For the Birds Radio Program: Winter Rarities

Original Air Date: Feb. 24, 1988

Northlanders are seeing a few unusual sparrows right now.

Duration: 3′47″


(Recording of a Black-capped Chickadee)

Chickadees are singing just about every day now. Their sweet whistle penetrates even a double-paned window, so I notice them indoors as well as out.

(Recording of a Chickadee)

The song reminds a lot of people of the White-throated Sparrow, but the chickadee’s is a always a two or three-note whistle:

(Recording of a Black-capped Chickadee)

White-throated Sparrows are extremely rare throughout Minnesota and northern Wisconsin in winter. There are dozens of records of over-wintering birds in Minnesota, but the vast majority of these records are in the Twin Cities and farther south–records in the north are few and far between. And most over-wintering birds leave or die by the end of January. One hardy bird did survive a winter in International Falls in 1984- 85, but overall they’re extremely rare. The earliest date on record for a returning spring migrant in the northern part of Minnesota is March 24. So I was quite surprised to hear from an Island Lake listener that a White-throated Sparrow is actually singing there. Except in fall, Northland white- throats sing a song in the rhythm pattern “Old Sam Peabody Peabody Peabody.” White-throats north of the border change their tune to “Oh, sweet Canada, Canada, Canada Canada.”

(Recording of a White-throated Sparrow)

Normally, wintering white-throats don’t sing, but under a strong February sun a bird’s thoughts often turn to romance, even when the mercury is stuck below zero.

Another unusual wintering bird in these parts is a Tree Sparrow hiding out at a feeder in Port Wing, Wisconsin. Although Tree Sparrows are also uncommon up here in winter, they aren’t quite as rare as White-throats. Tree Sparrows don’t sing much before they arrive at their breeding grounds in northern Canada, but their song is a pretty one:

(Recording of a Tree Sparrow)

A KAXE listener wrote to me several weeks ago about a robin overwintering in Eveleth that became badly stressed by the weather. Although robins are hardy birds, they do sometimes succumb to bad weather if they don’t have enough to eat, or if they rely too heavily on a single source of food, like mountain ash berries. She brought the robin indoors and fed it, and it recovered quite well–then she found someone with a permit to care for birds who will take it until spring.

Bohemian Waxwings are also showing up in a lot of listeners’ yards. Thanks to the thaw and freezing rain a few weeks ago, some mountain ash berries fermented, and so now a lot of waxwings are getting drunk and smacking into windows. Sometimes intoxicated birds die–they’re vulnerable to accidents, predators, and even alcoholic poisoning. It’s illegal to keep a waxwing in captivity, but if you find one that clearly needs some time to dry out, you can take it in for a day or so. No matter how intoxicated it is, don’t give it coffee. Waxwings do quite well temporarily in captivity on a diet of raisins and other soft fruits, ground meats, bread crumbs, and mealworms. But as soon as they sober up, set them free to again take their rightful place among the northland’s winter birds.

(Recording of a Chickadee)

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