For the Birds Radio Program: Summer's End
(Recording of an American Robin)
Summer is on the wane–at least as far as birds are concerned. Most of this year’s young birds are full grown now and on their own. Swallows are gathering in migratory flocks–they’re easy to see on telephone wires, especially near water. Grackle families are joining gangs to strut through lawns looking for grubs and seeds. Anyone who objects to their presence should think again–grackles are one bird that eats huge quantities of that most repulsive of garden pests, the slug. Small groups of nighthawks are on the move now, some migrant shorebirds are turning up, and even warblers are starting to head south in small flocks.
But don’t pull out your fall wardrobe quite yet–not all the birds are heading out. Some of them are still busy with parental duties. Baby Blue Jays will keep begging for food from their parents for another month or so, and flocks of Evening Grosbeaks in the Northland will act like extended families, with adult birds, both males and females, feeding any and every young grosbeak that flutters its wings at them. Goldfinches are just starting to nest, now that thistle down and milkweed pods are ripening–they use the soft down to line their nests. And some robins, especially in central and southern Wisconsin and Minnesota, are sitting on a second clutch of eggs or small nestings, now that their first brood is on its own.
This is a fine time of year to start a lifelist–a list of all the birds you can find. It’s not hard to locate most of the common birds in your area, and the occasional migrant adds spice. Most birds aren’t singing very much anymore, now that they don’t need to defend a territory, but young birds still make little whisper sounds which can draw your attention. The only problem with late summer birding is that so many of the birds are young of the year, and their plumage is often different from adults. Most Blue Jay young are identical to adults now, but baby grackles are brown instead of black, and they have a dark eye instead of a gold one like adults. Baby Chipping Sparrows have finely streaked breasts, and even Cedar Waxwing fledglings are streaked and dowdy compared to their elegant parents. Fall warblers befuddle even some experienced birders.
Even if you see an adult feed a young bird, you can’t always be sure they’re the same species. The Song Sparrows that nested next door to me raised a cowbird as well as one of their own young. One parent, the father, I believe, follows his own baby around, while the mother is stuck caring for the cowbird. Baby cowbirds are much larger than Song Sparrows–when the mother leaps up in the air and laboriously hovers while she shoves food into her giant baby’s mouth, I get a sense of how Wilt Chamberlain’s mother must have felt.
When some people start a lifelist, they go through their field guide and check off all the birds they remember ever seeing. But it’s more challenging, and maybe even more fun, to start from scratch. That way, even a cowbird becomes exciting, at least for a day.
(Recording of a Brown-headed Cowbird)
This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”