For the Birds Radio Program: Thirty-nine and Counting

Original Air Date: Nov. 9, 1990

Laura is turning 39 this weekend and thinking, as usual, about birds and the Chicago Cubs. Date verified.

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November is the month of depression and digression. A few hawks and sparrows are still migrating, and a handful of robins are still pigging out in mountain ash trees, but it’s risky business to walk through the woods watching them. One Maine deer hunter was found innocent of killing a woman right in her yard because she wore white gloves! It does seem like society could expect people wielding lethal weapons to be able to identify their quarry at least as well as birdwatching wielding nothing more dangerous than binoculars, but we maintain lower standards for hunters.

But I digress. The woods had already lost much of their charm when the warblers vanished for the season, along with my trust and faith that the Chicago Cubs would win this year’s World Series. It always takes me till November to resign myself to the fact that the Series is over and some other team has won, which probably couldn’t have been avoided since the Cubs weren’t even allowed to play, just because they didn’t win the National League pennant. The Irish Chicago blood coursing through my veins circulates a vague feeling of hope anyway, like maybe, just maybe, this year the winner won’t be able to fulfill its duties, like Miss America or something, and the Cubs will be called in to preside for the remainder of the season. But by November, even that paltry hope runs out. Optimism about anything is difficult to maintain in an election year. Yep—November is the month of digression.

As if it weren’t bad enough to start with, this is the weekend I judge a loon-calling contest and then turn 39 years old. I can remember exactly 30 years ago when the biggest thought on my mind was, “Gosh–a whole year before I turn 10.” Finally hitting an age of double digits was an important milestone, but when you’re 9, a year represents 11 percent of your life. No wonder it seemed eternal. Now, of course, a year represents barely over 2 1/2 percent of my life. A whole year goes by faster now than summer vacation did back then.

I’m usually not much concerned about getting older, but last week a Pileated Woodpecker cruising around my neighborhood stopped hitching up the telephone pole for a moment and turned to look at me. He sure looked as if he knew I was getting close to the big four-o. That’s about the age when fungus starts growing on aspen trees, which bodes ill for the aspens but is a promising development for a pileated. As the fungus grows, the tree develops heart rot, which makes it the perfect choice for a nest tree.

Pileated Woodpeckers may prefer trees over 40 years old, but they themselves don’t live that long. There are several records of banded Pileateds living over 9 years, and of one Minnesota bird still alive at 13, but most probably don’t live more than a few years. Because of all the dangers facing wild birds, their life expectancy is much shorter than their genetic longevity potential. It also means that a year seems longer to a Pileated Woodpecker than it does to a 39-year-old human.

In spite of their worries, birds show their ages much more gracefully than we humans do. If they do get wrinkles and liver spots, they’re hidden under feathers. Some species, like robins, tend to grow white feathers, especially around their faces, as they get older, but that isn’t as common as gray hair in humans. The older waxwings get, the more red, waxy tips develop on their secondary wing feathers. Studies show that the older a waxwing is, the more attractive it becomes to the opposite sex, and the more likely it is to be selected as a mate. But then again, the oldest Cedar Waxwing on record, living in captivity, survived only 8 years, so I certainly wouldn’t swap places with one at this late date.

But I digress. Which is only natural in November. I guess I’ll go home and check myself for signs of fungal growth and heart rot.