Following The Flock Into The New Year

45:44 minutes

a small grey bird sits perched on a snowy branch
Tufted Titmouse. Credit: Michele Black/Great Backyard Bird Count
birders of all ages excitedly point and gaze up at bird in the winter
Christmas Bird Count 2015, Central Park, NYC. Credit: Camilla Cerea/Audubon

For many, the new year means looking back on the past accomplishments and checking off your goals. For birders, it means tallying up your species list and recording all the birds you’ve spotted in the season. Birders Corina Newsome and Geoff LeBaron, director of the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, guide us through the feathered friends flying overhead—from nuthatches to ducks to merlins. And Geoff Williamson, a birder from Chicago who runs Third Coast Birding, gives us an update on the winter birds in the Great Lakes area.

You also shared recordings and photos of your favorite birds that you spotted this winter migration. See a selection below!

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Can’t wait until Friday’s show to talk to us? See what’s new on the SciFri VoxPop app.

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Segment Guests

Geoff LeBaron

Geoff LeBaron is Christmas Bird Count Director at the National Audubon Society in Williamsburg, Massachusetts.

Corina Newsome

Corina Newsome is a conservation scientist based in Atlanta, Georgia.

Geoff Williamson

Geoff Williamson is a birder and owner of Third Coast Birding in Chicago, Illinois.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. As is our custom, it’s our annual bird watching segment, where we team up with Audubon’s annual Christmas Bird Count. We’re devotees of the avian kind. Bundle up with binoculars in hand to count up all the noisy nut hatches–


–the diving ducks–


–and maybe one of these.


Of course, it’s everybody’s favorite, and but really, that’s just a preview because later in the hour, we’re going to play Name That Bird Quiz. We’re going to play a call, and we want you to make the call and call in with your guess for the bird that made that sound.

But first, we’re going to talk about what birds you’ve seen this winter. Did you participate in a bird count? Or maybe you’re taking count from your kitchen window. Some listeners checked in on the Science Friday VoxPop app to tell us what they’ve seen.

DEBBIE: My bird feeder typically attracts gold finches, house finches, towhees, but suddenly, a nut hatch has arrived, and I’m very excited to have found a new member of the bird club in my backyard.

LISA: I was drinking coffee early on Christmas morning and heard this lovely birdsong in my backyard. It’s a Carolina Wren, and it’s not real common in Iowa, so I felt really lucky to hear it.


IRA FLATOW: Don’t you love that sound? It’s so soothing, the birds out there on the feeder. Those folks were Debbie in Citrus Heights, California, Lisa in Iowa City. And we want to hear about what birds you have spotted this winter migration, maybe a wayward wax wing or an owl that’s come back every year. Or maybe you need help identifying a bird you saw. Well, that’s what we’re going to be talking about. And you can give us a call. Our number, 844-724-8255, 844-SCI-TALK, or tweet us, @scifri, S-C-I-F-R-I.

Now let me introduce our bird guides for the hour. Corina Newsome is a birder and graduate student, studying bird conservation at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, Georgia. She joins us by Skype. Welcome to Science Friday.

CORINA NEWSOME: Thank you so much for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. Geoff LeBaron is the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count director, based out of Williamsburg, Massachusetts. Nice to have you back, Jeff.

GEOFF LEBARON: It’s great to be here. Thanks for having me on, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. Let’s first talk to you, Jeff. The Bird Count is wrapping up this weekend, and your team will go back and look through the data. Can you give us an idea of what trends you’re seeing from the season?

GEOFF LEBARON: It’s a bit early to sort of say the results of this year because at this point, there’s only just over 400 counts that have been entered into the online database. As you said, the counts will continue through this Sunday, the 5th. So compilers actually have until the end of February to actually do their data entry. Then there’s a review process that goes on, so it takes a while before we actually finalize the database for a given year.

I have been sort of trying to keep track of if there’s unusual stuff going– being discovered this year. And so far, there hasn’t been anything totally crazy. The most unusual bird that I sort of heard about– this was out in– actually, it was in a count circle that’s actually in the very northwestern corner of Oregon, but it was actually in the– a peninsula of Washington happens to be in that circle. It’s called a rustic bunting. And Murphy’s law was that it disappeared the day before the count, so.

IRA FLATOW: That’s right.

GEOFF LEBARON: So it didn’t quite actually make it into the database. That’s why we have count week species for people.

IRA FLATOW: There’s a commercial out for something like that.


IRA FLATOW: Corina, you’ve been birding in a couple of places in the south this season. What types of birds have you come across?

CORINA NEWSOME: Yes, I’ve been between Georgia and Virginia primarily so far this season. And I’ve been seeing a lot of the winter residents that I’m used to seeing, so the white-throated sparrows, dark-eyed juncos. I surprisingly have not seen any cedar wax wings yet, which really bums me out. So I’m on the lookout for those. And then of course, my beloved brown-head nuthatches– they’re one of my favorite birds– recently have been some of the birds I’ve been seeing down here.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, I see a lot of nuthatches in my backyard. They are among my favorite because of the way they actually fly, little bumps when they fly and then they point downwards with their head. And then they take the seed and they crack it open on the branch.


IRA FLATOW: All kinds of good stuff, right?

CORINA NEWSOME: The smallest tool users.

IRA FLATOW: And actually, the wax wings are still up here in New England, so maybe they’ll–


IRA FLATOW: –get down there later in the winter. Yeah. All right, let’s go. We actually have some folks who are still out on the bird watch. Let’s go to Roseanne in Watertown, New York. Hi.

ROSEANNE: Hi, this is Roseanne and Jem. And we’re sitting here right now looking at a snowy owl. It’s the fourth one we’ve seen today.


IRA FLATOW: Oh. You lucky people.


ROSEANNE: Yeah. We are kind of referred to as Snowy Owl Central. This is not unusual for this area. We’re in the town of Lyme, which is right on the eastern Lake Ontario where St. Lawrence River mouth is. And every winter, we’ve been getting beautiful snowy owls, males, females. As a matter of fact, our land trust will be leading a snowy owl birding track on the 11th.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, that’s great.

GEOFF LEBARON: That’s excellent.

IRA FLATOW: You’ve seen four. I’ve yet to see my first, so.

ROSEANNE: Today. Today.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, today. Wow, thank you, Roseanne. What do you think of that, Corina?

CORINA NEWSOME: I am jealous because you have never actually seen a snowy owl in person. I always just miss them every time they show up anywhere that I’ve lived. So I am very jealous.

IRA FLATOW: Geoff, you’ve seen a few?

GEOFF LEBARON: I’ve seen a few, but not this winter yet. I’m jealous because it sounds like there is– the movement that’s happening southward this season is more out sort of through Ontario and coming down into the Midwest. And we have almost none here in New England, so.

IRA FLATOW: So that’s been a change in the flight path, you’re saying?

GEOFF LEBARON: It has to do with where they have a successful breeding season in the Arctic. And it sounds like this year, the lemming population was good in the central Canadian arctic, and so that’s where the birds are moving south from. And I haven’t heard yet how they’re doing out further west, sort of like in Montana and the other places where they sometimes come down.

IRA FLATOW: Maybe they will phone in. Let us know if they’re out there.

GEOFF LEBARON: They might.

IRA FLATOW: Now, Corina, I know before you started studying birds in grad school, you were a zookeeper. How do you go from zookeeper to getting a PhD in birds?

CORINA NEWSOME: Well, I honestly have always loved birds. It started all in undergrad and college. And then as I was taking care of birds, as a zookeeper, I took care of lots of animals, but still, birds are my favorite. I was like, you know, I want to participate more in the research element of conservation because I was focused mostly on the care of birds and educating the public about birds. And I wanted to dip my feet more rigorously in the research of birds.

And so once the opportunity presented itself, I am now being mentored by Elizabeth Hunter at Georgia Southern for my master’s degree currently. But that was kind of a jump. Birds were always my favorite, but a desire to participate in the research really grew for me, especially in the face of climate change, which is an issue that many birds are going to be facing very heavily very soon.

IRA FLATOW: Was there one bird that tipped you off on your bird career?

CORINA NEWSOME: Yes, so when I took ornithology in college, I had never gone birding before. And the first bird that I learned about was a blue jay, which is common most places. But I had never seen one, and I was like 21. And so when my professor put it up on the screen and said this is a blue jay, I had this huge reaction in class, and people were like, you’ve never seen a blue jay? I was like, this bird has been around me all these years. I’ve never once seen it. I’ve heard it, never seen it. And that was kind of my gateway bird.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, come to my backyard they. Take over the feeder. Because they’re big birds, right?

GEOFF LEBARON: The first bird I saw or heard this year was a blue jay, so.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, but–

CORINA NEWSOME: Oh, nice. Good omen.

IRA FLATOW: We have some tweets coming in. Sue tweets that a big block of sandhill cranes flew over my neighborhood in Grand Junction, Colorado on Saturday–


IRA FLATOW: –exclamation point.


IRA FLATOW: A bunch of other people saying– oh, Becky tweets, “I live in Atlantic Beach, Florida. This week we saw a flock of robins in our front yard so early, even for us.” Wow.

GEOFF LEBARON: I think that has to do with the fact that we had a really harsh and cold late November. And in recent years, the robins have stayed more northward when it’s been relatively mild in the falls. But I think this year, they got pushed south. I know we don’t have anywhere near as many robins up here in New England so far this winter as we have in the last several years.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to Augusta, Georgia, where Elizabeth is telling us about her birds. Elizabeth.

ELIZABETH: Hi. Hi, Ira. I love your show. I try to catch it every week. I feel like I know you personally. I’ve listened to you for so long.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you.

ELIZABETH: So the bird count, we– my team went out on the 21st of December. And it was very cold that day in Augusta, which is unusual. And we saw two flocks of hooded mergansers. And we were walking alongside the Savannah River, which is border between Georgia and South Carolina. And I do that every day, and I have only once before seen hooded mergansers here. So we had 16 in one of the blocks and 20 in the other. And they were mostly females, but–


ELIZABETH: –probably three to four males and all the rest females in the two groups.

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Well, thanks–

ELIZABETH: Very exciting.

IRA FLATOW: I don’t even know what a hooded merganser is, and you’ve seen dozens of them.

GEOFF LEBARON: Well, they’re great.

IRA FLATOW: Corina, well, you’re close to her, geographically speaking.

CORINA NEWSOME: Yeah. So I haven’t seen any hooded mergansers yet so far this season. I’ve seen them actually in Ohio. I’ve seen them in Nashville when I used to live in Nashville. I’ve not yet seen them this season. But I did see them last year. So I’m expecting hopefully to see some hooded mergansers when I go on the Atlanta Christmas Bird Count tomorrow.

IRA FLATOW: Describe what they look like so I’ll know.

CORINA NEWSOME: So they have, like most mergansers, like a thin beak. And they have a crest, a black crest that goes over the top and back of their head. And on either side, it’s white. From a distance, they can be kind of confused with a bufflehead because that white patch is placed in a similar location. But they are larger than buffleheads and have the typical merganser bill shape to them.

IRA FLATOW: I’ll have to look at–

GEOFF LEBARON: The other thing that’s cool about them is they’re sort of like, they’re transformers they can actually very much change the shape of their crest. And they can raise it up, and it’s this great big football helmet kind of a thing with this huge white side. Or they can slim it back down so it’s almost just like a white stripe. But there’s a lot of fun to watch them.

IRA FLATOW: Well, I’ll have to go look for them. The only mergansers I ever knew ran the candy store down the block from me, so. We’re going to take a break. Come up with lots of– we have filled up our– well, with lots of people want to talk about what they’ve seen. Also tweet us at @scifri, 844-724-8255. We’re happy to take your tweets. We’re talking with Corina Newsome and Geoff LeBaron, the head of National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count. Phone number again, 844-724-8255. People are seeing all kinds of things– hawks and hummingbirds and stuff. We’ll talk about it after the break. Stay with us.

This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. We’re talking this hour about birding this winter season and what you’ve all seen. We’re talking with Corina Newsome, birder and graduate student studying bird conservation at Georgia Southern University; Geoff LeBaron, who is head of the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, and that’s in Williamsburg, Massachusetts. OK, how about a little fun now? A quiz of your bird call IQ. It’s our Name That Bird Quiz. I’m going to play a bird song that’s one of Corina’s favorites. And if you think you know what type of bird makes this song, then you make the call by making the call. Our number is 844-724-8255, 844-SCI-TALK. And here comes our first clue.


I just want to sit and listen. It’s so soothing. All right, that’s to our listeners. Do you know what that bird was? 844-724-8255, or you can tweet us at @scifri. That was kind of cool. Geoff, let’s talk about some of the big birding news this year. There was a study that came out in science recently that was very shocking. It showed that in the last 50 years, North American birds have been on the decline by 30%?

GEOFF LEBARON: Yes, it was a very interesting study. It was looking mostly at birds during migration, but it’s also very interesting to note that when I was looking at Christmas Bird Count numbers from last season from the 119th count, even though the effort was actually a record amount of effort and a lot of much higher area of coverage than we’ve had in past years, the number of birds that were tallied was actually the second lowest for the 32 years I’ve been in charge of the Christmas count.

CORINA NEWSOME: Wow. Oh my goodness.

GEOFF LEBARON: So it’s a little bit early to say what’s causing that, but what I did want to mention is that the Christmas Bird Count is one of the most important tools that we have to sort of understand how birds are doing across the trends and how birds are doing across the continent, as well as where their ranges are shifting as the climate is changing. So it’s a really– it’s not only fun and traditional, but it’s a critically important data set for all the ornithological researchers. But yeah, that–

IRA FLATOW: So that’s observational evidence about climate change, is what you’re saying.

GEOFF LEBARON: Yes, and it’s actually documented. We were actually– Audubon was able to do a study and look at how birds have shifted their ranges over the last 60 years during the early winter period of the Christmas Bird Count as the early winter temperatures have been moderating. And 200 to 300 of these species have moved as much as 200 miles northward during that time.

IRA FLATOW: Corina, I heard you gasp just a bit there when you heard that data.

CORINA NEWSOME: When that paper came out and I was reading it, I noticed that the American sparrows were among the most heavily declined species in North America. And the species that I study at school is a seaside sparrow, and so obviously, I am very sparrow conscious. But it is very alarming, and it was interesting because for the first time, I had people in my life, like in my family, who never really think about birds and oftentimes, make fun of me for thinking so much about birds. And they were asking me, like, is this true? Like, what does this mean? What’s going on? And so I am grateful that the study came out because it brought a lot of people’s attention to the forefront for bird conservation people who I have known to never care much about birds. So it is shocking, but it has also brought a lot of good attention.

GEOFF LEBARON: And the other interesting thing that Audubon’s done recently is in October, we released our survival by degrees study, which actually was a nice complement to the earlier paper with the decline of birds during migration or the total number of birds. And what the survival by degrees website allows you to do is actually type in a zip code or a state. And it actually shows you the birds and their likely trends over the next 20 to 70 years and things that you can do about it. So it’s actually very, very interesting and interactive and gives you tools to actually think about what to do to help the birds.

IRA FLATOW: Lots of people sharing their bird experiences on the phone. Let’s go to Santa Rosa. Janet, hi. Welcome to Science Friday.

JANET: Hey. So one of the things I’ve noticed since the Tubbs Fire in October 2017– I live in an area– I lost my home in the fire– is an increase in the diversity of birds of prey. For instance, my daughter and I both noticed that we’re seeing white-tailed kites in our area, which I had never– I’ve seen in Sonoma County, but I’ve never seen in our particular area. We live in the hills outside of Santa Rosa. And I’ve also seen some other birds of prey that I haven’t seen. Generally, smaller birds of prey, whereas, before, we’ve seen a lot of red-tailed hawks primarily.

IRA FLATOW: Interesting. Interesting. Thanks for sharing with that. Geoff, what do you say about that? Is that a normal recovery?

GEOFF LEBARON: I think it’s part of the recovery. What happened, of course, the habitats in those area are radically altered by the fires. And what happens is that opens things up. And the larger prey items would probably either be killed or move out. And the smaller prey items would become more available and visible. And that’s quite likely why the white-tailed kites are there.

One thing that’s also really interesting with the Christmas Bird counts is many of these areas with the big fires for the last several years and also the hurricanes and things in the Caribbean are very well covered by Christmas Bird Count circles. So that actually by continuing to do the Christmas Bird Counts, we’re actually very well able to track the recovery, sort of follow the ups and downs in recovery of these areas after these major ecological events.

IRA FLATOW: That’s terrific. Let’s go down to some answers to our quiz. We had a bird sound we wanted you to identify. Let me play it again.


OK, we have a few folks on the line. Mike, hi. Welcome to Science Friday. Have you got a guess?

MIKE: Yes, I do.

IRA FLATOW: Go for it.

MIKE: OK, I would say a red-winged blackbird, a tri-colored blackbird.

IRA FLATOW: Nope. Sorry about that. Let’s see if we have another guess. Let’s go to Allen. Hi, Allen.

ALLEN: Hey, aloha.


ALLEN: Yeah, but I’m not calling from Hawaii. I’m actually calling from Illinois, but I’m visiting family. But I thought it sounded like a bobolink.

IRA FLATOW: Ooh, wrong guess. Sorry about that. Let’s go to Deborah. Hi, Deborah.

DEBORAH: Hello, Ira. That would be a wood thrush.

IRA FLATOW: Ta-da. I wish I had that little sound effect. Well, we can’t afford, so. Corina–

DEBORAH: [INAUDIBLE] It is just beautiful.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Do you see them around?

DEBORAH: I never see them, but I have about 15 minutes of a recording of one that I discovered this summer at Brown Deer Park–

IRA FLATOW: Corina, that’s–

DEBORAH: –in Milwaukee. They’re very– they’re shy. But I have to see. I cheat. I play a YouTube video of the song just to attract them. And I think that’s cheating, but I really would like to see one up close, so.

IRA FLATOW: All right, maybe you’ll get the chance. Corina, that’s one of your favorites, right?

CORINA NEWSOME: It is. They are oftentimes called the flautists of the forest, and hearing them, especially when you’re in the context of a bunch of trees, that call, that song is echoing in the trees. And it’s absolutely magical.

IRA FLATOW: We have some tweets coming in. Jamie tweets, “My favorite from a local Christmas Bird Count was an Attwater prairie chicken. And at home, I’ve got a Rufus hummingbird who has taken up residence this winter. I’m located in Fulshear, Texas, west of Houston.” Excellent. Wow. Natasha tweets, “I live in Santa Cruz. I’ve seen a peregrine falcon perched above the ocean three times in as many weeks, hunting for sea ducks.”

CORINA NEWSOME: Oh my goodness.

IRA FLATOW: I’ve watched peregrine falcons come onto golf courses where they have stalked the lake with fish coming from the ocean and steal a fish out of the golf courses. And Evan tweets, “Got my very first pair of barred owls”– Did I pronounce that right?


IRA FLATOW: In one evening. First pair. Do they come in pairs usually?

GEOFF LEBARON: Oftentimes, they do. And barred owls are the ones that have the call that sounds like, “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?”

IRA FLATOW: Can you do that for us?

GEOFF LEBARON: I can’t. No. Some birders can do it remarkably well, though.


IRA FLATOW: Evan also says nocturnal birds need more love. Wow.

CORINA NEWSOME: I would agree with that.

IRA FLATOW: You would, yeah. Well, I heard an owl. I tell my next door neighbor bird story is I had a [INAUDIBLE] central casting owl across the street from me. Many nights, I’d hear it going the hoo, typical like that. And one morning, my neighbor came running up to me, saying, I gotta be careful. I was just out walking my dog in the backyard. And I raced– and she had a small dog– I raced a bird to my dog.



IRA FLATOW: And I won. And I thought it was the owl.

GEOFF LEBARON: It probably was a great horned owl.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. How big an animal will a great horned take?

GEOFF LEBARON: Well, a lot of what they take, they’re actually one of the few avian predators that will take skunks. But they will take things certainly the size of a housecat or a small dog, as well a red-tailed hawk for that matter. So great horns are sort of the nocturnal equivalent of the daytime red-tailed hawks in terms of their predatory niche and with the kind of things that they take. They’re one of the most powerful birds in the world, actually, great horned owl.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to Casey in Murrieta, California. Hi, Casey.

CASEY: Hi, love to speak to you, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you.

CASEY: I was calling about hummingbirds this past year in 2019. I put quite a bunch of hummingbird feeders outside my house. While I loved watching them, I really can’t tell the species apart. I was wondering if any of your guests would be able to help me identify the species in Southern California as hummingbird.

IRA FLATOW: OK, one of my favorite topics, hummingbirds. I did not see many of them this year in the Northeast, so. Can we help her out to identify what she’s seeing?

GEOFF LEBARON: In Southern California, probably the two most common species are the Allen’s hummingbird and also Anna’s hummingbird. And the Anna’s actually has a sort of a twittery song. It’s one of the few hummingbirds that actually sings vocally. And the males have a really deep red gorgeous– but also red over their crown. Whereas the Allen’s hummingbird is sort of a rusty orange-green, with the green central part of its back. And it’s a little bit sort of chunkier. But those would be the two most common types of hummingbirds in Southern California, and they’re both pretty much resident. So you would have them year round.

IRA FLATOW: Oh, I’m so jealous. Corina, do you have hummingbirds year round?

CORINA NEWSOME: The only hummingbirds that I see year round here in Southern Georgia are the ruby-throated hummingbirds. I’ve actually not seen any other species of hummingbirds. So it sounds like I’ll need to go to Southern California as soon as possible.

GEOFF LEBARON: Yeah. And actually having the ruby-throats in coastal mid-Atlantic is very new. Basically, all ruby-throated hummingbirds used to go down to the Caribbean and Central America for the winter. But they have started wintering in increasing numbers as far north as Cape Hatteras. So but having them there in the winter is a relatively new thing.

IRA FLATOW: Another climate change result.


IRA FLATOW: Corina, I know you also started a study looking at nuthatches on your campus.


IRA FLATOW: Tell us about that.

CORINA NEWSOME: So the nuthatches that we’re focusing on during this project, the project is called Save the Hatches. We’re focusing on the brown-headed nuthatch which is a species that is really only found in the southeastern United States. But it is one that is found pretty popularly on our campus. That’s the, for those of you listening, the bird played at the beginning. I don’t know if that was going to be a question later so I hope not. But they have a very distinct call among nuthatches, among birds in general.

But they are climate endangered, which the National Audubon Society kind of designated, meaning that a certain percentage of their usable habitat will disappear in a certain amount of time. And for them, they’re going to lose about 95% their habitat by 2080. And that’s because of the temperature rises. They can’t tolerate very hot temperatures. So on our campus, we wanted to know essentially what their breeding preferences were when it comes to temperature.

So we put a bunch of nuthatch nest boxes made by Atlanta Audubon around campus. And they are all equipped with a temperature data logger. So it constantly records the temperature. And we’re going to see how they choose which ones they select and see if there’s a pattern to temperature thresholds. And then when we find out, OK, they prefer this kind of temperature on our campus, we can kind of put more nest boxes in region with that temperature and make our campus more friendly for them.


GEOFF LEBARON: That’s really neat, thanks.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios, talking about the Christmas Bird Count. And we have someone out in the field, Gail in Fish Creek, Wisconsin. Hi, welcome. What are you seeing out there?

GAIL: Well, hi. I happened to have your show on, and I was going to call and say I saw a bald eagle over by my house the other morning. And here, I’m driving and I see one zeroing in. And a bald eagle just landed in a big oak tree down in the harbor and east from right by my town next to where I live. So he’s down by the harbor.

IRA FLATOW: I hope you’re–

GAIL: He’s in a tree.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, what a sighting. I hope you stopped to make the call.

GAIL: Yeah, I pulled over. I got my flashers on and all, and I called you right away.

IRA FLATOW: So how often have you seen this bald eagle? Is it the first time? You said it’s the second time you’ve seen it.

GAIL: Yeah, I saw one– he was parked out in a tree across my property the other morning. And here he is again. So they’re out and they’re flying. And they’re just resting and taking in the scenery. I guess they’re looking for the rabbits.

IRA FLATOW: Lucky you. Lucky you. Thanks for calling, Gail, and happy sightings. Unusual, Geoff, to see bald eagles?

GEOFF LEBARON: It’s always wonderful to see bald eagles. Bald eagle is one of the most successful conservation stories that there is for ornithology these days. They’ve really completely retaken over the lower 48. They were almost completely gone through about the early 1970s, and they’ve recovered remarkably. So it’s a wonderful thing. A friend of mine is an ornithologist from Brazil. And he’s from here in Western Massachusetts. And when he left 30 years ago, it was a red letter day when you saw a bald eagle. And last time he came up here to visit. And we saw three or four, and he was like, stop. You have to understand this was so unusual before I left, so.

IRA FLATOW: That’s interesting.

GEOFF LEBARON: That’s really great.

IRA FLATOW: We have a tweet from Nancy, who said the best bird of our area at Christmas Bird Count, a puffin flying over San Francisco Bay. Now there was news about a puffin this week. This is the first time they’ve seen a puffin use a twig to scratch itself.


GEOFF LEBARON: I saw that. That’s really cool.

IRA FLATOW: The first time that that bird used a tool.

GEOFF LEBARON: Itchy puffins.

CORINA NEWSOME: That’s hilarious.

IRA FLATOW: Oh, that’s great. And Barbara tweets, “We see bald eagles all winter in Iowa City along the river. There can be dozens of them when it gets really cold. So cool to see them so close up.” Will a bald eagle let you get close up to it? Geoff?

GEOFF LEBARON: Sometimes they will. These days, they’re not persecuted. And they’re mostly interested in– they eat a lot of fish and carrion and stuff like that. I mean, it’s horrible to say for our national symbol, but they’re sort of trash birds. Because they do like– especially if you go to Alaska, you can see 100 bald eagles in the dump.

IRA FLATOW: They’re recyclers.

GEOFF LEBARON: Yes, they are. They help keep things clean.

CORINA NEWSOME: Nice perspective.

IRA FLATOW: There you go. There you go. Yeah, if somebody didn’t recycle the waste, it will be piled up and we’d never get rid of it. We’re going to take a break. And after the break, we’re taking your calls and looking for birders in the Great Lakes area. So if you’re out there– already had somebody calling in from Watertown, New York, right on the edge of Lake Ontario– we want to hear about what you’ve seen in the Great Lakes. Give us a call, 844-724-8255, 844-SCI-TALK. Or you can tweet us at @scifri. So stay with us. We’ll be back more with Corina Newsome and Geoff LeBaron after the break. Don’t go away.

This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. A brief program note on our website this week– what happens when trained scientists make it their mission to make biotechnology more accessible? Our digital intern Andrea Corona visited an open access biotech space called Genspace to explore their projects. And you can find out more at ScienceFriday.com/communitylabs.

We’re talking this hour about birding this winter season and what y’all have seen out there. Our bird guides this hour are Corina Newsome of Georgia Southern University, Geoff LeBaron, head of the National Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count. And I want to bring on another birder. And you know he’s a real bird nerd because his ringtone sounds like this.


Geoff Williamson is a birder from Chicago and runs Third Coast Birding. Geoff, what was that?

GEOFF WILLIAMSON: That was a barred antshrike. It’s a bird from Central America and most of Northern and South America, a rather widespread kind of bird in the lower elevations down there.

IRA FLATOW: And you’ve been birding in the Great Lakes area this season. And if you’re in any of the Great Lakes states, we want to hear about what you have seen. So give us a call, 844-724-8255, 844-SCI-TALK. Tell us what is interesting you this birding season, Geoff Williams.

GEOFF WILLIAMSON: Yeah, sure. The I think one of the more interesting aspects of this season is it’s continuing this trend where we are getting, during the wintertime, more birds that typically clear out of town or are in only small numbers. So I remember you were talking about the Christmas Bird Counts earlier in this season mid-December. I was out here doing a count within the city of Chicago and saw an Eastern phoebe, a kind of fly catcher. They’re not usually around here. And hermit thrushes, though they do occur here reasonably regularly during the winter and not really in any kind of numbers, and the party that I was with had three of them during our day of burning, which was kind of unusual.

IRA FLATOW: We already have people from the Great Lakes calling in. Let’s go to Paul in Traverse City, Michigan. Hi, Paul. Paul–

PAUL: Hello, this is Paul.

IRA FLATOW: Hi there, go ahead.

PAUL: I live on a small inland lake, about a 500 acre lake. And there’s an island across from where I’m at. And the lake froze in November. And then we had a warm spell, and it thawed partially. But a couple weeks ago, I’m looking out the window, and I see an eagle circling around the island. And then I soon see another eagle, both adults. And then I’m looking and there’s two juveniles, full grown, not the right coloration. So they were probably with the parents.

And along the edge of the ice, there was open water. And there were some migratory ducks sitting in the water. Well, the adults were swooping down, trying to catch them, and to teach their juveniles on how to hunt those, because there are areas around Lake Michigan around that where there is open water. What was amusing was the ducks were diving ducks. So when they sense the eagle coming, they dove under the water. So my wife and I watched them for about 20 minutes doing that.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. Ducks ducking for cover.

PAUL: Like watching National Geographic.



IRA FLATOW: Wow, that’s a great story, Paul. Thanks for sharing that. Geoff, around Chicago, you see that happening?

GEOFF WILLIAMSON: Yeah, we have. I think the area near here that we go to, to observe bald eagles in numbers are along the rivers, the Illinois River flowing over to the Mississippi River. And it’s still pretty warm right now. When the temperatures get colder and the rivers start to freeze up, you get all sorts of eagles congregating around anywhere there is a dam. So the dams keep the water open near the dam. They chew up the fish. And the eagles come down and feast on the fish that the dams have wrecked havoc on.

IRA FLATOW: Geoff LeBaron–


IRA FLATOW: I’m sorry. I got two Geoff’s here, so I mean– keep everybody seated. Geoff LeBaron, do you have an update from the bird count in the Midwest on the Great Lakes, what has been spotted there?

GEOFF LEBARON: I do know that it’s been relatively open, as Geoff was saying, there’ve been more waterfowl and some lingering things, like the phoebe that you guys found. One thing I wanted to mention about the bald eagles is that I’ve watched them hunting what we call puddle ducks, which don’t normally dive, things like mallards and black ducks. But when the eagles are trying to get them, they can learn how to dive pretty quickly. The ducks can’t to get out of the way from the eagles.

But yeah, it’s going to be a very interesting year I think this year to see what happens overall and the big picture with the Christmas Bird Counts. And there is more of this sort of general shift of a lot of the birds that don’t have to go or aren’t programmed to go to Latin America or the Caribbean, that just linger only as far south as they have to for where there’s less snow cover or less frozen water.

IRA FLATOW: I wonder if that’s the origin of the word duck, to duck down. Ducks going underwater, something diving.


CORINA NEWSOME: Interesting.

IRA FLATOW: Interesting. Somebody interesting is Madeline. In Manatee, Michigan. Hi, Madeline

MADELINE: Hi, there. I wanted to comment that two weeks ago, I saw one of the arctic owls down here in the harbor where the Manistee River has an outlet into Lake Michigan. Also, when I lived downstate before we retired in a suburb of Detroit near– not too far from Lake St. Clair, Lake Erie, and Lake Huron, we had grackles and those brown-headed cowbirds, which I hate. Anyway, they would come. I had put mothballs out to discourage the rodents. They would come and pick up those mothballs, and they’d pick up a moth ball and they would scrub under their arms like they were going to put deodorant on or something. And then they’d wipe all over their body with that moth ball, evidently either to smell good or to discourage parasites. I don’t know which.


GEOFF LEBARON: I suspect it’s the latter, but that’s pretty bizarre.

IRA FLATOW: Well, thank you, Madeline. We’ll have to write that up some place. We’ll have to publish that. Well, have you ever heard of that, Geoff Williamson or Geoff LeBaron? Geoff LeBaron, let me ask you first.

GEOFF LEBARON: I have not heard of that. And certainly birds do– I mean, they’re meticulous about maintaining their plumage. And one of the things they need to do to do that is to keep control and get rid of the parasites that– the lice and things that are in there that do get on the feathers. But so this would be something that would certainly do that, but I think it’s amazing that they would learn or somehow figure out that whatever that funny round white thing is, is actually going to do that for them.

IRA FLATOW: Corina, you study birds. You must be taking great interest in this story.

CORINA NEWSOME: I am. I always find great interest in, like, seeing the ways that birds use anthropogenic human-made objects. And that is just so bizarre to me because of course, birds, they use dust, for example, to keep down the parasite load. And they’ll regularly take dust baths, which you can see often sometimes– but a moth ball. I really actually do want her to record that on her phone if she wouldn’t mind, if she’s still listening. Because someone does need to write that up.

IRA FLATOW: Well, we’ll have a record here forever at Science Friday, I hope, of her for seeing what’s going on there. Geoff Williamson, one of the big stories in Chicago, I understand, was about Rose and Monte. Who were those birds?

GEOFF WILLIAMSON: That’s right. So this past summer, we had two piping plovers nest on the busiest beach in the city of Chicago. The piping plover of the Great Lakes population of piping plovers is in danger. There’s only about– I think it’s 75 pairs of these birds. And these two, they tried to nest up in Waukegan, which is further north of Chicago on Lake Michigan. And this past summer came down and tried again on the Chicago Beach. And it was quite a saga. I have to hand it to Rose. She laid eight eggs over the course of the summer, two different clutches.


GEOFF WILLIAMSON: The first nest got flooded out. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources came in and pulled the nests right before we had a big blow of wind from the north that flooded the beach and flooded the nest. And unfortunately, those eggs were not able to hatch in captivity. But Rose went again and laid four more eggs. Three of those hatched and two of the birds that hatched fledged and headed south. It was pretty exciting.

IRA FLATOW: It’s interesting about flooding because, Corina, I understand that you study sparrows who are having issues with nests being flooded. Are we seeing climate change flooding more nests?

CORINA NEWSOME: Well, there has not necessarily been documented for this species that I’m studying an increase in nest flooding. But what we do know is that there is an increase in the height of high tide, which is precisely what floods seaside sparrow nests. And they are behaviorally adapted to having a nest flooding occur during the breeding season.

And when that happens, what they do is they will just build another nasty immediately, and they’ll nest higher off the ground as a result. So they are adapted to be able to do that. But the strange thing is that when they nest higher, they are more vulnerable, more visible to predators. So they’re kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to dealing with nest flooding, especially in the face of sea level rise.

GEOFF LEBARON: And there’s actually a closely related species called saltwater sparrow, which is greatly at risk from– basically they think if sea level or when sea level rises two inches, that species won’t be able to nest successfully.


GEOFF LEBARON: So that is pretty creepy. A friend of mine says they’re two inches away from extinction.

IRA FLATOW: Oh, that is creepy.


IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to some better or more other news. Let’s go to Mount Orab, Ohio. Sarah, welcome to Science Friday.


IRA FLATOW: Hi there.

SARAH: I had a few owls. Like, I had had my dog out, and he’s like 76 pounds. And I put him up. And I went back out to turn the light off on my shed. And I had two owls come chasing me. I’m assuming they were great horned owls, but I looked into it and tried to search it. And I’ve seen they will do that with dogs or cats. But it is pretty scary. Like, they were human, and I couldn’t find anything where they chased humans before, so.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. Wow. Geoff Williamson–

SARAH: I didn’t know if that’s typical or there’s a reason they did that. I don’t know.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. Thanks for that. Geoff LeBaron, what do you think? Is that a typical thing?

GEOFF LEBARON: Well, it depends what– sorry– what time of year. Great horned owls are one of the most aggressive birds that there is around their nest. And if this was– great horned owls actually nest– here in New England, they’re actually courting and setting up right now for the season. So if this was like in late winter or even early spring, and if they are– they’re also very– great horned owls are very well adapted to sort of urban environments. So if there was a nest around, that might have been what was going on. They might have flown at you because there was a nest nearby.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. A great number of tweets coming in, let me just go to a few of them. Well, here’s an email. We watched a great blue heron in our mile mountain area 3,000 feet near Yosemite hunt gophers in our yard. We watched and photographed him catching and swallowing a gopher. Very cool.


IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Have you seen all that?


IRA FLATOW: Corina, have you seen it?

GEOFF LEBARON: I haven’t seen them take gophers, but.

CORINA NEWSOME: Well, there was a video that kind of started going viral on Facebook and Twitter of a great horned– or excused me– a great blue heron in someone’s front yard eating a gopher. But a red-tailed hawk was also looking after that gopher, so then the red-tailed hawk came in and fought it for the gopher. But that was the first time I’d ever seen that. And that was a few weeks ago online, but apparently they’re walking through people’s yards, looking for the mammals.

IRA FLATOW: That’s great. Here, Christie tweets, “Loving today’s show. The past two seasons, we’ve had a single male pileated woodpecker who visits our suet feeder. Well, guess what? This year, he met a lady. We are crossing our fingers for baby woodpeckers in the spring.”

GEOFF LEBARON: I suspect it will happen.


IRA FLATOW: Yeah. We could bring love to birds. That would be Science Friday’s mission. Let’s see if we have a lot more people calling in. Let’s go to Caroline in Hudson, Ohio. Hi, Caroline.


IRA FLATOW: Hi there. Go ahead.

CAROLINE: I’ve been following the Kindness and Justice eagles on Facebook. We’ve been following a pair of eagles that have been nesting on the Chagrin River, just east of Cleveland. And they’ve had a successful hatch of eaglets two years ago. Last year, they laid eggs and then they had some competition with some female eagle come in. And I think they left the nest too long, and the eggs got cold, but we didn’t see them hatch.

IRA FLATOW: Well, there you go. I see that they didn’t see your [INAUDIBLE]. Let’s go to Davenport, Iowa. Hi. Is it Leann?

LEANN: Yes, it is.

IRA FLATOW: Hi there, go ahead.

LEANN: I was watching– doing my Cornell feeder watch on a Sunday, and I saw a white cardinal at my feeder.




LEANN: A leucistic cardinal, I think it’s called.

IRA FLATOW: That’s four wows.

LEANN: Yeah.

GEOFF LEBARON: Leucistic or albino, yeah, that’s really– that’s wonderful.

LEANN: Yeah.

IRA FLATOW: Did it come back?

LEANN: It’s come back several times. Yes.

IRA FLATOW: We’re all in awe of you.

GEOFF WILLIAMSON: That’s always certainly exciting when you get–

CORINA NEWSOME: Take a picture and put it online.


LEANN: We did. We took pictures.

IRA FLATOW: Does it have a mate?

GEOFF LEBARON: That’s great.

IRA FLATOW: Were there two white ones, a male and female?

LEANN: No, I believe that there was only one. There was only one, I believe.



GEOFF LEBARON: That’s great. That’s wonderful.

IRA FLATOW: How rare is that, Geoff?


IRA FLATOW: Geoff LeBaron.

GEOFF WILLIAMSON: Which Geoff, yeah.

GEOFF LEBARON: For birds like cardinals and robins and some of the more widespread and abundant, it’s very unusual– don’t get me wrong. But for birds that there are a lot of them and they’re sort of around humans, it’s one of the– they’re among the species that where we do see partial albino or leucistic birds quite with some frequency. But to have the whole bird white, that’s really cool.

IRA FLATOW: That is cool. Geoff Williamson, last question. Any favorite sightings for you around Chicago this season?

GEOFF WILLIAMSON: Oh, around I think earlier in the season, the most exciting things that happened through Chicago were we had a king eider come by and spend a few days in the city.



GEOFF WILLIAMSON: And then an ancient murrelet.


GEOFF WILLIAMSON: Which is kind of in the auk family, kind of the northern version of penguins.



GEOFF LEBARON: That’s great.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. I wish I knew any of these birds. It’s like I’m watching Star Trek and we’ve gone to another civilization. I guess I’ll have to get out my bird book. I want to thank you all for taking time to be with us today. Geoff Williamson, birder from Chicago, who runs the Third Coast Birding; Corina Newsome, graduate student studying bird conservation at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, Georgia; Jeff LeBaron, National Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count director, based out of Williamsburg, Massachusetts. And you can see photos of this year’s Audubon Christmas Bird Count and bird listeners have spotted stuff up there. All those bird pictures are up on our website, ScienceFriday.com/BirdCount. Thank you all, and happy new year to all of you.

GEOFF LEBARON: You’re welcome and happy new year.

GEOFF WILLIAMSON: You’re welcome, Ira.

CORINA NEWSOME: Thank you very much.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome.

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