigan, December 18, 2013

Rusty Blackbird from Superior Twp, Michigan, December 18, 2013

The pièce de resistance of today’s birds is, of course, the coveted Snowy Owl:

Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus)

Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus)

That photo was taken with a 400mm lens from a distance of more than a hundred yards. I was driving around the service roads at the Willow Run Airport in Ypsilanti, where Snowies have been hanging around lately. I had never been there before and didn’t know exactly where to look, and the way I found this owl was amazing. I’d stopped behind a car that had paused to watch a flock of Snow Buntings on the road. I couldn’t see the birds from my vantage point, but I didn’t want to drive past them and ruin their viewing experience, so I was using the time to look around me at the barren fields and roadways. There was a tall snow-covered hill on my left, probably 50 or 60 feet high. As I scanned the top of the ridge, something caught my eye. I’d been fooled several times already on this outing by big chunks of snow in cornfields, but something about this one made me pull up my binoculars. And I couldn’t believe my eyes — a Snowy Owl, sitting in plain view on the top of the hill! Well, actually he was very-well camouflaged, as you can see in this uncropped photo:

Well-camouflaged Snowy Owl

Well-camouflaged Snowy Owl

I jumped out of the car to set up my spotting scope for a better view. And since there were other birders driving around the airport on this same quest, it didn’t take long before someone else pulled up behind me to see what I’d found. I was jumping up and down and giggling, amazed that I’d found a Snowy Owl all by myself! I was like a kid who thought she deserved a gold star from the teacher. It’s one thing to read emails about an exact location where people are watching an owl and go there to have a look; it’s another thing entirely to stumble upon one before anyone else has spotted it. I’m still on a high from it as I write this, hours later.

If I had to guess, I’d say this is a juvenile male. They say most of the owls who come this far south in winter are the juveniles. And while adult male Snowy Owls are almost pure white, the females and juvenile males have the brown flecks you see on this owl. But because he seems to have the beginnings of a pure white bib, I’d guess this is a young male. I’ll never know for sure, and it doesn’t really matter, but it’s nice to say “him” or “her” instead of “it.”

Now I can relax, I’ve seen my Snowy for the year. I try not to be competitive about my bird list, but it’s hard not to want to chase down one of these when the talk on birding lists is so focused on these fascinating owls every. single. day. I just want to share in the fun, that’s all.  If you’re curious about these visitors from the Arctic, I highly recommend “Magic of the Snowy Owl,” an hour-long documentary about how they survive in that frigid climate.

After a day like today I’m reminded, once again, of the impact birds have had on me. They have completely changed my outlook on life. Just as my discovery of the spring warbler migration blew my mind, now my enjoyment of ducks and other winter birds has made the depths of winter tolerable for me. I’m convinced that the birds are the reason I haven’t suffered from Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.) in two years; I’m getting more fresh air and natural Vitamin D because I go out looking for birds. They bring wonder and joy to my world, and for that I’ll be forever grateful to those little feathered creatures.

Have a happy and safe holiday season, everyone. See you in 2014.

Posted in Birds, Ecotherapy, Health, Michigan | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

Wordless Wednesday: Bittersweet Junco

Male Dark-eyed Junco enjoying sunflower seeds in our yard

Male Dark-eyed Junco enjoying sunflower seeds in our yard

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We’re Having a White Christmas, But It’s Not What You Think

Oh, we’re in for a treat this winter, nature lovers: Snowy Owls are coming again! The first and only time I’ve ever seen one of these beautiful visitors from the Arctic was back in February of 2012. (See my pictures here.) In some years, for various reasons, these owls come further south than their usual wintering range in Canada and the northern US. And when it happens in large numbers, it’s called an irruption. Reasons for irruptions are usually either a shortage of lemmings (their primary food source), and/or a high breeding success rate leading to excess populations. The result is that many owls are driven further south in search of food.

(Photo by Kenn Kaufman, used with permission)

As you see in the text on this photo, many of the birds that arrive here are young and inexperienced hunters, often hungry and disoriented. They have to adapt to new hunting grounds and new types of prey animals…and quickly.

This year’s irruption is just beginning to build, but it looks like it could be a big one, with Snowy Owls already being spotted as far south as North Carolina. And the birding community is in a frenzy with anticipation. I’m thankful that a few people have stepped up to remind us all to be respectful of the owls, and not to get too close in our attempts to get the “perfect” photo. Unfortunately, people sometimes get overeager and flush the birds from their resting spots, causing them even more distress. When I saw my Snowy Owl along the Lake Huron shore, I was part of a crowd of about two dozen onlookers. We were standing outside a gate watching the bird as it roosted on the roof of a building about 50 yards back from the road. It didn’t seem to be paying any attention to us, which is good. That meant we weren’t bothering it.

My Snowy Owl from February 2012 -- Half-opened eyes, just checking out the crowd

My Snowy Owl from February 2012 — Half-opened eyes, just checking out the crowd

But at one point someone pulled their car in through the gate and got out to take an “even closer” photo, and I almost lost it. Several of us called to the guy and told him he was too close, but he got his photo anyway. One thing I’ve learned about these exciting bird sightings is that just because someone is in a crowd watching the bird doesn’t necessarily mean that person is a birder or is familiar with birding ethics. So we need to gently educate those who might get too close. The “gently” part is hard for me because I feel very protective of any bird surrounded by a crowd of people, and I tend to get angry when people don’t respect the bird’s need for space.

I’ve been given permission to share this message by level-headed fellow birder John Lowry, who sent it to our local birding list today:


I suspect there are very few birders who haven’t started hearing about Snowy Owl sightings recently.  Social media has a way of disseminating information quickly, even though this irruption is only a week or so old, by my reckoning.  However, I think this is an irruption of historic proportion.  Do an eBird search for Snowy Owl records in the past month.  Look at the map of the Eastern US.  Holy lemmings!

So my purpose in posting here is twofold.  First, make sure you enjoy this!  And don’t take for granted that you’ll see this again in your lifetime.  Greg Miller, who inspired the books and subsequent film, “The Big Year”, actually missed Snowy during his historic year.   They are awesome to see, and photograph and study.  These birds are visitors from a land that no human within earshot will ever see.  It’s as if they have come here from Mars to grace us with their presence. (Kim says: I love that sentence!)

Secondly, be cool.  Be cool to the birds. Don’t flush them. Don’t get so close they keep turning their head to watch you.  Let them go about their business. The sad reality is that these birds are visiting us out of desperation. They would starve if they stayed up north in the arctic, so they risk a flight thousands of miles to find quality grassland and lakeshore habitats (which, in case you haven’t noticed, are quite gone).  Just enjoy from a distance and don’t let folks purposefully or accidentally reduce these birds’ already low chance of survival.  But… And this is a big but…

Be cool to people, too.  Not everyone understands proper birding etiquette, and ABA President Jeff Gordon makes a great point in noting that many folks’ first or perhaps most memorable impression of birders might be formed while watching a couple of jerks yell at each other about a distant white blob.  And yes, I will TRY to take my own advice. No promises.

I couldn’t have said it better myself, John: Enjoy it, but be cool.

In preparation for hunting my own Snowy Owl this year, I’ve checked recent sightings on eBird. Just look at how widespread this irruption is already:

Snowy Owls irruption map from eBird

And here’s a closer view of places I’m likely to go looking:
Snowy owl irruption map closer view

I’m headed out tomorrow in search of a Northern Shrike that’s been hunting in a local park, but after that I’m all about the Snowy Owls.

(Dear Santa, All I want for Christmas is a few minutes looking at a Snowy Owl. Thanks!) 

Posted in Birds | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

Nature, Red in Tooth and Claw

Yesterday morning we woke up to find the yard covered with a light dusting of snow, our first real snow of this season. And it was very cold too, giving us our first taste of the bitterness that often comes with a Michigan winter. I was recovering from a 24-hour migraine so we were taking it easy, curled up in blankets, drinking tea and watching a documentary about JFK. As usual, I glanced out the window occasionally to watch the birds in the yard. My favorite birds, the Cedar Waxwings, had just arrived to partake of some red berries on a tree just outside the window. They come in small flocks a couple times every fall until they finish off all the fruit. Here are a couple pictures I’d taken of them a few days earlier (through the window, so not the greatest quality photos):

Cedar Waxwings feasting on berries in our yard

Cedar Waxwings feasting on berries in our yard

Cedar Waxwing with red berry in open mouth - a bit blurry (800x574) Cedar Waxwing with red berry in beak - good one (800x641) Cedar Waxwing with red berry in beak - head on view (640x511)

Owl and titmouse (640x582)

See the Tufted Titmouse behind him?

I had a wonderful time watching them feast that day. But things were different yesterday. I’d gone back to watching tv after pointing out to Eric that the waxwings were here again. A few minutes later I realized that I was distracted by a lot of chattering in the trees. I saw some chickadees and titmice flitting around and shouting alarm calls. We muted the tv to listen to them, and suddenly Eric said, “Look, there’s an owl!” And indeed, there was an Eastern Screech-owl sitting on a branch about 8 feet outside our window, looking right at us in broad daylight.

It’s not often we get to see owls in daytime, so we were both very excited. But as I crept closer to the window I noticed something hanging below the owl. I knew it had to be a bird, but I assumed it was one of the chickadees or titmice. But no, it was a Cedar Waxwing, still fluttering its wings as it died in the clutches of the owl’s talons.

screech-owl with cedar waxwing prey (571x800) w sig

I’m squeamish about seeing animals die–even when I know it’s the way of nature–so I looked away for a half minute until the waxwing stopped moving. Then I was able to be awed at the beauty of the owl, and amazed that he’d caught a bird as large as this one. He sat there for about ten minutes and then flew off into the woods with his catch. I imagine that will keep him satisfied for a good long while.

I’ve been told that the chickadee early warning system is a good way to find an owl, and now I’ve seen it for myself. Often if the little birds spot an owl roosting in a tree they’ll raise a ruckus, either in an attempt to chase it away or just to warn everyone. It seems counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? You’d think a little bird would just want to take off and get far away from a predator like that, but these little guys were getting in his face and really giving him a hard time.

It’s always preferable to see owls in the wild if possible, but at two recent Audubon events I’ve had a chance to see some captive owls up close, and they are amazing and beautiful birds. All of these owls have some sort of injury or other problem that makes it impossible for them to survive in the wild, so they are permanent residents at nature centers where they’re used for educational programs (like coming to Audubon meetings). Here’s Circe, a Great Horned Owl that lives at the Howell Nature Center:

Circie the Great Horned Owl from Howell Nature Center (4) (800x762) w sig
Circe is more than twenty years old, can you believe that? And here’s a Short-eared Owl whose name I’ve forgotten, also from the Howell Nature Center:

Short-eared Owl (9) (800x642) w sig

A Barred Owl from the Leslie Nature Center:

Barred Owl from Leslie Nature Center - Copy (640x480)

Talons on a Barred Owl

The business end of a Barred Owl — talons to be respected

You may have seen Barred Owls in the news lately in connection with the plight of the threatened Northern Spotted Owl in the Pacific Northwest. Environmentalists have waged a controversial fight to save the Spotted Owl’s territory from loggers for many years, only to have it now face a threat from the larger and more aggressive Barred Owls, which have expanded into the same territories. The government now plans to kill thousands of Barred Owls to save the Spotted Owls. Hmm, when do we decide it’s “worth it” to kill one species to save another? Some people believe we should make every effort to prevent every single species from going extinct, while others think we should let nature take its course. I find myself always coming down on the side of saving a species, especially if human activities are the cause of its troubles. But in a case like this when it’s not entirely clear yet how and why the two owl species are interacting, I have more trouble siding with those who want to start shooting Barred Owls. But clearly these are ethical muddy waters.

All I know is that the idea of any species being eradicated from the Earth because of human activity makes me deeply sad in a way that’s hard to express. Sure, most of us will never see a Northern Spotted Owl or a Barred Owl anyway, but does that mean it’s ok for either of them to disappear forever? I hope not.

Posted in Birds, Humans vs All Other Animals, Threats to Birds | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Can a Cat Person Become a Dog Person?

Kim and Deb with dog named Kim -- cropped for blogI’ve been a lifelong “cat person” but I did have a dog, once. She was a Pekingese named Kim, and we got her when I was around six years old. I teased her one day and she bit me. She soon went to live with my cousins on a farm in West Virginia.

That single incident instilled in me a terror of dogs that lasted for decades, although it had faded to a simple fear by my twenties. I remember nervously running the gauntlet of barking dogs on my way home from school every day. That was in the days before there were leash laws, so dogs could actually chase after me. Looking back on it, I feel sad for the little girl who had to face that fear every day of her life.

We must have had at least seven or eight cats during my childhood after that, and I came to love them — because they were safe and easy. Well, all of them except that crazy one that always wrapped itself around my bare legs and bit me…. So when I started my adult life, there was no question about which pets I would have – dogs were out and cats were in. But there was more to my preference for felines than a fear of being bitten. I think there’s some truth to the stereotype that “cat people” have different personalities than “dog people.” Cats are indoor animals, not nearly as social as dogs; and I’m much less socially-inclined than the dog owners I’ve known.

A dog is always eager to meet a new friend

A dog is always eager to meet a new friend

As pack animals, dogs seem to be the perfect pet choice for extroverted humans. While the canines are “gettin’ their dog on” at the dog park, their humans get to socialize with other extroverted humans. Everyone goes home fulfilled; it’s a match made in heaven.

Except when it’s not.

I’ve recently become fascinated with Cesar Millan’s show, The Dog Whisperer. If you haven’t seen it, Cesar “fixes” problem dogs. But the secret about him is that he’s really a “Dog Owner Whisperer” too, because most of the time it’s the humans who need fixing just as much as, or more than, the dogs.

Today I watched an episode in which a girl’s dog would get so excited at the sight of another dog that she’d bite her owner repeatedly on the legs. She’d tried everything she could think of, including consulting with an expert dog trainer. Her dog was scheduled to be euthanized in a week. But she’d sought out Cesar as a last resort, taking her dog all the way from Boston to his ranch in California.

As he always does, Cesar listened closely to her description of the problem. Then he carefully introduced the dog to his pack, watching and correcting her behavior as she learned how to relate calmly to them. That part is almost always a piece of cake because his amazing pack of dogs does most of the work.

Then he started the more difficult job of training the human owner. He stressed being “calm and assertive” and taught the owner the meaning of the various dog behaviors so she could respond appropriately to each before any trouble had a chance to get out of hand. As is usually the case, it became clear that the dog was only a problem when it reacted to the stress or other negative stimuli from the owner.

Only a few minutes into the episode, as Cesar and the owner watched the dog playing with his pack, he said, “This is what you rescued, a happy-go-lucky girl. She’s doing great — the life of the party.” And he was right. That dog was like a different animal, just like that. (Of course there was probably some elapsed time they didn’t show us, but it was still the same day.) I often get a lump in my throat when I see the amazing difference in those dogs after Cesar spends time with them. It’s clear that the dogs are relieved to be able to just be themselves comfortably, finally. A happy dog is such a thing of beauty.

Dog in water with ball for Flickr

Fun-loving and outgoing…if only I could be like this dog!

Cesar said, “There’s a lot of souls that have been put down because some humans don’t understand them.” Isn’t that so sad? If I were in charge of the world, I’d make sure every pet owner was properly trained by someone like Cesar before they were allowed to take an animal home. Yes, I said the pet owner should be trained by Cesar. That man is a genius when it comes to dogs, but I also think he could have a second career as a human psychologist if he wanted to. He has a way of seeing what’s really going on when we interact with our pets and each other, and his calm way of talking and just being in this world makes me admire him so much. We could use some more humans like him.

A couple years ago, after watching this show for the first time, I was surprised to find myself having thoughts like, “Oh, I could probably handle a dog like that.” And, “If I were going to get a dog, which breed would be best for me?” I still adore my cats, but sometimes I have daydreams of how a dog might be a bridge between my introverted self and the rest of the world, forcing me out in public more and allowing me to interact more comfortably with people. I know it’s unrealistic to expect that a dog could change my whole personality, but maybe it could help smooth out my rough edges a bit.  Not that I don’t like myself, but I often wonder if life would be easier as a dog person. Don’t tell my cats I said that.

Posted in Cats | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

Ting Ting!

Big News! I’m so thrilled to share in the joy of a friend who has just had her first book published. Let me introduce you to Ting Ting, by Kristie Hammond.


I’ve never met Kristie, but I’ve been reading her blog for years and feel very connected to her. My copy of Ting Ting arrived on Tuesday so I sat down after dinner and devoured the whole thing in one sitting. It’s the story of a little Chinese girl who endures being separated from her parents at the time of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, eventually being reunited with them in Canada and navigating the difficult life of an immigrant. The main character is roughly based on Kristie’s real-life daughter-in-law, Diana. The back of the book says it’s for “ages 8+” but it made this 50+ woman smile, laugh out loud, and even shed a few tears. I’d say that means her writing is very good, especially for a brand-spankin’-new author.

You can read more about the story on Kristie’s blog, where she interviews herself about the whole process. (http://journeynorthof49.blogspot.com/2013/11/ting-ting-story-behind-story-giveaway.html)  I hope you’ll take a look at Ting Ting and consider supporting a first-time author who really deserves it. Congratulations, Kristie! I also highly recommend reading Kristie’s blog. Her family consists of five children, three of whom were adopted from different countries (Korea, Thailand, and Romania). They are a lovely family leading interesting lives, and I learn a lot from what Kristie shares with us so openly.

Here are two places to buy the book:

The publisher, Sono Nis: http://www.sononis.com/index.php?page=shop.product_details&flypage=flypage.tpl&product_id=156&category_id=2&option=com_virtuemart&Itemid=186

Amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/Ting-Kristie-Hammond/dp/1550392107/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1383336834&sr=8-1&keywords=ting+ting+kristie+hammond

Posted in Books, Writing | Tagged , | 5 Comments