Duluth’s Laura Erickson offers advice for new birders
How do you go from noticing some little bird in your yard to becoming a true birder?
DULUTH — Maybe you’ve heard her talk about chickadees on her early-morning radio show. Maybe you’ve read one of her books. Maybe you’ve visited her website to find out something new about our feathered friends.
Over five decades now, Laura Erickson has become the Northland’s go-to expert for information about birds. Erickson, 71, a former middle school math teacher, has made a career out of her love for birds.
You might say it was a calling.
She’s got a popular website, lauraerickson.com , that’s a great resource about Northland birds. She’s a contributing editor and columnist for BirdWatching. She’s written 12 books on birds — the 13th comes out any day now — has won accolades and awards for her work and has become an accomplished bird photographer. (In 2014, she was the first woman to receive the American Birding Association’s Roger Tory Peterson Award for “a lifetime of achievements in promoting the cause of birding.”)
And Erickson now has a 36-year run on Duluth radio station The North 103.3 FM with her weekday morning show, “For the Birds.” She writes and produces the show by herself at home and does it for free.
Even her email is birdy: firstname.lastname@example.org .
Erickson and her husband, Russ — they met on their high school debate team — moved in 1981 to Duluth, where he was a scientist at the Environmental Protection Agency lab. Along the way, they raised a family and fell in love with the Northland’s natural wonders all while Erickson intensified her passion for, and knowledge of, birds.
“I can't remember a moment in my life when I didn't love birds, starting with the pigeons and house sparrows I could see from our apartment window in Chicago when I was a toddler,” Erickson noted. “But I'd never heard of a field guide and didn't know regular people could own binoculars until my husband told his mom to buy them for me for Christmas, 1974.”
She considers the date she became an official birder as March 2, 1975. The first bird on her life list was a chickadee, and it’s been her favorite bird ever since. (She’s now up to more than 2,300 species on that list, according to the tally on eBird.)
Black-capped chickadees are “adorable and hardy and stick around 365 days a year. If I were stranded on a desert island, chickadees would be the wild birds that would keep me company,” Erickson noted.
Erickson seems to have never met a bird she didn’t like, although she’s not keen on invasive starlings and she’s had some words with a little falcon.
“I got very peeved with a neighborhood merlin who took out a few of my backyard birds,” Erickson noted. “But then, after a storm, when the merlin nestlings got knocked out of their nest and I had to rescue them, well, they were pretty darned adorable. Birds gotta do what they gotta do.”
Erickson has birdwatched all over the world, including a trip to Alaska this past spring with her husband as they celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.
“I’ve birded in Central and South America a few times, and once to Europe and once to Africa. I don't know how I could pick from so many wonderful places, each with its own assortment of wonderful birds,” Erickson noted.
But she really does have a favorite place for birds, and it’s in Duluth’s Lakeside neighborhood.
“If I had to pick just one place, it would be my own backyard,” Erickson noted. “In 2021, chickadees nested in an old cherry tree in my yard; they were so fun to watch day after day. Several blue jays gave me splendid photo ops during those summers. Last fall, a Rufous hummingbird spent all of November through Dec. 4 on my block. This spring, I had some other real rarities, including a summer tanager and a white-winged dove. And right now, I have four different individual pileated woodpeckers visiting my feeders.”
She’s now counted 175 different bird species in her own yard.
Erickson was an early surfer on the rising wave of America’s obsession with birds. Birdwatching has become among the fastest-growing outdoor recreation hobbies in the nation. Since the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported in 2018 that 45 million Americans were seriously watching birds, there's been an estimated 50% jump in birders, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. That would put about 67 million Americans on the list of people who spend time and effort specifically to watch birds.
So how do you get started in birding? How do you go from noticing some little bird in your yard to becoming a true birder? The News Tribune asked Erickson to help newbies who might want to get started, who might want to expand from curiosity to wonderment.
It’s pretty simple, really. Get a good bird book. Get a pair of binoculars. Download a bird app. Buy a feeder and some sunflower seeds. Then enjoy.
Q. What birds are we most likely to see during winter months in the Northland?
A: Every day in Lakeside this season, I've been seeing chickadees, nuthatches, downy and hairy woodpeckers and one red-bellied woodpecker, three blue jays, several crows and often a raven (flying over — not at my feeders), juncos, a few goldfinches, a flock of starlings, a flock of pigeons and as many as four different individual pileated woodpeckers. Depending on where Northlanders live, they may be seeing quite a few other birds. Where there are mountain ash or crabapples, waxwings, robins and even the very rare Townsend's solitaire may appear. In areas with open water, a variety of ducks are still hanging around.
Q: What would be three good choices for bird feeders for first timers?
A: A platform feeder, homemade or store-bought, with sunflower seeds, is great for a variety of birds, especially evening grosbeaks. They just don't like a roofed feeder. There aren't many evening grosbeaks immediately around Duluth, but they've been showing up in the Sax-Zim Bog, the South Shore and the Grand Rapids area this winter, and may work their way to Duluth as the season progresses. Cardinals and blue jays prefer open feeders; juncos are more likely to visit them than other feeder designs (they most prefer eating on the ground); and I can't think of a single bird that comes to other feeders that would not come to a platform feeder. Nyjer tube feeders have very tiny openings for tiny Nyjer seed, which is very popular with small finches like goldfinches, siskins and redpolls.
Q: Is suet important for our local winter birds?
A: Suet has a very high fat content, which birds can metabolize to maintain their body temperature very easily. Woodpeckers (hairy, downy and red-bellied) nuthatches, chickadees and jays devour it.
Q: What are the best types of bird seed to get?
A: Sunflower is the single best seed. Black oil sunflower is more nutritious and much easier for birds to open than striped sunflower. Nyjer is best for finches. Right now, I have two tube feeders but also scatter a bit of Nyjer on my tray feeders. This allows more finches to eat at the same time. White millet is best for juncoes and native sparrows, and mourning doves devour it, too.
Q: Even before avian influenza spread this year, you were a big proponent of keeping feeding areas clean. Why is that important?
A: Birds that flock are most vulnerable because diseases spread fast. … Finches and waxwings are especially vulnerable when a sick bird is in the flock because they often feed each other, face to face. So keeping feeders clean and the ground beneath them well-raked (and burying or covering the raked-up stuff with thick layers of leaves) protects healthy birds from getting sick. Some diseases are caused by rotting bird seed. When any kind of seed gets wet, it starts to rot, thanks to bacteria and fungi.
Some of these are pathogens in their own right, and some of these microorganisms produce very toxic chemicals such as "aflatoxins" that can kill birds and other animals that eat them. Seed doesn't rot during extreme cold, but when we get winter thaws. … Toxins and disease organisms can flourish under our feeders unless we shovel or rake out as much of the old seed as we can to compost or otherwise dispose of.
Q: What birding guide would you recommend for beginners?
A: To focus entirely on Minnesota birds, I'd recommend my own “American Birding Association Field Guide to Birds of Minnesota,” which includes 300 of the most likely birds we'd see here or in neighboring states. If you travel to other areas of the country, it would be better to learn on one of the more comprehensive field guides. If you prefer photos, Kenn Kaufman's “Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America.” If you prefer drawings, the “National Geographic Field Guide to Birds of North America” is extremely comprehensive, and the seventh edition (2017) is the most up-to-date and comprehensive field guide out there.
Q: What app is best for birding? Why?
A: I regularly use two apps, both free from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Merlin is designed to help identify birds, both by sight and sound. When Merlin is installed on your phone, it knows exactly where you are and the date and time. It can help identify the bird if you can answer three simple questions about the bird's size, colors and what it was doing. Merlin also works on your computer, but you must tell it where and when you saw the bird. Merlin can also identify birds in photographs, but again, it must know when and where you took the photo.
Merlin is also surprisingly good at recognizing bird songs and calls. When you turn it on, it'll tell you every bird it recognizes by sound, which will help you learn to recognize those sounds. I've been studying bird songs for many decades so I recognize almost all of the sounds I hear. The problem for me is that I don't hear as well as I did when I was young. Merlin tells me what birds are out there that I'm not hearing, so I know to look carefully for them.
Q: If I want to see birds up close, should I get binoculars or a spotting scope? What type/style?
A: Binoculars are much more useful in many more situations than a spotting scope, so get them first. Buy the best binoculars you can comfortably afford to replace if something happens so you'll bring them along when you're canoeing or biking. There is a huge jump in quality between $100 and $500 binoculars. There is a significant jump in quality, but not nearly as big, between $500 and $2,000 binoculars. Most binoculars have a magnification of 7x, 8x or 10x. The higher the magnification, the more detail you may see, but ... you'll lose light ... Most birders prefer 8x as an excellent compromise to get the most light and quality.
The second number in binocular specs (8x30 or 10x40) tells you the diameter of the outer lens. … For inexpensive binoculars, that number would ideally be about five times the magnification (7x35, 8x40, 10x50).
Q: Other than our backyards, where are some good places to watch birds in winter across the Northland? What will we see there?
A: The best way to learn about birding locations anywhere in Minnesota, including the Northland, is Kim Eckert's superb “A Birder's Guide to Minnesota.” The newest edition, published by Stone Ridge Press, is coming out Dec. 20.
The most popular Northland birding spot, both for local birders and birders from all over the country, is the Sax-Zim Bog, roughly north of Meadowlands and south of the Iron Range. It’s a good place to see great gray and northern hawk owls, boreal chickadees, black-backed woodpeckers, evening grosbeaks and lots of other northern rarities. Feeding stations along some roadsides, boardwalks and a wonderful visitor center make the birding there especially fun. Maps with recommended places to go and lots of other information are available at the Friends of Sax-Zim Bog website, saxzim.org .
Birders gravitate to Canal Park and Wisconsin Point to see whatever ducks may be lingering in winter and plenty of gulls. Beginners may think of them all as "seagulls," but we can see several species of gull here in winter. The herring gull is the most common, but glaucous, great black-backed and Thayer's Gulls are often mixed in.
Two Harbors and Grand Marais virtually always have interesting birds year-round. In winter, the harbor areas may have interesting ducks, gulls and even a snowy owl in the ice somewhere, and a drive through neighborhoods may reveal waxwings or other interesting birds, especially near mountain ash or crab apple trees.
Q: What are the biggest problems facing our Northland birds today? Habitat? Cats? Buildings, cars and windows?
A: For purple martins, swallows, nighthawks, whip-poor-wills and other species that eat almost exclusively flying insects … are losing their primary food thanks to pesticides and declines in water quality. Grassland specialists such as sharp-tailed grouse, bobolinks and meadowlarks are suffering from loss of quality habitat. … A lot of factors are affecting warblers, tanagers, orioles and other neotropical migrants, including declines in breeding habitat here and wintering habitat in the tropics, cats … collisions with windows, cars, transmission lines, communications towers.
In some cases, none of these factors alone would have a devastating effect but all of them combined can be decimating some birds. ... More than half of U.S. bird populations are shrinking and, in the past 50 years, overall numbers of American birds have declined by over 3 billion birds. Considering that during that same time, Canada goose, wild turkey and American robin numbers have been swelling, the net losses of other species are even worse than most people realize.
Laura Erickson’s tips on how Northlanders can help birds
- Duluth has a cat leash ordinance that we each should be abiding by. Cats belong indoors. Loose cats kill millions of birds each year.
- Making windows safer for birds is essential. Data shows windows kill about a billion birds a year in the U.S., and Duluth's share is significantly higher than most areas because we're on such an important migration path for songbirds.
- Driving at the slowest speed that is safe, courteous and convenient will at least reduce the number of birds killed by our car as well as conserving fuel. Supporting low-impact uses of our parks for birding, photography and nature walks supports quality habitat.
- Getting rid of invasive exotic plants and growing native plants provides natural habitat in our neighborhoods.
- For those who feed birds, offer only nutritious, healthy suet, seed, etc. Put feeders directly on windows or far from the windows to protect birds from collisions. Never feed birds if you allow your cat outdoors.
- Read Erickson’s book, “101 Ways to Help Birds.”
On the air and online, learn more about birds
To find out more about birds of the Northland, and to view Laura Erickson’s stunning bird photos and listen to her birding podcast, at lauraerickson.com . Listen to her "For the Birds" radio program on The North, 103.3 FM, at 7:30 a.m. Monday through Friday.
A new bird book
You can find Laura Erickson’s library of bird books at Amazon, some local shops and at lauraerickson.com , including her latest book that will be released any day, “100 Plants to Feed the Birds,” published by Storey.
Her other books include:
- “The Love Lives of Birds,” Storey, 2020.
- “Am I Like You?,” Children's book co-authored with Brian Sockin, Cornell Lab Publishing Group, 2016.
- “American Birding Association Field Guide to Birds of Minnesota,” Scott and Nix, 2016.
- “Identifying Birds of Prey: Quick Reference Guide,” Stackpole, 2016.
- “Into the Nest: Intimate Views of the Courting, Parenting, and Family Lives of Birds,” co-authored with photo editor Marie Read, Storey, 2017.
- “National Geographic Pocket Guide: Birds of North America,” co-authored with Jonathan Alderfer, National Geographic, 2013.
- “Hawk Ridge: Minnesota's Birds of Prey,” University of Minnesota Press, 2012.
- “Twelve Owls,” University of Minnesota Press, 2011.
- “The Bird Watching Answer Book,” Storey, 2009.
- “101 Ways to Help Birds,” Stackpole, 2006.
- “Sharing the Wonder of Birds with Kids,” University of Minnesota Press, 1997.
- “For the Birds: An Uncommon Guide,” University of Minnesota Press, 1994.