For the Birds Radio Program: T.S. Roberts (Placeholder)

Original Air Date: Feb. 10, 1995

Today Laura Erickson reads selections from an old bird book. 3:48

Audio missing


One of the pleasures of long winter nights is rocking by the fire with a cup of cocoa in one hand and a fine old bird book in the other. One particularly enjoyable book for this purpose is The Birds of Minnesota by Thomas Sadler Roberts. I’ve been perusing this sixty-year-old, two-volume tome lately, and find particular pleasure in his account of the Blue Jay. He wrote:

There are few who stop to consider what an exceptionally handsome bird it is that spends both winter and summer so commonly and familiarly about our door-steps. The trite saying that “familiarity breeds contempt” is well exemplified in the case of the Blue Jay… This big, crested bird, arrayed in beautiful blue with trimmings of black and white, view in beauty with the most radiant of our feathered tribe. Its intelligence and accomplishments also place it in the first rank. It is wise and resourceful, and, white its usual utterances may be harsh and unmusical, it is capable of performances, subdued though they may be, so varied and tuneful that it has been compared with the Mockingbird. Its powers of mimicry are said to be almost unlimited, and it can even be taught to whistle for the dog and to call its keeper by name. It is the fashion to speak of it as a rascal and a robber, and it cannot be denied that it has its faults, some of them, perhaps, serious. But with a bird that has so much to commend it and that adds an element of beauty and life to the long and dreary winter months, it seems but fair to condone and forget the charges against it.

This seems to be the winter of the Pine Siskin—they’re visiting many feeders throughout the Northland, and I’ve been getting phone calls about them almost every day. Roberts seemed to enjoy these “eccentric creatures,” as he called them. He wrote:

The little Pine Siskin… is possessed of a gipsy-like wanderlust that takes it now here, now there, and only irregularly and seemingly by chance back again to the same locality … It resembles [the Crossbill] in its indifference to any established breeding territory, in its movements like the Goldfinch, and its ordinary notes and incessant twittering suggest the voice of that bird… A whole flock [keeps] up a twittering sort of conversation and at times one would break into a low, rather sweet song.

Roberts also mentions that siskins occasionally feed on beets, chard, lettuce, radishes, and onions, and tells how one farmer solved the problem:

One farmer, using a dead-fall made from a barn door, fed them to his hogs by the bucketful! A sad fate for the gentle and usually harmless little Siskin.

Roberts’s accounts are dated and incomplete, with an inaccuracy here and there, but they are rich with these kinds of anecdotes and details about Northland birds. The Birds of Minnesota is available at most public libraries, and winter is the right time to check it out, and then settle in for an evening or two of fascinating reading.