For the Birds Radio Program: Dawn Dickey Duty

Original Air Date: Sept. 7, 1987

Laura often gets up before dawn to count birds flying above the Lakewood Pumping Station, just up the shore from town. (This program contains the first mention of Donald Trump that Laura ever made on the radio.) (3:40) Date confirmed

Audio missing


(Recording of Cedar Waxwings)

Fall is the best time of year along Lake Superior, where millions of birds migrate. And fall means Dawn Dickey Duty.

Dawn Dickey Duty is what Duluth Auduboners call getting up at sunrise to count all the songbirds (or “Dickey Birds”) that pass over. Every year we count the hawks over Hawk Ridge, but this year we’re also counting at the Lakewood Pumping Station, up the shore a ways. Five of us take days–I get the weekends. We even get paid–three bucks an hour, which may not be the minimum wage, but it’s a lot more than, say, Lee Iococca or Donald Trump has ever earned bird watching. We carefully count the hawks, of course, but until the Broad-wings peak in mid- Sept., the big fun and the biggest numbers come during Dawn Dickey Duty.

The only thing in the world prettier than a Blue Jay is a whole flock of Blue Jays. On Sept. 4, 1985, we had 1170 Blue Jays fly over the pumping station in five hours, and, on Sept. 2 that year, 1,050 passed by in just 2 1/2 hours. Imagine hundreds of jays streaming over under a clear blue sky, holding their bodies aloft on their wingtips as they flap the stiff way jays do, and you’ll understand why fall is my favorite season.

Some mornings, right within the few minutes as the sun pops up over the lake, thousands of warblers descend. From beneath, it’s hard to tell most of them apart, but sometimes a flash of orange distinguishes a redstart, or square white tail patches verify a Magnolia Warbler. The easiest warbler of all to identify in flight is the Yellow-rump–all the warblers make little “seep” sounds as they migrate, to keep from bumping into each other, but the Yellow-rump also makes a unique chip sound sort of like this:

(“tch tch”)

Whenever you hear that, casually point it out to your friends, saying, “Oh, just another Yellow-rumped Warbler,” and they’ll be amazed and impressed by your abilities.

Warblers, sparrows, and most other songbirds migrate by night, when it’s cool enough to keep their engines from overheating. Still, several species of songbirds do migrate by day and are fun to watch–jays, robins, Cedar Waxwings, blackbirds, crows, and ravens. Bluebirds are no fly-by-nights, either, though the bulk of their migration won’t happen until later in the month. Hummingbirds often zip by, but many people don’t notice them, or confuse them with the ubiquitous dragonflies.

If Dawn Dickey Duty is exciting because of the huge numbers of birds passing over, what is even better is finding a rarity–an odd bird, like a jaegar or Band-tailed Pigeon, who’s out looking for America.

(Recording–“They’ve all gone to look for America”

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