For the Birds Radio Program: The One That Got Away

Original Air Date: Jan. 28, 1999

Recast from 8-12-1988. Date verified.

Audio missing


The One That Got Away

(Recording of a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher)

Fishermen are rich in stories about the ones that got away– sometimes in the heat of battle, and sometimes in the cool of the aftermath, like one record-breaking sturgeon that mysteriously disappeared from a Minnesota freezer one summer. Birdwatchers, too, commiserate about lost opportunities and glorious, record- breaking sightings cruelly snatched away. About 10 1/2 years ago, I drove over a hundred miles to Ely with a birding buddy, lugging our two long-suffering preschool daughters along in the hopes of seeing a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, a beautiful Oklahoma bird that appears in Minnesota only sporadically. At the time, I badly needed it for my St. Louis County list, but Doug and I hit a driving rainstorm that sent the bird under cover when we arrived.

That same summer, a couple of birders discovered and photographed a Fork-tailed Flycatcher in northeastern Wisconsin, just off Highway 13 past Superior. Now a Fork-tailed Flycatcher isn’t just any rare bird—this exotic relative of the Scissor- tail belongs thousands of miles south of here, down in Central and South America. The discoverers naturally headed for a phone as soon as they could so the whole birding community could share the excitement. The moment I got word, I hopped in my car and raced out to the field where it had been seen, but no luck. Several of us searched the fields and woods for miles around, but the bird had vanished. In the days and weeks that followed, there were no reports of a lost Fork-tailed Flycatcher anywhere– -not even in other states. The bird was never seen after it left that one little field, in spite of its bizarre tail, which you’d think would make it conspicuous enough to attract someone’s attention. So where did it go?

Well, I just happen to have a theory about how rare birds materialize out of nowhere and then mysteriously vanish. Remember in As You Like It when Jaques said, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players”? Well Shakespeare was right—all the world really is a stage, and so, of course, there must be a prop man, someone running around backstage moving things from one set to another. When the director says, “Hey, lets’s get a Fork-tailed Flycatcher out there on set seven in Wisconsin,” the prop man obligingly brings one out. What other logical explanation can there be for the mysterious appearance of exotic birds like this? Well, okay, there is the Star Trek fan’s “Beam me up, Scotty” hypothesis, but the universal prop man theory is more scientifically satisfying because it also explains other phenomena, like what happens to missing socks, why Lego brand interlocking blocks and Fisher Price people mysteriously proliferate in the homes of small children, and what really happened to that stolen sturgeon.

Naturally there are at least a few ornithologists who dryly rationalize the appearance of rare birds as the mere result of unusual weather patterns. And I do have to admit that at least a few rare birds turn up in other ways, like the pair of Rock Wrens from the western United States that showed up in Bemidji in the early ’80s by literally hopping a freight. They had built their nest in a boxcar, and when the train headed east, they stood by their young. These wrens may not have been transported by the prop man, but my theory is as good as anything I’ve read in ornithological texts and journals to explain most accidental birds. So I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the prop man sets at least a few more rare birds on my stage that don’t exit before my entrance. Meanwhile, if any of my socks turn up on your set, you’ll know where they came from.

(Recording of a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher)

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