For the Birds Radio Program: The One That Got Away

Original Air Date: Aug. 12, 1988

Laura talks about a rare bird that showed up briefly—all too briefly—in Duluth, and speculates about where rare birds come from. (Date verified.)

Duration: 4′04″


The One That Got Away

(Recording of a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher)

Fishermen are rich in stories about the ones that got away– sometimes in the heat of battle, and sometimes in the cool of the aftermath, like the record-breaking sturgeon mysteriously missing from a Minnesota freezer this summer. Birdwatchers, too, commiserate about lost opportunities and glorious, record- breaking sightings cruelly snatched away. Last week I drove over a hundred miles to Ely with a birding buddy, lugging our two bemused preschool daughters along in the hopes of seeing a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, a beautiful Oklahoma bird that has appeared in Minnesota only a handful of times. I badly need it for my St. Louis County list, but the drought broke just in time to send the bird for cover in a driving rainstorm before we got there.

Back in June, a couple of birders discovered and photographed a Fork-tailed Flycatcher in northeastern Wisconsin, just off Highway 13 past Superior. Now a Fork-tailed Flycatcher isn’t just any rare bird—this exotic relative of the Scissor- tail belongs thousands of miles south of here, down in Central and South America. The discoverers naturally headed for a phone as soon as they could so the whole birding community could share their extraordinary sighting. The moment I got word, I hopped in my car and raced out to the field where it had been seen, but no luck. Several of us searched the fields and woods for miles around, but the bird had vanished. In the days and weeks that followed, there were no reports of a lost Fork-tailed Flycatcher– -not in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, or anywhere. The bird was never seen after it left that one little field, in spite of its extraordinarily long tail, which you’d think would make it conspicuous enough to attract someone’s attention. So where did it go?

Well, I just happen to have a theory about how rare birds materialize out of nowhere and then vanish as suddenly as they appeared. Remember in As You Like It when Jaques said, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players”? Well Shakespeare was right—all the world really is a stage, and so, of course, there must be a prop man, someone running around backstage moving things from one set to another. When the director says, “Hey, lets’s get a Fork-tailed Flycatcher out there on set seven in Wisconsin,” the prop man dutifully obliges. What other logical explanation can there be for the sudden appearance of accidental birds like this foreign flycatcher? Well, there is the “Beam me up, Scotty” hypothesis, but the universal prop man theory is more satisfying because it also elegantly explains other phenomena, like what happens to missing socks, why lego brand interlocking blocks mysteriously proliferate in the homes of small children, and what really happened to that stolen sturgeon.

Naturally there are at least a few ornithologists who dryly rationalize the appearance of rare birds as the mere result of unusual weather patterns. And I have to admit that at least a few rare birds turn up in other ways, like the pair of Rock Wrens from the western United States that showed up in Bemidji a few years ago by literally hopping a freight. They had built their nest in a boxcar, and when the train moved east, they steadfastly stuck by their young. These wrens may not have been transported by the prop man, but my theory is as good as anything I’ve read in ornithological texts and journals to explain most accidental birds. So I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the prop man sets at least a few more rare birds on my stage that don’t exit before my entrance. Meanwhile, if any of my socks turn up on your set, you’ll know where they came from.

(Recording of a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher)

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