For the Birds Radio Program: Birthday 2010

Original Air Date: Nov. 11, 2010

Bad news is weighing on Laura Erickson on her 59th birthday.

Duration: 4′48″


This week I’ve been feeling oppressed by the news. The EPA didn’t ban lead sinkers, despite the fact that lead in shot, bullets, and fishing tackle kill from 10–20 million birds a year. A new paper was released by the American Ornithologists’ Union about the chickadees and Northwestern crows in Alaska that have deformed beaks. A USGS research biologist I’ve talked to about the problem, Colleen Handel, said, “The prevalence of these strange deformities is more than ten times what is normally expected in a wild bird population. We have seen effects not only on the birds’ survival rates, but also on their ability to reproduce and raise young. We are particularly concerned because we have not yet been able to determine the cause, despite testing for the most likely culprits.” They’ve named the condition avian keratin disorder, and it’s increased dramatically over the past decade. It now affects 6.5 percent of adult Black-capped Chickadees in Alaska every year. Beak deformities in this species were first observed in the late 1990s and biologists have since documented more than 2,100 affected individuals. Increasing numbers of other species have also been observed with beak deformities throughout Alaska, British Columbia, and Washington. An estimated 17 percent of adult Northwestern Crows are affected by avian keratin disorder in coastal Alaska. Yesterday there was also a news story about a large number of Turkey Vultures found dead and dying in Biscayne Bay—no one knows what happened to them. We also don’t know what’s happening to our loons in the Gulf of Mexico, or how other birds are faring, but we do know that a huge amount of coral reef has died and an oily sludge is now coating the bottom sediment of a large area of the Gulf. So there’s plenty of bad news weighing down my heart. But today is my birthday, and somehow that always makes me feel as happy and excited as a little girl. It used to be fun to look at bird longevity records to see which birds had lived to my age, but unfortunately, the USGS doesn’t keep records on macaws and parrots, and their records of wild North American birds includes only those that have first been banded and then second been recaptured or found dead. Those records do show that a Laysan Albatross lived to be 50 years and 8 months, but that’s the only wild bird we know of that made it past the big 5-0, and only a couple of other birds have even made it to 40. All the top ten oldest birds are seabirds, but one Mourning Dove lived to be 31 years and 4 months. Contrary to a ridiculous email several people have sent me, eagles do not live to be 80 and then die and get reborn. The oldest Bald Eagle on record lived to be 32 years and 10 months old—it was killed on a New Brunswick highway this past April. The second oldest Bald Eagle on record was killed by a car north of Two Harbors this October. It had been banded by Dave Evans in June, 1978, north of Minong, Wisconsin. Spokespersons for the USGS said it was good news that so many eagles have been being found dead in their 20s and even 30s recently, but for me it’s just more evidence that people need to slow down when there are animals on the roadway—virtually every eagle killed by a car is only on the roadside because of another animal that had been killed by a car. But today is my birthday, and I’m determined to think happy thoughts. So I’m going to focus on a tiny bird that is pink, baby blue, and shiny green, the most adorable bird in the known universe—the Cuban Tody. I’ll devote this year to figuring out how I can get to Cuba to see one by the time I reach my next milestone on 11/11/11.