For the Birds Radio Program: Sanderlings in the Tub

Original Air Date: Sept. 19, 1990

Why are there three Sanderlings in Laura Erickson’s bathtub? (3:39) Date verified.

Audio missing


Throughout September, the beaches of Lake Superior and Lake Michigan are dotted by pale little sandpipers that scurry along the waves like wind-up toys, sometimes allowing us to approach within 10 or 15 feet before they take off in unison, showing off bold white wing stripes as they stream along. Soon they alight again, and tirelessly resume their beach-combing, which for them is hardly just an amusing pastime–it’s their livelihood.

These little Sanderlings are unique among the whole sandpiper family because they lack a hind toe. This feature isn’t mentioned in the Peterson or National Geographic field guides, but it’s surprisingly easy to see, even at some distance, and makes it easy for beginning shorebird watchers to clinch at least one identification. Without the support of a hind toe, a Sanderling balances a little more forward than other sandpipers, and runs differently. Of course, its delicate, pale plumage and bold white wing bars ar good marks, too. The bird’s unique and comical habit of running in and out along the action of the waves while constantly probing for food makes it doubly pleasing to see.

Every Sanderling spends its childhood within the Arctic Circle, on the tundra or on rocky deserts of northern Canada, Alaska, Greenland, and Siberia. But for this species, childhood is as ephemeral as an arctic summer. By July, the babies are full grown, powerful long-distance fliers already heading south.

And south they go. There is probably not a sandy beach in the entire world that has never been visited by a Sanderling. Some can be seen throughout the winter along the coasts, but many more go all the way down to southernmost South America, Africa, and even Australia—pretty impressive for a bird tipping the scales at two to three ounces.

Right now I have three young Sanderlings sitting in my bathtub. The very idea of Sanderlings in a bathtub appeals to many people’s imaginations, but it sure doesn’t appeal to a Sanderling. This is one bird who likes to keep an eye on the horizon even as it searches the surf and sand for crustaceans and the open sky for falcons. A bathtub doesn’t have much of a horizon.

These Sanderlings came to me last week when some birders found them, weak and emaciated, on Park Point in Duluth. The Park Point beach should have plenty of food, so the real question is, what made the birds too weak to feed? The sediments at the bottom of the Duluth/Superior harbor are dangerously contaminated with PCBs, heavy metals like cadmium and mercury, and other toxic chemicals. The storms last week not only stirred up these toxins, re-suspending them in the water, but also the overflowing storm sewers dumped raw sewage into the lake. My children drink Lake Superior water, along with most of the people living near Lake Superior. These little poisoned Sanderlings stuck in my bathtub are rather like canaries in a mine, telling us when it’s time to do something or get out.

Sanderlings don’t ask for anything from us except that which our own self interest should demand—clean water, fresh air, and a few open spaces. It isn’t wise to refuse them.