For the Birds Radio Program: Accessing Memory

Original Air Date: March 2, 1988

Does your mind ever take a momentary vacation? A bird’s never does. Laura Erickson tells why on today’s “For the Birds.”

Duration: 3′43″


(Recording of a Pine Grosbeak)

Two weeks ago a listener called me about a mystery bird which she saw on the UMD campus. She got a good look at it, and gave me an excellent description–the bird was larger than a robin, bright red–more the red of a cardinal than a robin– with dark wings, white wing bars, and a black beak.

Of course the bird was a Pine Grosbeak, a species which is fairly common at some lucky feeding stations this winter, but for some reason my brain just didn’t register this during the phone call. Apparently either the system was down temporarily or my memory directory had been deleted. Anyway, for the life of me I couldn’t figure out what the bird was, but the moment we hung up, it hit me. Naturally I also forgot to ask her for her number, so I couldn’t even redeem myself.

Most everybody’s mind goes on hiatus at least once in a while. It’s not really much of a problem usually, though it can lead to some embarrassment–I’m sure that the moment that listener thumbed through a bird book and saw the Pine Grosbeak staring out at her she wrote me off for good. But once in a while, a momentary mental shutdown can be disastrous. Parents coping with small children as they drive know how scary it is to find yourself suddenly straddling the lane when you’ve been looking through the rear-view mirror at a minor disaster in the back seat. I don’t even want to think how many of those moments lead to real tragedies.

Birds may not be as intelligent as we are, but their brains probably don’t go on hiatus more than once in a lifetime. As the eminent ornithologist Joel Carl Welty wrote, “On all sides and at all times, birds are surrounded by threats to their lives.” Icarus, the wounded crow I’m taking care of, bears testimony to that. It’s pretty hard for a slow-flying crow, even an alert one, to avoid someone with a shotgun. But Icarus is still ever wary, in spite of now living in a new safe home. Even as he sleeps in the basement, he’s half-alert. Every time I go down the basement stairs, no matter how quietly I tiptoe, Icarus’s eyes open and he stares motionless at me. He has no intention of going into that good night with his eyes closed.

Waxwings and robins occasionally lose mental control when they get drunk–exactly the way humans do. Right now I’m taking care of a Bohemian Waxwing that hit a window and broke his foot after eating a few too many fermented apples or mountain ash berries. Like humans, inebriated birds lose their ability to react quickly in emergencies. Fortunately, unlike their human counterparts, avian drunks are too small to inflict injuries on others.

One feature I never noticed on Bohemian Waxwings before is that their eyelids are covered with tiny white feathers. A bird’s eyelids close from the bottom up, so when our visiting waxwing, which my daughter named Katie, is awake, the white feathers form a pretty white mark under the eyes. But when Katie sleeps, the white lids make her look oddly awake. She sleeps a bit more soundly than Icarus, and I wonder if this isn’t an adaptation to trick predators into thinking waxwings are alert even during the brief time that their brains do take a vacation. Yes, even in sleep a bird never relaxes its vigilance the way your average radio birdwatchers do.

(Recording of a Pine Grosbeak)

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