Much More Than Partridges In Pear Trees

34:13 minutes

This year, a snowy owl has been spotted in Minnesota. Photo by Silver Leapers/flickr/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Flocks of avid bird watchers emerge around the holidays in an attempt to catch a glimpse of their favorite feathered friends flying overhead during the winter migration. So far this season, a rare European corn crake was spotted off the coast of New York, and snowy owls have been spied in Minnesota. Wildlife ecologist J. Drew Lanham and birder Laura Erickson fill us in on what’s been seen so far during the Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count—and what birds we should watch for in the new year.   

Plus, a few young listeners of the Brains On! podcast—the science podcast powered by kids’ curiosity—quiz our experts on bird behavior, migration and conservation.


Segment Guests

Laura Erickson

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

Drew Lanham

Drew Lanham is a professor of Wildlife Ecology at Clemson University in Clemson, South Carolina.

Judith Bailey

Judith Bailey is a Master Birder and a field trip leader for the Travis Audubon Society in Austin, Texas.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. The temperatures are dropping. The days are short, which means it’s time for the winter bird migration and time for the flocks of birders to start making their birding list. And bird nerds around the country will be participating in the Audubon’s Annual Christmas Bird Count, tallying up what they’re seeing.

And that’s what we do every year about this time. We become part of that bird count. And for the rest of the hour, the hour is going to the birds. We’re going to talk about what birds you should keep an eye out for this holiday season and into the new year. And we want to know what birds you’ve been seeing.

Our number, 844-724-8255. Every year, we get some really interesting commentary about what’s going on in bird feeders and in people’s homes and backyards and their wildlife areas around there. So give us a call, 844-724-8255.

Or you can tweet us. It’s the right time to say that. You can tweet us at sci– how unusual– @scifri– S-C-I-F-R-I.

Let me introduce my guests. Drew Lanham is professor of wildlife ecology at Clemson University in Clemson, South Carolina. And Laura Erickson, author of the National Geographic Pocket Guide to the Birds of North America. She’s based out of Duluth, but she’s here today in our CUNY studios. Welcome to Science Friday.



IRA FLATOW: It’s appropriate to tweet this time.


IRA FLATOW: It’s always appropriate to do. Drew, what birds have you been seeing out there in South Carolina so far this year?

DREW LANHAM: Well, you know, Ira, it is winter, didn’t feel much like it on our Christmas Bird Count, which we just had this past Tuesday the 19th. But the usual white-throated sparrows and Savannah sparrows, the winter, the winter sparrows that have moved in and then swelling numbers of residents, things like common grackles and eastern meadowlarks that we normally see in some of our agricultural areas and then waterfowl. Waterfowl are beginning, just beginning to push, to push south. And Laura, I know you hail from Minnesota.

LAURA ERICKSON: Yeah, sure, you betcha.

IRA FLATOW: Betcha. I spent many years in Minnesota. There’s something going on with the owls this year in Minnesota?

LAURA ERICKSON: Well, it’s not just Minnesota, we’re having a really wonderful snowy owl, what they call, an, eruption year. So they’re turning up in all kinds of places. And it’s been really exciting to follow them. But we also–

IRA FLATOW: Send some down here Laura.

LAURA ERICKSON: I’ll do my best. If I see one, I’ll say, go to Drew’s. But Duluth’s Christmas bird count, I don’t have all the numbers yet. They did that on the 16th. But they did have a boreal owl, which is a tiny, tiny little owl. And they’re really exceptional. That was one of the rare times that they showed up as early as the bird count.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about this project studying this snowy animals called Project SNOWstorm. What is that about?

LAURA ERICKSON: They have put satellite transmitters on snowy owls. And they have a battery that is charged, a solar battery. And they track these individual birds that show up this year. They have funding to, I think, be tracking eight of them from just Wisconsin.

And they do them for wherever they have funding. And they start, they do a lot in like Massachusetts and New York. And they are discovering all kinds of things about snowy owl migration that we never knew before.

IRA FLATOW: Such as?

LAURA ERICKSON: Well, we used to think that snowy owls came south on years when the lemming population had crashed in the Arctic and they just didn’t have food. But we are starting to question that, for, you know, several decades because we’d get individuals that returned year after year after year just in the Duluth harbor. And they were banded so we knew where they were the same birds.

But we’re also finding they have humongous reproduction in years when the lemmings are highest. And that’s when they’ve produced so many babies and they become kind of territorial in the winter and the babies get pushed out. And that’s when they come South.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, Drew, the Christmas Bird Count happens, as I said before, every year this time. Were there any interesting trends from last season, the 2016 season, that you can report on?

DREW LANHAM: Yeah, you know, Ira, the thing is that as you go out to the same habitats year after year, and oftentimes you’ll have the same teams. So you divide that 15 mile diameter circle up into sectors. And you have teams that go out. And so folks who are familiar with not just the habitat, but changes in it, give us some good indication of what’s happening. So this was really the first year in quite a few years that we’ve had decent weather. It was more like a spring count almost than a Christmas count.

The temperature was up around 60. And so people were very comfortable out there counting birds. But one of the trends that we had this year, probably the most, I don’t know, I wouldn’t call it a disturbing trend, but from a compiler’s point of view, man, it was hard to come by white-breasted nuthatches, you know, that little yank-yank bird, that little upside down passerine that many of us find at our feeders.

You know, it was hard to come by that bird this year. And last year, we didn’t have that issue. Last year, it was more brown-headed nuthatches that we had trouble finding. So for some of those common birds like nuthatches that you would expect to find and not seeing those birds or hardly seeing them this year was a little troubling.

But, you know, that’s a snapshot in time. What gives us the real indication of what’s happening is when we begin to look at the long standing trends of the Christmas bird count. So, you know, we hold out hope for example, for things here like Northern bobwhite, you know, poor bobwhite. And that bird we haven’t seen on our counts here, on the Clemson count, in over a decade.

And there’s habitat here. And, of course, that’s a bird that’s familiar to many people across the United States that’s just experienced these tremendous declines. So you keep looking, you keep looking. And you see little trends like the nuthatch from year to year, abundant last year, at least by our count, hard to find this year. And bobwhite quail, they’re, you know, almost like dodos it seems. They’re just hard, harder and harder to find.

IRA FLATOW: All right, let’s go to the phones. We have a lot of people who are calling in with phone calls. Let’s go to Rosemary in Evansville, Indiana. Hi, Rosemary. Are you there? Oh, try it again. Rosemary in Evansville, are you there?

ROSEMARY: Yes, I’m here.

IRA FLATOW: Hi, go ahead.

ROSEMARY: OK. My question is this. I live in southwestern Indiana. And the other day– I live in the country with a lot of hawks and other kinds of predatory birds around. And in the middle of the afternoon, I heard a bird I had never heard before.

And I couldn’t– it was very loud. And as if, you know, like a hawk sounds in terms of the volume. But this bird went– ready? Brr, oh, rrr, oh. And I’ve never ever heard anything like that. And with changes in migratory patterns, I wondered if this was a bird that your guests could identify and tell me what it is.

IRA FLATOW: Laura, is that in your pocket guide?

LAURA ERICKSON: It doesn’t have sounds. Do you have a guess, Drew? I don’t.

DREW LANHAM: Wow, sounds like a bird in pain to me. You know, if I could ask our caller any other sort of identifying characters, what sort of habitat was the bird in. So, you know, we go through this sort of birder investigation, sort of this reductionist thing. What kind of habitat was the bird in, by chance?

ROSEMARY: –country. So I’m surrounded by fields and trees. We have a lot of hawks, other big predatory birds. And then, of course, we have the standard, run of the mill small birds that come to southern Indiana or live here all the time. But this is– we have a lot of owls. But I didn’t think it was an owl because it’s in the middle of the day.

DREW LANHAM: Yeah, you know, I’m beginning to guess that, that weird sounds oftentimes, as you were talking about predatory birds and then you were talking about sounds, I was wondering if you were going to ask about blue jays maybe imitating a bird. But I’m going to go– I’m going to go the corvid route, I’m going to go the crow route and wonder, wonder if you may have been hearing one of the many crow calls. They can do some peculiar things because they’re extraordinarily intelligent, as we know, and have quite the vocabulary. So that’s one guess that I would put out there.

LAURA ERICKSON: The first part of it sounded like a sandhill crane. But then the second part doesn’t at all. So that strengthens Drew’s hypothesis that it was a crow mimicking a couple of things at the same time.

IRA FLATOW: They are very smart, aren’t those crows? Our friends over at the Brains On! podcast, the podcast where kids interview scientists, looped us in with a few young birders who have questions for our guests today. Let’s see if we can go to those questions. Are they on the line? Kids on the line? Let’s go right to them. Matthew, go ahead.


IRA FLATOW: Go ahead, Matthew.

MATTHEW: My name is– hi, my name is Matthew and I’m from [INAUDIBLE], Illinois. And my question is, how do birds know where to fly in the winter?

DREW LANHAM: Oh my goodness. Great, great question. You know, the thing is that birds have this– bird brains are wondrous things. So if anyone ever calls you a bird brain, first of all, say thank you for that. So there’s– for some birds, there’s this thing called hard wiring. A lot of us think of it as, the word is instinct, Matthew. And so that birds are sort of programmed in part by day length. So we just went through our winter solstice yesterday.

And so as a lot of the birds up north as day length begins to shorten, think of certain cues are turned on to help those birds move south, understand that they need to move south. So that’s one of the ways that some birds move. So they kind of have to move, you know? And part of that, too, is related to resources that are available, food that’s available for the birds and the like.

So over long periods of time, these migratory patterns and pathways have evolved, have developed in these birds. And Laura’s lucky cause she’s still up there. She’s up there in Duluth, where you guys have got lots of common goldeneye, right, Laura?


DREW LANHAM: Yeah, so you think about waterfowl and ducks and geese. And those birds are cued to move in part by open water. So for a lot of times when those birds that we call facultative– that’s a big word, I know. But that they can make the choice to move, that they’re pushed by certain cues not necessarily instinctual or hard wired.

So thinking about those ducks that are still in places that it’s really cold and the days are short, but there’s still open water. And then we begin to talk about things like climate change and global warming . And part of the reason that we’re not getting as many ducks and waterfowl here in the South is that a lot of those birds are short stopping, that is that they are maybe coming south but not as far south because they’re still finding open water.

IRA FLATOW: I guess it’s warming, warming’s lasting– water’s lasting longer.

DREW LANHAM: Yes, indeed.

IRA FLATOW: All right, let me get another question in from Sloane in Vancouver. Hi, Sloane. Go ahead.



SLOANE: My name is Sloane. I am eight years old. I live in North Vancouver, Canada. I love peregrine falcons and all birds of prey. My question is, what can I do to protect endangered birds of prey?

LAURA ERICKSON: That’s a really important question and an interesting one. The ways we help birds are sometimes by supporting programs that help them by teaching other people about them. peregrine falcons are doing much, much better today than they were when I was eight years old when they were wiped out of the whole Eastern United States, no more were breeding in the Eastern United States.

And very few were breeding anywhere, even in Canada except way far away from people. They’ve done really well because people have gotten involved in cities and outside of cities helping to teach ones to grow up in the wild whose parents were falconers’ birds that were taking care of them in captivity. And those have become wild and we have way, way more now.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to the phones. Let’s go to Dave in Minnesota. Hi, Dave. Welcome to Science Friday.

DAVE: Hi, thank you very much. So I live in west central Minnesota. And I’ve been here a few years, not many years. But I’ve watched the geese annually in the fall, late fall fly south. And during the day, they just fly south more or less. Within the evening, they go in any direction you want looking for water to stay over night.

The last two or three weeks, particularly today, I’ve seen flock after flock fly due north or very close to due north. So whatever’s going on, and that’s the first question. The second question is sort of a biome weird hypothesis that some birds find direction by basis of the magnetic properties of the Earth. And if that’s weakening, would that disrupt migrating birds, such as geese?

IRA FLATOW: OK, let me remind everybody this is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. Oh, OK, let me ask Laura from Minnesota. Why are they flying north?

LAURA ERICKSON: Geese learn their migration routes from their parents. And in Minnesota, we have quite a few geese that are pretty much non-migratory. And they– wherever they can count on having some open water in the winter, we have geese year round now. And that probably will be increasing with climate change. But the ones in your area may just be moving back and forth from fields where they’re feeding by day to where they have a good place to spend the night in water.

IRA FLATOW: We caught up with Bill Doyle from the Santa Rosa Christmas bird count in Sonoma, California, one of the areas hard hit by a wildfire this fall. They went out to count their birds last weekend. And here is his report.

BILL DOYLE: Our species account this year was the lowest it’s ever been historically. We just missed an awful lot of species that we normally would expect to see. And that wasn’t really a surprise, because it’s been going down year by year anyway. There are so many other impacts on birds besides the accidental ones like this fire. So whether or not it’s due to the fire is really hard to say. It’s certainly due to human impact of one kind or another.

IRA FLATOW: Drew, any comment on that, what we know about the effects of the fires on bird populations?

DREW LANHAM: Yeah, Ira, you know, it’s interesting because, of course, those catastrophic fires that we saw out there have taken away a lot of the scrub habitat, obviously, that is actually meant to burn, but then a lot of the forest habitat too and these communities that we call pyrophytic, which is fire-loving. The issue is that we’re in such weird cycles of climate now with warmer temperatures that exacerbate those fires.

So what happens with birds– and they mentioned that there were lower numbers of many species– is that often you’re going to see these dramatic changes. You’re going to see the dramatic changes with lower numbers of some birds as scrub habitats, for example, are simply raised to the ground, they’re erased, or forested habitats become sparse or burned down or changed dramatically. So I would predict, though, that as the habitats begin to regenerate, you’ll begin to see different bird communities. Let’s remember that forests and scrub lands all across this continent are really maintained by fire. Again, the issues are the catastrophic nature of fire and, of course, the damage and destruction to humans. So we would expect changes, some temporary and short term, others long term.

IRA FLATOW: All right, we’re going to come back and talk more with Drew Lanham and Laura Erickson. It’s our Christmas Bird Count this hour on Science Friday, 844-724-8255. Lots of people want to talk birds. You can also tweet us– see what I did there– @scifri. We’ll be right back after this break.

This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. This hour, we’re talking about birding, the famous Christmas Bird Count. We’ve been talking with my guests Drew Lanham and Laura Erickson. And now I want to bring on master birder Judith Bailey joining us out near a lake in Austin, Texas. Hi, Judith.

JUDITH BAILEY: Hi there, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: So what are you, what are you seeing out there, Judith? Give us a field report.

JUDITH BAILEY: Well, I have been out searching the three little lakes in our neighborhood. And it’s been a rainy, cold Friday. And we’ve had some north wind. And I’ve had some new birds that have been showing up. So that’s a fun thing. We’ve got wood ducks, and gadwall, and northern shovelers, canvasback, ringneck ducks, lesser scaup. And then today, I saw three female hooded mergansers, which is a real sort of coup for our neighborhood.

IRA FLATOW: Why is that?

JUDITH BAILEY: Well, they’re kind of secretive ducks. And they like little ponds. And so, you know, I guess we fit the bill. We’ve got a little pond and there they were.

IRA FLATOW: Now, I know you’ve been chasing a few birds down in South Texas.


IRA FLATOW: Any luck spotting them? Tell us about that.

JUDITH BAILEY: Well, Austin’s not too far from the border, down– we like to go to [INAUDIBLE] And there are two birds, specialty birds that are normally found in Mexico and Central America. One is a red-billed pigeon. And the other one is white-collared seedeater. And they’re not very many of them that show up in Texas.

And so, you know, from like February and March, people go down to the border and try to find these birds. And I’ve been down there probably six or seven times and have had a local guide. And we go looking for these birds. And so far I haven’t seen either one.

IRA FLATOW: Hm, sorry to hear that. You’ve done a bird count near the coast of Texas. What trend have you seen there?

JUDITH BAILEY: Well I have been going to a place called a Choke Canyon State Park which is south of San Antonio and a little bit north of Corpus Christi. And I have seen– I guess I’ve been down there nine years now. And when the Eagle Ford Shale oil boom started, it included this area around the state park. And, you know, we have the same effects probably of climate change that other areas in the United States have. But this one, what I have seen and others have seen, is that noise pollution is the thing that is causing a big decrease and drop in the bird, birding population.

The trucking is so loud that, you know, the birds can’t hear each other. And so the population is just– the species have gone down and the numbers of the species have gone down. This year, normally we see lots of Harris hawks, which are common to the area, and scissor-tailed flycatchers. And there were none this year.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, all that trucking noise. Well, Judith, good luck to you in your bird counting. And we wish you better luck.

JUDITH BAILEY: Thank you so much. We’re going to keep looking.

IRA FLATOW: All right Judith Bailey, master birder and field trip leader with the Travis Audubon Society based out of Austin, Texas. We have another question coming in from our friends at the Brains On! podcast, the podcast where kids interview scientists. On the line we have James from Malibu, California on the line. Hi, James.

JAMES: Hi, how are you?

IRA FLATOW: Hi, go ahead with your question.

JAMES: My question is, why are some birds shier than the others? And I’m wondering this because in my backyard, I feed birds a lot. And we have a lot of types of seed. And some will only take a second or two and some will pick up the seeds and see which one is heaviest and, you know, they’re real bold.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, so some will come right up to you and some are very shy.


IRA FLATOW: Wow, that’s a great question. Judith, why are some birds shy?

JUDITH BAILEY: Well, you know, some birds like the Jays are just bold by nature. And then there’s, you know, smaller birds, you know, little finches. And, you know, I think they’re just probably shyer simply because of their size.

IRA FLATOW: Let me ask Laura to- Laura, what do you think?

JUDITH BAILEY: It varies not only between species. Like she said, the Jays can be very– not very shy, except at my feeders, the Jays run off as soon as I go in the back yard to fill the feeder they keep an eye on me. And as soon as it’s filled and the coast is clear, they’re back. But even with little birds like chickadees, there’s an enormous amount of variation among the individuals.

I used to open my window and put my hand out with mealworms. And chickadees would come to my hand to get the mealworms. Some would sit on my hand and weigh all the mealworms to get the heaviest one. And some would not even alight. They’d just grab it and fly off. I had one chickadee who was the boldest and one way. He or she would tap on the window to get my attention when it wanted mealworms.

I’d crank up the window. But that chickadee would never alight on my head. It wanted me to put my hand up right next to the branch where it wanted to sit and so it wasn’t afraid of my hand, but it must not have liked the feeling of human flesh on its feet or something. It would never land on my hand.

IRA FLATOW: Well, to get birds to eat out of your hand, you must be the Mary Poppins of bird.

DREW LANHAM: You know, Ira, here’s the cool thing. And Laura talks about that variation within species. And there’s a wonderful book, The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman who– and she features Laura in that book– but she talks about these bird brains and this individual variation. So, you know, think about bird personality. I like to call them birdonalities.

And that what we’re learning about bird brains, again, is incredible. So, you know, we have shy species and wary species, but also how birds are exposed to humans. So one of the issues that we have on our bird count is whether or not the ducks have been hunted, whether they’ve been pressured the previous week or a few days before. So a lot of those ducks won’t show up on a perfectly suitable habitat because they have learned, they’ve been pressured. And so they’ve become shyer.

On the other hand, when you have ducks that have not been pressured, who have not been hunted over, in many instances, then they tend not to be shy. So all of this variation is something that’s wonderful to keep track of. And I’m glad our young birders are doing that.

IRA FLATOW: All right, I’m going to cycle through as many phone calls as I can because we have– the lines are full. So I’m not even going to talk about it. Let’s go right to– let’s go to James in Watertown, Connecticut. Hi, James.

JAMIE: This is Jamie.

IRA FLATOW: I’m sorry.

JAMIE: I wanted to let you know that the bird I spotted two weeks ago, the beginning of December was a full tilt male bald eagle. And he had a wingspan as long as I can put my arms out. He was right over my head. And so I was just curious, is it unusual to see a bald eagle this time of year in Northwest Connecticut? I’m up in the Northwest corner of Connecticut. Do they migrate or do they winter over in this area?

IRA FLATOW: A Yankee eagle.

DREW LANHAM: Well, they’re migratory. So you’ve got, you’ve got birds that are moving, but you will have bald eagles that will hang around there so, yeah. She’s seeing– she could be seeing either one of several birds.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to Dan in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Hi, Dan.

DAN: Hey, Ira. Thanks for taking my call. Yeah, interesting. Last week a big flock of medium-sized birds were just north of town. Have some [INAUDIBLE] berry bushes. Thought they were [INAUDIBLE] they come in. They ended up being a couple hundred cedar waxwings. Interesting because we see them in the fall when the berries are ripe or overripe, and eating those, and even getting a little bit tipsy. But this is the first time– I’ve been living here a long time– to see a big flock of cedar waxwings. They’re great birds.

IRA FLATOW: What do you say?

LAURA ERICKSON: They’re gorgeous.

IRA FLATOW: Unusual this time of the year?

LAURA ERICKSON: It depends on where you are. In Minnesota, cedar waxwings are very rare in winter. We get Bohemian waxwings. So depending on where you are, but they stick with around where they can find fruit.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to Deborah in Brown Deer, Wisconsin. Hi, Deborah.

DEBORAH: Yay birds. I love them. And we have a turkey in our neighborhood. It’s Brown Deer, Wisconsin, north of– it’s like a suburb of Milwaukee. And it didn’t look like the turkey I’d seen, like, two years ago wandering in our neighborhood.

So and it’s amazing how well they fly. I just couldn’t believe it when it was startled. But that’s my question. I mean, that’s my bird spotting. And I want to– I want to know how to see an owl. I want to know how to spot an owl.

IRA FLATOW: Nice, OK. First of all, she’s surprised how high a turkey. I’ve seen turkeys 100 feet up in the trees.

LAURA ERICKSON: Yeah, they can fly.

IRA FLATOW: I almost ran over two dozen of them the other day, but–

LAURA ERICKSON: Domesticated ones have been bred for heavier meat. And so their wings can’t pull them up. But wild turkeys do just fine. And they are becoming much more common in your neck of the woods in Wisconsin.

IRA FLATOW: And how does she see an owl?

LAURA ERICKSON: Listen for swearing chickadees if you want to see a little owl or swearing–

DREW LANHAM: Sh, sh, sh, sh.

LAURA ERICKSON: –crows and Jays– oh, good job, Drew.

IRA FLATOW: I was out with my telescope the other night. And I heard for the first time, I’ve been living here 30 years, my first hoo. I mean, the first time, like in the movies.

DREW LANHAM: Like a great horned owl, then the soft.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, it must have been that because I hadn’t heard that–


IRA FLATOW: –before. All right, let’s keep going. Because a lot of people want to ask questions. Let’s go to Pete in Meriden, Connecticut. Hi, Pete.

PETE: Hey, how are you doing, Ira?

IRA FLATOW: Go ahead.

PETE: Good, yes. Thank you for taking my call. Drew and Laura, just that caller who also called from Connecticut, we have a pair of nesting bald eagles–


PETE: –about a mile from my house. And last time I looked, they have gone, but there’s still no ice on the ponds. So they’re probably gone because of the temperature. I can’t say for sure. But I also frequent the Connecticut River quite often.

And I haven’t seen the bald eagles anymore. So I can only assume that they’ve moved off because of temperature. However, the water is still open. So that would lead me to believe that they could still get food if they wanted to, but it’s probably easier–

IRA FLATOW: Oh, I guess I lost him. I lost–

DREW LANHAM: You know, one of the interesting things about eagles. Yeah, so that’s a very astute observation. Sure, that the water is still open, that they could get fish. But bald eagles are also great carrion eaters. Not such a glorious picture of our national bird, but they are really opportunistic. So deer carcasses this time of year, you’ll often find bald eagles on them. And in some places, the place to go to see bald eagles is landfills. So, there you go.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. Wow. Let’s go to– let’s go to Morgan in Houston. Hi, Morgan. Megan–

MEGAN: Hi, it’s Megan.

IRA FLATOW: I’m sorry. It’s Megan. I’m sorry. My glasses are not working today.

MEGAN: I’ve been seeing– I’ve been seeing this really strange looking bird around Houston only this week. It’s about the size of a cardinal and it also has the, like the pointed feathers on its head. But it’s mostly black and possibly some like dark speckled gray on its back.

IRA FLATOW: Oh my goodness.

MEGAN: The tip of the tail is white. And then underneath the wings, there’s this super bright like reddish purplish color. And they have the prettiest song. And I’ve just never seen one before and I wondered if you might know what it is.

DREW LANHAM: That sounds like a phainopepla, doesn’t it, Laura?

LAURA ERICKSON: Yeah, yeah, it sure does.

DREW LANHAM: Oh my goodness.


LAURA ERICKSON: A phainopepla.

DREW LANHAM: Phainopepla.

IRA FLATOW: I thought you were cursing or something.

LAURA ERICKSON: They’re actually not too distantly related from the cedar waxwings you were talking about earlier.

DREW LANHAM: Yeah, silky flycatchers.

IRA FLATOW: So Megan saw us a rare bird or some [INAUDIBLE]?

LAURA ERICKSON: For that area, it would be.

DREW LANHAM: Oh my goodness, yeah. Now I want to go.

IRA FLATOW: Good luck. Good luck, Megan. This is Science Friday, PRI, Public Radio International talking about what people are seeing. It looks like things are showing up where they shouldn’t be. And people are seeing rare stuff, right, Laura?

LAURA ERICKSON: Correct. Like the corn crake that turned up in New York last month on Long Island, that was an exceptionally rare bird that people actually flew in from all over the country to see.

IRA FLATOW: I’m glad you brought that up because I was looking today at the US Fish and Wildlife Service– released that Wisdom, a Laysan albatross, the world’s oldest known breeding bird in the wild, has returned to Midway Atoll, the National Wildlife Refuge in Battle Midway National Memorial. This is almost a 67-year-old bird.

LAURA ERICKSON: At least 67.

IRA FLATOW: At least 67.

LAURA ERICKSON: The only known wild bird in the universe who is older than me.

DREW LANHAM: But you’re so young at heart, Laura, come on.

IRA FLATOW: She also laid an egg–

LAURA ERICKSON: Yes, she’s still reproducing.

IRA FLATOW: –at 67.

LAURA ERICKSON: And she’s fledged nine babies just since 2006.

IRA FLATOW: How rare is that?

LAURA ERICKSON: Her fecundity is really exceptional because many of them only breed every other year. So she’s just doing amazingly.

IRA FLATOW: Let me go through the phones again. I’m sorry to interrupt. Thomas in Cincinnati, hi, Thomas.

THOMAS: Hey, Ira. How’s it going?

IRA FLATOW: Hi there, go ahead.

THOMAS: Science Friday rules. So there’s this bird that’s by me and it sounds just like a freaking cat, man. It’s like “rawr.”

LAURA ERICKSON: “Ehh.” Like that?

THOMAS: Yeah, for sure. It’s not–

IRA FLATOW: So what did–

THOMAS: And it’s for sure a bird. It’s for sure a bird.

IRA FLATOW: What bird is that then?

LAURA ERICKSON: You’re not going to believe it. It’s a cat bird.

THOMAS: A cat bird?


THOMAS: No way.


LAURA ERICKSON: They’re related to mockingbirds and their call note is a meow. “Ehh.”

IRA FLATOW: So you must have been sitting in the catbird seat when you heard it then, so to speak. Thank you. We’re running out of time for phone calls. Your final thoughts, Laura on the Bird Count this year?

LAURA ERICKSON: I’m looking forward to getting home to Minnesota to do the Isabella Christmas Bird Count. That’s one way up in the north. And it’s a guaranteed count, no pigeons, no house sparrows, and no starlings.

IRA FLATOW: You’ve been in New York now visiting. Any birds you’ve seen while you’re here?

LAURA ERICKSON: Oh, yeah, I went to Jamaica Bay to go birding. I love taking the subway to different birding spots. There wasn’t anything rare this year. I spent inauguration day in January up in Arthur J. Hendrickson Park in Nassau County looking at a pink-footed goose.

IRA FLATOW: My old stomping grounds. OK, and Drew?

DREW LANHAM: Wow, well, you know, I am looking forward to the rest of this year. But this, you know, this count was special to me in part because I get to see old friends who love birds. But then you get new blood on occasion, you know? You get new folks coming in. So I had friends that came in from Atlanta, Georgia and Athens, Georgia to help me count birds, to help us count birds. And so, you know, birds, it amazes me how beautiful birds are and what they do for us ecologically in all sorts of ways but then how they can bring people together. And so that’s the thing that I absolutely love about Christmas bird counts is after you count all these birds, you spend a day working, watching birds, you get to gather around good food, good drink, and great people. So that’s what I’m most happy about this holiday season is the gift of birders.

IRA FLATOW: And it’s a gift that keeps on giving, as they say. I want to thank both of you for taking time to be with us today, Drew Lanham, professor of wildlife ecology, Clemson University and Laura Erickson, author of the National Geographic Pocket Guide to the Birds of North America, it’s a nice little Bible there, based in Duluth, Minnesota. Happy holidays to both of you.

LAURA ERICKSON: Thank you so much for having us.

DREW LANHAM: Happy holidays.

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