For the Birds Radio Program: Stranger than Fiction

Original Air Date: Jan. 6, 1989

Recast from 10-13-86. (3:41) Date verified.

Audio missing


(Recording of Tundra Swans)

Today I’m giving a bird quiz. First question: How many feathers does a swan have on its body? No kidding–somebody actually counted them all, one by one. The answer is over 25,000–25,216 to be precise. Now, of those feathers, how many were on the swan’s neck? The answer is more than 15,000.

In 1933–obviously during a slower-paced era than today’s, the Smithsonian Institution sponsored a feather-counting project. The Whistling Swan had no real competition for first place in the number of feathers. Waterfowl all have dense feathering to keep their bodies dry while swimming, and swans are the largest of all waterfowl.

Which bird had the fewest feathers of all? As you might expect, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird–one male had only 940.

Now for a bird between the hummer and the swan, how about the American Robin? Well, somebody counted 2,973 feathers on one.

How many birds do you suppose it is theoretically possible to see in North America? According to the checklist of the American Birding Association, 835 species can be listed. It had been 836 until the very last of the California Condors were captured and sent to zoos.

How many birds has a single birder seen in one year in all of North America? The record holder is Benton Basham, who saw 711 in 1983. He came up to northern Minnesota that winter to get several of the northern species–I was even along when he got his Boreal Owl on the Gunflint Trail. Benton has seen more North American birds in his life than anyone else–a total of 772.

How much did Benton spend to chase down all those birds? That’s anyone’s guess–but another heavy duty lister, James Vardaman, spent $44,507 to count 698 species in 1979. Vardaman traveled over 161,000 miles and got seasick four times in his unsuccessful attempt to be the first to see 700 in a single year.

How many birds is it possible to see in Minnesota? As of December 1, 1987, Bob Janssen and Ray Glassel hold the record–368, and Kim Eckert had seen 303 in St. Louis County alone. The MOU will be updating this record in the next issue of The Loon. The Wisconsin Society for Ornithology doesn’t keep track of lists for Wisconsin birders.

Finally, which is a more satisfying hobby–hunting or birdwatching? According to a survey conducted by the National Park Service, 75% of the hunters surveyed “particularly enjoyed” their sport, but a mere 7% of birdwatchers said they “particularly enjoyed” birding.

(Recording of a Mallard)

This is Laura Erickson, and all these numbers and statistics have been “For the Birds.”