For the Birds Radio Program: Listener Letters

Original Air Date: March 14, 1989

Today Laura Erickson reads some listener comments and questions.

Audio missing


(Recording of a Pileated Woodpecker)

“Dear Laura Erickson:

My name is Sarah Jo Perushek, I am 10 1/2 years old, and I listen to your program every weekday. I am a big bird-watcher and my family and I (except my sister Jennie) are pretty interested in your program.”

Sarah’s letter continues on to itemize the 14 different species of birds she’s seen since January first–she’s managed to identify both adult and immature Bald Eagles, which indicates that she has excellent identification skills, though unfortunately both plumages of eagles still belong to the same species, or Sarah would be up to 15. She also sent me a lovely drawing of many of the birds at her feeder. She shows the difference between male and female Pileated Woodpeckers—both have a red crest, but the female’s crest begins on the forehead, where the male’s red feathers start at the top of the beak. Female pileateds have a black moustache mark where males have red. Sarah, who lives on the eastern edge of Duluth, has also seen a huge gray squirrel with a white belly and a red squirrel, and hopes she wins a prize. I hope so, too.

Mary Tonkin of Duluth included a question with her bird list. “How do they remove the pineal gland from a tiny bird and then replace it?” She’s referring to the program I did about biological clocks in birds, and the fact that when ornithologists remove the pineal gland, birds lose their innate biological rhythm, but regain it if the pineal gland is returned.

Ornithologists who study avian physiology have to learn the same kinds of microsurgery techniques as surgeons. It is very difficult to determine exactly the right amount of anesthetic to use with tiny birds, and it takes a very delicate hand to operate on a tiny bird brain. I have some serious misgivings about this kind of research, because although the results are extremely interesting, the birds used in the experiments are hardly compensated justly for their loss of freedom and their pain. Fortunately, since birds are so fragile, and so easily die of heart attacks if frightened, experimenters have to deal with them more humanely than just about any other group of animals simply in order for the experiment to come out. The American Ornithologists’ Union’s ad hoc committee on the scientific and educational use of wild birds published an extensive report about the ethics involved in experimenting on wild birds in 1975.

I don’t normally get much mail from listeners, though with three little children as distractions, it can take me an eternity sometimes to answer my letters. But since our backyard bird contest ended last week, I’ve been getting plenty of mail. If you have questions or comments about the program, write to “For the Birds,” KUMD-radio, 130 Humanities Building, University of Minnesota, Duluth, 55812. If you write to me in care of KAXE or WOJB, they’ll forward your letter to me.

(Recording of a Pileated Woodpecker)

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