Gaga For Grosbeaks? Coveting Chickadees? Devoted To Ducks?

45:45 minutes

Every year in the dead of winter, bird lovers flock in large numbers to count as many birds as they possibly can on a single day. This is the Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count, a citizen science effort to track the trends of bird numbers over time. As the 2018 count comes to a close, Ira checks in with birders Jason Ward, Martha Harbison, and Laura Erickson about this year’s trends. Already many finches, including coveted grosbeaks, are showing up south of their normal winter range, much to the delight of avid birders from Florida to Vermont.

The trio also shares advice for beginning birders and making the most of the winter months, and which birds to look out for in 2019. As a bonus, Ira quizzes listeners on their bird call recognition skills.

Plus, you shared some of your own favorite bird sightings from the past year. Check them out below.

Segment Guests

Jason Ward

Jason Ward is a birder, educator, and a writer for the National Audubon Society. He’s based in Atlanta, Georgia.

Laura Erickson

Laura Erickson is a birder and author based in Duluth, Minnesota.

Martha Harbison

Martha Harbison is a birder and an editor at the National Audubon Society, based in New York, New York.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Was your 2018 for the birds? If you’re one of thousands of North American birders who participated in Audubon’s Annual Christmas Bird Count, maybe you spent a chilly day with binoculars frozen to your face, frantically fingering every finch fringed duck or other feathered friend in flight. And as that Count wraps up, tomorrow is the last day. 

We’re going to talk about it for the entire hour– it’s our Annual Christmas Bird Count Show. What are birders seeing more of than usual? Rumor has it it’s a good year for a grosbeak, for example. We’ll talk about that and what birds we should keep our eyes peeled for as we bird our way through January, February, and beyond. 

And of course, we want to know what’s the best bird you’ve seen this winter or even, well, it’s not much of a year. How about all of last year? Give us a call 844-724-8255, 844-SCI-TALK, or tweet us at @scifri. And your photos! Your photos are welcome, yes. Send us some photos of what you’re seeing. Let me introduce my guests. Martha Harbison is an editor for the National Audubon Society in New York. Welcome to Science Friday. 


IRA FLATOW: Jason Ward, a bird educator and writer for Audubon in Atlanta. Welcome to Science Friday. 

JASON WARD: Thank you very much. 

IRA FLATOW: Laura Erickson, a birder and author of The American Birding Association Field Guide to the Birds of Minnesota. So she is, of course, in Duluth. Welcome to Science Friday. 


IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. Well, let me begin with, all right, it’s midwinter holiday season. The birders have decided it’s a good time to get everybody together to count a lot of birds. Martha, why a Christmas Bird Count? Jason, you can drop in on that answer too. 

MARTHA HARBISON: Why are they going on a Christmas Bird Count? Number one, it’s fun. But number two, it helps scientists, especially those at Audubon, track how the birds are faring every single year. The Christmas Bird Count been going for 119 years, so we have 119 years of great data. And the more that we get that, then the more we’re able to actually track what’s happening to the birds throughout the United States and actually the entire Western Hemisphere. 

IRA FLATOW: Laura, I’ll have to admit, I’ve never been on one of the bird counts, although I love watching the bird feeder in my backyard. How does the Christmas Bird Count differ from other kinds of birding excursions? 

LAURA ERICKSON: You’re really keeping track of the exact number of birds you’re seeing, which is something that, when you’re just birding, you see a flock of siskins and you try to count them, get a rough estimate. But you really want to find every bird in your area that you’re responsible for on a bird count. 

IRA FLATOW: So you have to know a lot of birds. 

LAURA ERICKSON: You have to know the birds that are around. If you’re up here in Duluth, you don’t have to know nearly as many birds as you do when you’re further south and some places in the west. We only had 50 southern species in the Duluth count this year, which was exactly average. 

IRA FLATOW: I guess, Jason, average is good. I know you did a few counts this year. What were some of your favorite bird sightings? 

JASON WARD: Oh, goodness. So I did a count in Portland, Maine. It was the very first time ever going to Maine, someplace that I’ve always wanted to visit. And first of all, the weather was great. And great for Maine is 45 degrees and sunny, I thoroughly enjoyed that. But the highlight of the trip was, undoubtedly, the great black hawk, a bird that is native to Central and South America and had no business being all the way in Maine. But we were able to see it. 

IRA FLATOW: It was going for the lobster, you think? I mean, why would a bird be so out of place? 

JASON WARD: There is a number of reasons why something like that would happen. This particular bird is a young bird, so what we have with young birds is that they’ll disperse from their parents’ territory and they’ll wind up places that they have no business being sometimes. 

IRA FLATOW: So what other places have you been to that you’ve seen some interesting birds? 

JASON WARD: I’ve been to Maine. I’ve also been to Texas as well. That is a very interesting place to be, right along the Rio Grande Valley. And also to Cape May, New Jersey, during the height of fall migration. 

IRA FLATOW: Martha, did you ever do an urban count? 


IRA FLATOW: In New York? Wait, where do you go in New York City to count the birds? 

MARTHA HARBISON: To count the birds? We actually have multiple counts. I went to Greenwood Cemetery, which is a historic cemetery in Brooklyn. But we also do it at Prospect Park. There was a count on Staten Island, there’s a count in Central Park, Inwood Park, so there’s a whole variety of places. But I personally went to the Brooklyn Count. 

IRA FLATOW: A very special bird made Central Park famous this year, didn’t it? 


IRA FLATOW: The duck. 


MARTHA HARBISON: I was thinking the Kirtland’s warbler 

JASON WARD: Me, too. I was thinking of the warbler. 


MARTHA HARBISON: That’s when you’re talking to a– 

IRA FLATOW: See, that’s the difference between being a pedestrian-like guy and being a bird expert, right? 

MARTHA HARBISON: You’re like, oh the hot duck. Yes, the Mandarin duck, probably an escapee from somebody’s aviary, is now hanging out and has been there for about four months now, and people line up to go see this very colorful duck. 

IRA FLATOW: Well, Laura, all the way up there in Duluth. Did you hear about the duck? 

LAURA ERICKSON: Yes, I did. My daughter lives in Brooklyn. But it made national news. Birders were all aware of it. We in Duluth had a one-of-a-kind Christmas Bird Count duck too. It wasn’t nearly as stunningly gorgeous, but we had– for the first time ever on any Minnesota Bird Count, had a tufted duck. They belong in Eurasia. 

IRA FLATOW: Interesting. But you said you weren’t going to talk about the duck. 

MARTHA HARBISON: He’s going to talk about the Kirtland’s warbler. 

IRA FLATOW: What is that? 

MARTHA HARBISON: Yeah. So the Kirtland’s warbler is a bird that only summers in this really tiny region of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and winters down in the Bahamas and you almost never find it anywhere else. And there is only– I can’t remember the exact numbers, but it was endangered for a while. And they need a lot of help in order to keep the population going. And one bird just randomly showed up in early May this year in Central Park. And almost nobody believed it until a photo came out, and then every birder pretty much dropped what they did and all ran to Central Park to go see it. 

IRA FLATOW: Wow. Let’s go to the phones cause so many people want to– not chime in, I guess is the wrong word. Rich in Norwich, New York. Hi, Rich. Hello? Let me push that button. Hi, Rich. 

RICH: OK. Can I go? There we go. 

IRA FLATOW: There we go, go ahead. 

RICH: Yes. Well, I was going to talk about a large flock of evening grosbeaks that I had. But just as I came on the air, they all scattered, and now I’m looking at what appears to be a merlin, a falcon. He just swooped down, he’s sitting on top of my bird pier right now, and looking around like, where’d all the birds go? 

LAURA ERICKSON: Where are you? 

RICH: Norwich, New York. 


IRA FLATOW: So the falcon lost its meal, is that what you’re saying? 

RICH: I think so, yes. I think that it was after the grosbeaks and they all saw him, they all scattered. And now that’s all there is right now, is the falcon. 

IRA FLATOW: All right. Jason, you like falcons, I understand. 

JASON WARD: Yes. I was so bummed hearing that story just now. Yeah. 

MARTHA HARBISON: I know, I’m like– 

IRA FLATOW: If you were the food, you wouldn’t be bummed. 

JASON WARD: Yes, see, now this is the thing. I grew up watching tons of nature documentaries, as I’m sure most of us have. And I was always that child who rooted for the predator to catch its prey. So whenever a grosbeak or another passerine evades a really cool predator, like a merlin, I get a little sad. 

IRA FLATOW: Mm. We have to give equal time. Birds. 

MARTHA HARBISON: You should have been at the Audubon offices today, Jason, because we actually watched a Cooper’s hawk take a pigeon out of midair, right in front of our offices. And we’re just like– everyone started shrieking and then ran to the windows. 

JASON WARD: I feel better now. 

IRA FLATOW: You saw this in New York City yesterday? 


IRA FLATOW: Describe what you saw. 

MARTHA HARBISON: Yeah. So there is a water tower that is directly across the street from the Audubon headquarters offices and a Cooper’s hawk sits up there very frequently. We actually have a bird alert that goes out to the office when the Cooper’s hawk is there. And so, we were watching the Cooper’s hawk and it basically went after a flock of pigeons and got one in front of us at lunchtime. 

IRA FLATOW: We need more Cooper’s hawks. 


IRA FLATOW: It certainly is– 

LAURA ERICKSON: Cooper’s hawks have been one of the main bird feeder hawks, the ones that come to birds at feeders for decades. But in Duluth, merlins have had that role, and they’re becoming more common at feeders elsewhere, like as our caller’s evening grosbeaks. And just yesterday, one of my friends watched a merlin grab a pigeon and he couldn’t carry it off because merlins aren’t all that big. But he sat on the street, eating his pigeon, his pigeon plunder. 

IRA FLATOW: My neighbor, who has a small dog, came out one day while she was walking the dog and grabbed the dog as a giant owl was going after her dog, and saved the dog. 


MARTHA HARBISON: This does not surprise me at all. 

IRA FLATOW: And you know, because I could hear the owl every night. Just like in the movies, I could hear it hoot. I thought, wow. I’m back in the woods. You know, I’m in suburbia but there was this owl. And then she told me this story and I put two and two together. 

LAURA ERICKSON: Was it one of the soft hooting owls? 


LAURA ERICKSON: The great horned owl? 

JASON WARD: That’s a very good question. 

IRA FLATOW: Well, give me a soft toot versus another hoot. Do a hoot for me, give me a hoot. 


IRA FLATOW: Laura, you want to do that? 


LAURA ERICKSON: As opposed to the more strident barred owl, who goes in a rhythm– who cooks for you, who cooks for you all. 

IRA FLATOW: I thought it was the first one that you did. 

LAURA ERICKSON: That’s probably what it was because great horned owls are the ones that will sometimes go for people’s cats or very small dogs. They only weigh, at most, four pounds so they can’t carry it off, but they wouldn’t mind trying to eat it in place. 

IRA FLATOW: Wow. Martha, has it been a good year nationwide for birds, based on results so far? 

MARTHA HARBISON: I mean, it’s been a pretty average year, so we haven’t seen like any huge crashes of population. Again, this is super anecdotal right now because we’re just getting emails in, the data from this year is only just only filtering in. But we’ve seen a lot of red-breasted nuthatch, that’s something that’s been sort of pinging all over the Northeast. This is a bird that only shows up every few years, they follow the food. 

IRA FLATOW: What’s the regular? Because I haven’t seen nuthatches all the time, but I didn’t know if they’re red-breasted or not? 

MARTHA HARBISON: Yeah. Red-breasted, they’re really tiny and they’ve got this sort of rufous breast, and they’re really cute. The one that we see up here in the Northeast most often is the white-breasted nuthatch. It’s much bigger. But we’ve seen even grosbeaks. The pine siskins have kind of gone through and are now sort of hanging out in mid-Atlantic, doing their thing. But we haven’t seen, say, an eruption of snowy owls this year, so it’s been a fairly standard year. 

IRA FLATOW: OK. Well, we’ll come back with lots of calls, lots of tweets. We’ll get to the tweets. We’ll come back and talk with Martha Harbison, Laura Erickson, and Jason Ward after the break. I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday, stay with us. We’ll be right back after the break. 

This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. We’re talking about the joys of winter birding and the birds you’re most likely to see this time of the year, with Martha Harbison, an editor for the National Audubon Society here in New York; Jason Ward, a bird educator and also a writer for Audubon in Atlanta; and Laura Erickson, a birder and author of the American Birding Association Field Guide to the Birds of Minnesota. She’s joining us from Duluth. 

And now it’s time for you folks listening to show off, tell us what you know. Here’s how it works. We’ll be playing some bird calls throughout the rest of the hour and asking you to phone in to guess what birds they are. For example, the first one goes like this. 


IRA FLATOW: Whoa. Do you think you know that one? If you think you know the answer, phone us in at 844-724-8255 if you think you know the answer, because you make the call only if you make the call on that one. So here’s how it works. If you are wrong, you’re going to get the bird [BIRD SOUND] [LAUGHTER] Forgive me. 


But if you’re right, it sounds like this. [DING] There you go. That’s how it works. And a reminder, let me replay the bird I’m asking you to identify. 


IRA FLATOW: That’s it. This was our first one. Let me read some tweets because a lot of tweets coming while you’re phoning and thinking about that. A tweet from John– “15 bald eagles in Industrial Valley, immediately south of Cleveland. First time in a century,” he said. Wow. Also via Twitter, “I saw a pink spoonbill mingling with the annual white pelican migration that makes a pit stop in lakes around LSU. It’s not a super rare bird down here but seeing one is always a treat.” Kind of fun. 

MARTHA HARBISON: I love those guys. 


MARTHA HARBISON: The roseate spoonbills. 

IRA FLATOW: What makes them, for we birders who haven’t seen that one? 

MARTHA HARBISON: They’re big. They don’t move real fast, so you can watch them very closely. They’re bright pink. And they have a giant spoon bill, so it’s like this big spatula thing sticking out of its head. 

IRA FLATOW: All right. The calls are pouring in, at least one call has poured in. What are those guys? Let’s go to Wilmington, North Carolina. Greg, hi. Have you got a guess for us? Let me see, he’s punched in– 

GREG: Yeah, I’m pretty confident that that’s a barred owl. 


IRA FLATOW: There you go. Yeah, wish you could win a prize. We don’t have anything to give you. 

LAURA ERICKSON: But I think he should get extra credit if he knows if it’s a boy or a girl. 

GREG: Oh my god. You got me on that one. I don’t know but I know that they make some crazy wild sounds when they’re active. We have them all around my neighborhood. 

IRA FLATOW: Well, Laura, because you asked that question, you have to tell us, sound-wise, what’s the different sounds between the two? 

LAURA ERICKSON: That one’s a female. And I can tell it because, first of all, it’s just a little bit higher-pitched than the male would be. But also, it had a whole lot of vibrato as it made that descending trill at the end. The male doesn’t make as much vibrato. 

IRA FLATOW: Wow. Can you do that one for us? The male. 

LAURA ERICKSON: Just play it again. I can’t do it. 


IRA FLATOW: You did that first one so well. 

LAURA ERICKSON: But the interesting thing is female owls are larger than males and, yet, the female has the higher frequency sound. And that’s because, even though they’re the male is smaller, he’s got a slightly larger skull to make more resonance. 

IRA FLATOW: Jason, in Atlanta, have you seen anything of real interest in Atlanta? Is birdwatching easier in the South? Is it warmer? 

JASON WARD: Yeah. So I’m doing one in Atlanta tomorrow and the forecast calls for about mid-50s and partially cloudy, so we’re going to get it easy in that part. The leaves have all fallen from the tree, we’ll be able to see hawks nice and easy as well. And even though we’re pretty far from the coast, we still get a decent number of species down here in Atlanta. I’m assuming for my particular circle, without putting any pressure of any of my members on my team, but I’m going to aim for about 60 to 65 species tomorrow. 

IRA FLATOW: Wow. Wow. Let’s go to the phones to Bakersfield, California. Hi, Bill. Welcome to Science Friday. 

BILL: Hi I wanted to report my favorite sighting of the last 40 years. 40 years ago, at my family’s place outside of Bakersfield, was the last time I saw California condors in the wild. And two days ago, I saw one there again and it had a number on his wing and all that stuff. And it was just amazing to me to see them back after so long. You can tell I’m probably getting a little verbally about it. 

I had a question for the bird experts about– I know there’s this ongoing study and the birds have to be monitored and taken in and tested for this and that. And the government shutdown might be putting a hiccup in all that. I was curious if they knew studies like that and the studies of the albatrosses in Hawaii and all that, what happens? Are those affected by the government shutdown? 

IRA FLATOW: Let me get an answer. Jason, Laura, Martha, do you know anything about whether the shutdown is affecting birds or bird count? No? 

MARTHA HARBISON: That’s a great question. 

LAURA ERICKSON: I know that a lot of the people who are in charge of taking care of the habitat in the National Wildlife Refuge System and the national parks and national forests are furloughed right now and that can cause a problem. Sometimes, some of the surveys are done by volunteers and they can continue doing their work if they can get into the places, if the places haven’t been closed down. But it could be pretty tricky for sure. 

Right now is a critical time for the albatrosses out on Lay– Sand Island because they’re nesting right now. And they’ve been having problems with mice attacking the birds and their nests. The mice have figured out how to jump on their upper back, where the birds can’t reach them no matter what they do. And the mice will actually start eating the poor birds alive. So that’s very scary if we aren’t sure that they’re being monitored and protected. 

IRA FLATOW: Wow, that’s really scary. Let’s go to Long Island, to Shinnecock way out there on the island. Kim, welcome to Science Friday. Kim, are you there? Wait a second, did I punch the wrong one? I think I did. Kim, go ahead, Kim. 

KIM: Hello? 

IRA FLATOW: Yes, go ahead. My mistake. 

KIM: Oh, gosh. There I was. So, yeah, I live out on Long Island, and I was going to a project. I’ve worked for Cornell Cooperative Extension out in Suffolk, I was going to a project that I run doing roads. And coming across the Ponquogue Bridge, I spotted a brown pelican, which I was pretty shocked to see. Having gone to the Keys a lot, I knew brown pelicans pretty well to see one on the bridge. And I looked online that night because people were thinking I was crazy and there was no documented other sighting of brown pelican in New York. So I don’t know if that’s uncommon or is that just– 

IRA FLATOW: Martha, what do you think? 

MARTHA HARBISON: You know, you get a lot of birds that get actually blown up here from storms. So there was actually one CBC this year that had a magnificent frigate bird in Massachusetts. Those things usually hang out in Florida. So it doesn’t surprise me that you’d actually see a brown pelican, which is a relatively robust bird, if it got blown off course and was hanging out on Long Island for a while. It’ll probably head back south soon enough. 

IRA FLATOW: Do you think all this weather from climate change is blowing birds around where they might not usually be? 

MARTHA HARBISON: I think if you get larger storms, yes. You’re going to see lots of– they get terns and my friend sent me a photo of a tern in Kansas that had been like dragged there by the remnants of a hurricane a couple of years ago. So yeah, usually you don’t get them in there. So yeah, I think that if you see stronger storms because of climate change, you’re going to actually see a lot more birds off course because of that. 

IRA FLATOW: All right. Go ahead Jason. 

JASON WARD: Just a couple of years ago, we had a brown booby in the middle of Atlanta just perched on one of the office buildings down here. So yeah, with stronger storms, you’d start to see a lot more weird sightings like that. 

IRA FLATOW: I think one of the weirdest sightings, just being a suburbanite, we have these trees there 200 feet tall and there were no leaves on the trees. I could see all the way to the top and I thought there was this giant vulture up there because it was sitting by itself. And I looked at it and I looked at it and, the more I looked at it, it looked like a turkey. Can a turkey head up? 


IRA FLATOW: Fly up that high? 

JASON WARD: Oh, yes. 

MARTHA HARBISON: Oh, yes. We underestimate turkeys. 

LAURA ERICKSON: On like that TV show, With God as My Witness– 


LAURA ERICKSON: Yeah, WKRP in Cincinnati. But I’ve seen wild turkeys on the rooftops of tall buildings in downtown Cleveland. 

IRA FLATOW: Wow, because I’ve almost hit many flocks of turkeys here in New England now, where I live in New England, a lot of Turkey is around. But I’ve never seen one so high up, I needed my binoculars. 

JASON WARD: Yeah, we underestimate turkeys. They’re pretty powerful flyers. And fun fact, young turkeys can fly when they’re just about a week old. Now, they don’t do that very well, but they are certainly capable of flight at that age, which is wild. 

MARTHA HARBISON: That’s insane. 

IRA FLATOW: It is insane. Oh, speaking of insane, let’s go to our quiz. 


There we go. Time for another round of our bird call quiz. OK, the sound was picked by Laura Erickson. So let’s take a listen. 


IRA FLATOW: I don’t want it to stop. I’m just transported outside. [LAUGHTER] Oh, it’s so beautiful. OK, if you think you know what that is, give us a call 844-724-8255 and we’ll see who can guess that the first. I was looking in your eyes, you knew exactly when that bird was, so don’t give it away. 

MARTHA HARBISON: Can’t I win this? 


IRA FLATOW: Yeah, you can win what everybody else is winning. Nothing. 


IRA FLATOW: High fives. There’s so many people, let’s go to the phones. Let’s go to Bert in Oakland. Hi, Bert. 


Gotta turn your radio off. 


No, Bert, no! Got to drop Bert because his radio. We have an answer. Let’s go to the phones, if we have an answer, to Lucy in Seven Hills, Ohio. Hi, Lucy. 

LUCY: Hi, Ira. Thanks for taking my call. That is a pewee. 


IRA FLATOW: Oh, you got the bird. 

LUCY: Aw! Thank you. 

JASON WARD: That’s a good guess, though. 

MARTHA HARBISON: That is a really good guess. 

IRA FLATOW: Well, Martha, what was it? 


MARTHA HARBISON: No, Jason. You get to guess what it is. 

JASON WARD: Do you want to take another call? Do you want to give it another shot? 

IRA FLATOW: Play it again. 

JASON WARD: I can throw it out there but– 

IRA FLATOW: OK, well, you’re right. That’s a very good idea. We’ll take another call, see if we have someone else who can guess what that sound was and we’ll go on and take more calls here. Do we have somebody else on the line? Let’s see. Let’s go to Tulsa and take another call from John in Tulsa. Hi, John. 

JOHN: Hi, I’m so excited to be talking with you guys today. Thank you for taking my call. 

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. Go ahead. 

JOHN: Well, when I was growing up, my mom was a medical doctor– this is back in the day– and we would end up with interesting things in our freezer, that being a cedar waxwing one year ended up in there. And I know, don’t judge us, but it was just a beautiful bird. And so they were always something of a curiosity, mystery, and I grew up learning about birds. And I’m not an official bird watcher, but I sure love them. 

And here in Tulsa, I’ve noticed that the cedar wax wings just come in in big flocks to our neighborhood and are feasting on the Japanese holly berries. And I just wanted to learn a little bit more about cedar waxwings. Are they migrating through or where is their home territory? Can you teach me a little about a bird that I used to find in our freezer? And I wondered if anybody else there would admit to freezing birds in their freezer or is that just an anomaly? 

IRA FLATOW: All right. Let me just remind everybody first that this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios talking about birds. And I see, Martha, you were shaking your head. 

MARTHA HARBISON: I was nodding my head, yes. 

IRA FLATOW: Nodding your head. 

MARTHA HARBISON: We’ve had birds in freezers. I had a magnolia warbler in my freezer for a while. And occasionally, when we find birds that have struck buildings in New York City, they will put them in the Audubon office freezer until we can hand it over to AMNH or NYC Audubon for autopsy. 

IRA FLATOW: Jason, can you talk about the waxwing? 

JASON WARD: Yes. So in Oklahoma, waxwings visit during the winter time. So there are wintering species in Oklahoma. And during that time, they’ll travel in these pretty decent sized flocks and they’ll just descend on a bush and just gobble up all of the berries. They’re year-round in some of the northern parts of the US and they spend their summers in Canada. 

IRA FLATOW: Here you go. A nice little exposé. Let’s go to the phones, another guess. Chelsea from Alpena, Michigan. Hi there. Let’s see if I can get her on. Chelsea, go ahead 

CHELSEA: Oh, hi. 

IRA FLATOW: Hi, there. 

CHELSEA: Ira and company. No guesses on the bird yet? 

IRA FLATOW: No, you’re the next guesser. 

CHELSEA: OK. I’m going to guess it’s a chickadee. 


IRA FLATOW: Yeah, you got the right bird. 


JASON WARD: Extra credit if you guess the species. 

MARTHA HARBISON: Yeah, I was going to say like, we got a few of them. 

CHELSEA: Yeah. And I have very friendly ones that I can actually, if I’m really patient and sit out there, I got a couple of them that will actually land on me, so it’s so much fun. 

IRA FLATOW: Can you tell us what the species is, Chelsea? 

CHELSEA: The species of chickadee? 

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, well that’s what my guests are saying. I don’t know. 

CHELSEA: Was it black-capped or whatever, is that what you’re looking for? 

IRA FLATOW: You need another ding on that one. 


CHELSEA: So I get a double ding? Whoo! 



CHELSEA: You made my weekend. 

IRA FLATOW: Thank you for calling. 

MARTHA HARBISON: Thank you. In the US, we also have mountain chickadees and we have chestnut-backed chickadees. 

LAURA ERICKSON: Those are in the west. 

MARTHA HARBISON: And then a boreal chickadee, we in the Northeast. 

JASON WARD: Don’t forget about us here in the South. 

MARTHA HARBISON: Oh, Carolina chickadee. Oh, yes, I’m sorry. 

LAURA ERICKSON: And on the extreme Southwest, in southeastern Arizona, in the Chiricahua mountains, there’s also the Mexican chickadee. 

IRA FLATOW: Wow. Wow. My little chickadee. OK, this is great. We’re going to take a break and come back and talk lots more, our show is going to the birds. 844-724-8255, if you’d like to join us. You can also tweet us, we have lots of tweets. I’ll go through more of them when we come back after the break. Stay with us. 

This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. We’re closing out the bird book on 2018. We’re doing our Annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count, which wraps up tomorrow. And we have a small flock of birders here to talk about their favorite finds of the year, plus the joys of winter birding. I’m talking with Martha Harbison, Jason Ward, and Laura Erickson. We have a quiz going on. I want to just take a few tweets before I go to our last quiz question. 

Ryan Mandelbaum of Gizmodo who is usually sitting across the desk from me when he comes in and talks to us about the news, he says a flock of red crossbills, probably my favorite bird, descended on me just after I finished my Christmas bird count in Tara Mak Wildlife Refuge in Minnesota. What do you think of that, Laura? 

LAURA ERICKSON: That’s pretty cool. It’s going to be interesting that the red crossbill may be split into multiple different species. And the only way to tell most of them apart will be to actually make a recording of their song or call using your phone or whatever you have handy. Because some of the calls are kind of hard, at least for my ears to distinguish, unless I’m actually looking at a recording. But red crossbills specialize on pine cones, and they’re just a wonderful bird. 

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to our last quiz question. Here it is. This one I’m sorry to say might be a bit of a stumper. 


IRA FLATOW: Interesting if you think you know, give us a call 844- 724- 8255. It just lulls me, I forget I’m in the studio. I keep hearing them. Let’s go to the phones, because an interesting call from Bob in Lawrence, Kansas. Hi, Bob. 

BOB: Hi, happy new year, everyone. 

IRA FLATOW: Happy new year. 

BOB: I would guess that that’s some species of hawk. But one of the things that I really wanted to share is one of my favorite things to do here in Kansas is to go out to the lake with my laptop computer and a Bluetooth speaker and go to the Cornell ornithology bird page where you can call up a variety of bird calls and just kind of see what you can recruit to come in and visit you. It’s an amazing way to bring in birds and to be able to observe them. 

IRA FLATOW: So you take your laptop, you go to the Cornell page, you turn on your Bluetooth speaker and play the bird call, and you see where birds come by to answer. 

BOB: Correct. 

IRA FLATOW: Do you usually get a good response? 

BOB: Very good response, barn owls, I can sit it out in the yard and barn owls will come in and a lot of birds will just come in. If you set it underneath a perch in a tree, they’ll come and sit right above it. It’s amazing. 

IRA FLATOW: I have to try that. 

BOB: Oh, it’s fun. 

IRA FLATOW: I have to that’s my– 

LAURA ERICKSON: Don’t do it during breeding season, you might get into a fight. 

IRA FLATOW: What do you mean? 

LAURA ERICKSON: Well just because, birds are very territorial in breeding season. And so it could be that they think that you’re another male that’s about to move in on their territory. 

JASON WARD: It’s a hot button topic really. I would say that when it comes to anything, moderation is key. I am OK with the use of playback as long as the individual using the playback is just thinking about the birds and being a little responsible when it comes to using the playback. You just don’t want to overdo it, because you just don’t want to unnecessarily stress the birds out. 

IRA FLATOW: You remind me, speaking of stressing birds out and wintertime, we are in the winter time, are there things we shouldn’t do for birds, about birds? I have friends of mine who say I won’t put the feeder out in the summer, but I’ll put it out in the winter time. Is there something that’s better than nothing? I mean, you know there’s etiquette or what are we doing that– 

JASON WARD: There’s definitely etiquette. I would say that when it comes to a feeder, I mean, whatever works for you is best. The birds they’ve been finding food sources for countless years. So whether or not an individual decides to put a feeder out, those birds will do a pretty good job at finding food in their natural habitats. What I would suggest is, I’m a bird of prey kind of person, so when you do see a hawk or a falcon on a prey item, I would suggest keeping your distance. 

Because if you want to get closer and you want to get a really good photo of that bird, what you may wind up doing is spooking that bird off of its food. And it’s already so hard for birds to catch flying food, so I would suggest just keeping your distance and not stressing that bird out. A lot of younger hawks and falcons die within their first year of life, because catching food is so hard for them to do. So I would suggest keep your distance, stay a safe distance away from them when they’re eating. 

IRA FLATOW: Can you put– I’m sorry go ahead, Laura. 

LAURA ERICKSON: I want to emphasize that he’s not only right about that, but if you care about your chickadees and your evening grosbeaks and all the other birds at you’re feeder, you can’t help but feel a little angry at a hawk who’s eating one of them. But if you scare the hawk away, it’s going to kill another bird where it’s got those calories and that may give it a little time before it goes to take another one. So give it space, let it eat. Remember that hawks are birds, so when they come to your bird feeder, well, they don’t see that you’re supposed to be all that exclusive. 

JASON WARD: That’s 100% right. When you set seed out, you are creating a nice silver platter for not only chickadees and finches, but also for coopers and sharpshinned hawks as well. So if you don’t want them to feed on birds in your backyard, that’s perfectly fine. You should probably take your feeders down then. 


LAURA ERICKSON: Oh, but if you are going to keep your feeders up, especially with climate change through the winter, we’ll be getting thaws and then freezing again even up in northern Minnesota and then at winters end when we get thaws, a lot of microorganisms can grow on that spilled seed on the ground that can lead to things like salmonella outbreaks or botulism outbreaks in your neighborhood. So make sure you keep the spilled seed cleaned up, especially when the temperatures get around the 30s. 

IRA FLATOW: Wow, I never would have never– Thank you. I would have never thought of that, Laura. That’s quite interesting. That’s why you sit there and I sit here. 

LAURA ERICKSON: I’m a little scared to look at your refrigerator. What do you have growing in there? 

IRA FLATOW: On that note, let’s go to the quiz. We have a contestant on the line, Bill from Juneau. Hi, Bill. Welcome to Science Friday. 

BILL: Thank you. And I’m here in Auke Bay, which is very near Juneau. And I’m looking at my feeder and see a chestnut back chickadee, which was mentioned earlier and also a song sparrow, which we have here during the wintertime. And looking at Auke Bay I see harlequin ducks nearby and barrels goldeneyes. So those are some birds here in Auke Bay at this time of year. 

IRA FLATOW: All right, do you have a guess for us for a bird chirp we had before? 

BILL: I do have the earlier caller said it was some kind of a hawk and I’m guessing it’s a red-tailed hawk, which we don’t have here in Auke Bay right now. But that’s my guess. 

IRA FLATOW: Let’s see if you’re right. [DING] [BIRD CALL] I got a ding and a bird. Wow. Well, we have to explain that. Jason, can you explain why she got he got both of those? 

JASON WARD: Yes. OK, so what you were hearing was a blue jay imitating a red-tailed hawk. 

IRA FLATOW: They do that? 

BILL: Blue jay, we don’t have them here but I know them from Oklahoma. And I know that blue jays have a cousin here called a stellar’s jay. 

JASON WARD: Oh yeah. 

IRA FLATOW: Wow, so tell me more about that Jason. They can actually, they can imitate other birds? 

JASON WARD: So now we have a lot of birds that practice mimicry. We have mockingbirds. We have thrashers. They’re really, really good mimics. But the blue jay takes that and turns it on its head, because blue jays are known to primarily mimic birds of prey. So we have red-shouldered hawks, red-tailed hawks, and also broadwing hawks being some of the more mimicked species. The interesting thing about blue jay mimicry is we do not know yet why they mimic hawks. We’re not sure yet. 

IRA FLATOW: Interesting. 

JASON WARD: Now, the difference between a red-tailed hawk’s screech and a blue jay imitating a red-tailed hawk is that blue jay it sounds a little more whistled when he’s doing that screeching sound. And it’s not as deep, not as convincing as a red-tailed hawk would sound. 

IRA FLATOW: But is it convincing enough to fool the birds? 

JASON WARD: It’s convincing enough to make me pick up my binoculars, most definitely. I’ve had a blue jay perch within 30 feet of me, imitate a red-tailed hawk, so I started to look around for the hawk only to see the blue jay. And then it stopped and then started to imitate a red-shouldered hawk. The very same blue jay decided to mimic two hawks. I’m not sure why. Maybe he just wanted me to keep on moving and get out of his area. But yeah, these things are fascinating. We’re not 100% sure, we haven’t cracked the case yet. 

IRA FLATOW: That’s interesting. You know– 

LAURA ERICKSON: There’s a couple of theories why they do it. One is that they scare off birds on their nest and that might give the blue jay a clue, because they do raid songbird nests for eggs or small nestlings. And the other one is just that they’ll scare everybody off a bird feeder. So they can fly in and eat until everybody realizes ah, it’s just a blue jay and comes back. 

JASON WARD: And that’s the interesting thing about that, because we have seen blue jays practice mimicry for those exact reasons. However, we’ve also seen them do it when no other birds are around, when there’s no food at a feeder, so they probably do it for a number of different reasons. 

IRA FLATOW: Martha, I have a tweet that you might be interested in. And I’m going to read it to you. A Harris sparrow was one of my favorite birds this year. It’s from Mary Beth Cooper who says, it was in Central Park. And it was found by a local very observant birder. The bird was foraging with a flock of white-throated sparrows. It was a true rarity for the park. 


IRA FLATOW: Yes? Why is that? 

MARTHA HARBISON: Harris sparrows, I don’t have the range map in front of me, but they’re usually found much farther west than here. And it’s actually I’ve never seen the species, like I’ve never seen a Harris sparrow. So for one to show up in Central Park, and then be able to find it. So the other thing is like nobody looks closely at sparrows, those little brown things that run on the ground. So you have to be really dedicated to bird every bird to notice that there is a slightly different brown bird amongst all the other brown birds. 

JASON WARD: Speak for yourself, I love sparrows. 

MARTHA HARBISON: I love them, I’m just terrible at them. 

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to Pittsburgh, PA. Josiah, hi, welcome to Science Friday. 

JOSIAH: Hi, thank you for taking my call. I wanted to tell you about a time I was out picking golden chanterelles, and I was getting back to a patch and walking through a stand of gray dogwood. And I saw scarlet tanagers on the far side of it and got to see a mating dance where the male was very active with this tight formation flying through the branches of this dogwood stand. And it was definitely just the most beautiful thing you could imagine seeing. 

IRA FLATOW: Wow, thanks for sharing that. I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. Talking with Martha Harbison, Jason Ward, and Laura Erickson. And in the few minutes we have, what’s your birding resolutions for 2019? Let me start with you Martha. 

MARTHA HARBISON: I am going to go down to Atlanta, and I’m going to have Jason find me a brown headed nut hatch. 

JASON WARD: They grow on trees down here. 

MARTHA HARBISON: I know. I’ve been down there two times and I haven’t seen one yet. So I have to get that ticked off my life list. It’s become my nemesis bird. 

IRA FLATOW: Why are you so interested in that bird? 

MARTHA HARBISON: It’s the only nut hatch in the United States I haven’t seen yet. 


MARTHA HARBISON: And yeah, they’re everywhere in the sort of the Southeast. And I just love nut hatches, they’re charismatic birds. And because I’ve not been able to find something that falls off of trees it frustrates me and offends me. 

IRA FLATOW: When I put up my backyard feeder like all suburbanites I thought there were three kinds of birds that live, the grackle the sparrow, whatever. Once I put it up and saw a dozen or more different birds, the nut hatch was the first different bird I saw, and I was so fascinated by how it flies. 


IRA FLATOW: The dipping, the up the down, that’s just amazing. You know I never knew birds flew like that. 

MARTHA HARBISON: Have you been able to watch them go up and down trunks? 

IRA FLATOW: Oh yeah. They take a little nut with them and they crack it on the trunk or on the branch. Jason, what’s on your list for 2019? 

JASON WARD: I just want to see more birds. I want to crack 300 total for the year. And I want to see more peregrine falcons. Those are my favorite birds by far. And I want to go each of these 12 months having at least one sighting. And I would love especially to see one hunting as well. 

IRA FLATOW: And Laura? 

LAURA ERICKSON: Well, my birding goal is actually not to see anything in particular. But this year to be much more disciplined about reporting each of my birds in eBird, which is the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Audobon work together to make the system eBird.org where you can keep track of every bird you’ve seen. 

IRA FLATOW: Martha if you’re just beginning, you’ve listened to the show, you say, I want to get into birding. What tools, what tips do you have? 

MARTHA HARBISON: The first thing I would say is get an app. There are multiple free apps out there. And just familiarize yourself with the birds in your area just by looking at pictures or illustrations. I think that will sort of help you recognize when you’re out in the field like, oh, there actually are very different birds out there as opposed to the three that you thought actually existed. And the next thing I would do is don’t sweat it. Like, it’s really hard, it can be very frustrating when you start out, because you’re like, I can’t tell the difference between two, you know, what’s something to be very obviously different if Jason or Laura and I looked at it, we’re like, oh yeah, that’s clearly a blah. Novice birders can’t do that. And it’s OK. It is totally OK to be terrible at birding when you start. So being kind to yourself. 

IRA FLATOW: I got the bird clock, the clock strikes with bird calls on it. 

MARTHA HARBISON: Yeah. I actually want one of those. 

IRA FLATOW: I learned a lot. We’ll get you one. I learned a lot of bird calls from listening, you know, as the clock was going around. Well, this has been delightful. I want to thank all of you. And have a Happy New Year, and thank you, and good luck with your birding on the last day of the bird count. 

JASON WARD: Thank you very much. 

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. Martha Harbison editor for National Audubon Society here in New York. Jason Ward a bird educator and writer for Audubon in Atlanta. And Laura Erickson birder and author of the American Birding Association Field Guide to the Birds of Minnesota. And I want to thank everybody who called in, tweeted, or otherwise helped us fill this hour with wonderful stories about birding. Happy birding everybody and good luck in 2019.

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