For the Birds Radio Program: Jolly Times at an Elderhostel

Original Air Date: July 18, 1988

Laura found opportunities to study birds, and perhaps to be studied by them, on Burntside Lake when she was teaching an Elderhostel.

Duration: 3′59″


(Recording of a Pileated Woodpecker)

Two weeks ago I was up near Ely, Minnesota, teaching an elderhostel class. As much as I enjoy talking about birds on the radio, I even more love teaching classes where people can talk back to me. One of the elderhostelers asked me a question I’d never thought about before–how much does a loon weigh? I didn’t have the foggiest idea, so I looked it up in my handy dandy Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds. It said that a loon weighs–Now wait a minute. You have to make a guess before I tell you. Remember that a loon has solid bones, unlike most birds, so it’s more dense than a duck or goose. Okay, now– ready with your guess? I personally was thinking in the range of maybe 12-15 pounds, but I was way off. It turns out that a loon weighs only 6 1/2 to 8 1/2 pounds. Now to put that in perspective, how much do you suppose a Canada Goose weighs? The trick with geese is that there are so many subspecies—the smallest races weigh a mere 3 pounds, but giant Canada Geese weigh 11 or 12 pounds. So the overall average weight is in the same range as a loon’s. Okay now, time for the trick question. How much does a Great Blue Heron weigh? You know—that enormous bird that sits still in shallow water and lunges for huge fish. Well, believe it or not, Great Blue Herons weigh in at a mere 5-8 pounds. That means one heron would balance five crows on a teeter totter. Yep, elderhostels are the place to get answers to a lot of urgent questions which I bet not one presidential candidate would know.

The other pleasant thing for me about elderhostels is that during the time I’m not teaching or leading field trips, I get to amble around Burntside Lake. This year I discovered nests of Red-eyed Vireos and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, met a family of Chestnut-sided Warblers just fledged from the nest, learned a new song of Blackburnian Warblers, and saw a magical sight I had never seen before–a Hermit Thrush singing. Unfortunately, this program isn’t broadcast in color, so you’ll have to use your mind’s eye to imagine it:

(Recording of a Hermit Thrush)

And the best thing of all was, I learned about the everyday lives of Pileated Woodpeckers. They were calling and drumming up a storm around the campground all week, so just about everyone saw them at least once or twice, but the most satisfying times I had with them were when I sat down to watch for 30 minute stretches. I saw one father Pileated feeding his daughter and teaching her how to dig for her own insects in the tree bark. I could tell he was the father because he had a red mustache and his red crest began where his beak ended. Her mustache and forehead were black–her crest started further back on her head.

Then I watched an adult female–presumably the mother–take a half-hour break one hot afternoon. She made the pileated yell as she landed in a dead spruce, presumably to tell her family where she was. Then whenever one of the others called, she turned her head to get a fix on the direction, but kept quiet herself. She preened her right wing, picked for a few bugs, and moseyed along the tree trunk, occasionally peeking at me. She may well have been furtively studying me, taking notes on the everyday lives of adult female humans, and how they laze around on the edge of a dusty road and don’t do much of anything on a hot afternoon. At this very minute she may be broadcasting her report on the Pileated Woodpecker News Network.

(Recording of a Pileated Woodpecker)

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