For the Birds Radio Program: More Questions about Birds

Original Air Date: July 6, 1987 Rerun Dates: Sept. 7, 1988

Laura fields questions about waxwings, gulls and pigeons, and birding optics.

Duration: 3′38″


(Recording of a Cedar Waxwing)

June and July seem to be the months when people pay most attention to birds, so I’ve been fielding a lot of ornithological questions lately. One listener asked me if the waxwings we see in summer are the same as the ones in winter. No, they’re not. The Cedar Waxwing usually doesn’t return to the Northland until late spring. It nests here, and spends late summer and fall in big flocks, darting out from branches to catch flying insects and pigging out at mountain ash trees. Cedar Waxwings sound like tiny mice snoring.

(Recording of Cedar Waxwings)

By December most of the Cedars are gone, and Bohemian Waxwings arrive from the Northwest to take their place. These birds are a bit larger and much noisier–they sound more like huge rats snoring. Bohemian Waxwings are pearl gray beneath where Cedars are more yellowish, and the undertail coverts of Bohemians are rusty. They also have bolder wing markings.

Another listener asks if our pesky seagulls are any relation to pigeons. No, they aren’t. Pigeons and Doves are not only in a different family from gulls, they’re in an entirely different order. Gulls are distantly related to sandpipers and Killdeer–all have long, pointed wings and are well suited for life in or near water. Pigeons have a unique digestive system which allows adults to feed their young semi-digested food called “pigeon milk.”

How do you pick good binoculars? The most important consideration is how much money you want to spend. The finest binoculars of all are Zeiss and Leitz trinovids, but those cost over $500, more than this radio bird-watcher earns in a year. Medium range ones–by Nikon, Minolta, and other camera companies, run $2 or 300. These are an especially good buy if you want a pair that will fit into your purse or pocket–the optics will probably be good enough to compensate for the small lenses.

But it’s not impossible to find a good pair of field glasses in the 35-75 dollar range. In the less expensive models, I’d always get 7- power. That’s enough magnification to suit most needs, and doesn’t shake as much as higher power ones. Don’t get a really tiny pair, like 7x20’s–you’ll lose far too much light in the cheaper models. 7x35’s are the most popular. Make sure your glasses have central focusing, and that they’re comfortable in your hands and around your neck. To check if the optics are clear, hold them out at arms length and look for a circle of light in the center of the lenses. If this circle is crisp, with no shadows on the edges, the binoculars should be just fine.

If you can’t afford new binoculars don’t fo looking for flaws on your old ones. Binoculars are a lot like bicycles. If you started on one of those reliable old balloon tire bikes as a kid, I’d bet it ran perfectly well, taking you just about anywhere you wanted to go. It isn’t until you get on a fancy ten-speed that you start hankering for something more. But even the ricketyest old bikes and binoculars can open up new vistas if you give them the chance.

(Recording of Cedar Waxwings)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”