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Understanding bird language in your own yard

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Laura Erickson holds a camera with a long lens inside a duck blind.
Laura Erickson
Laura Erickson poses with her camera as she gets ready to take bird photos in northern Minnesota. Erickson is an author, radio producer, educator and photographer of birds from Duluth.

Laura Erickson’s "For the Birds" is heard on public and community radio stations throughout the Midwest, including KAXE. She’s written over 13 books about birds, including her latest, "100 Plants to Feed the Birds."

DULUTH — Birds are complex. They want different things.

Take the Baltimore Oriole, according to author and For the Birdshost Laura Erickson: they nest in ash or willow trees, close to water. Scarlet tanagers like mature oaks.

A female hummingbird approaches a feeder
Debbie Center via KAXE Season Watch FB group
A female hummingbird approaches a feeder.

Erickson joined the KAXE Morning Show on May 16 to answer questions from staff phenologist John Latimer and listeners.

Hummingbirds have made their return and Latimer described them as very reliable, with the average date of return as May 11. So far though, he’s only spotted the males. Erickson explained that male hummingbirds tend to migrate before the females, just like robins.

“The male’s job is to set up the territory, defend it, so nobody’s gonna encroach,” she said.

But the females don’t seem to care, each picking their own territory and male of their choice.

“I don’t even know if male hummingbirds know where baby hummingbirds come from!” she said. According to Erickson, male hummingbirds know what they want to do with the female, but “it doesn’t go beyond that.”

A bald eagle sits in a tree
Tom Cobb via KAXE-KBXE Season Watch FB Page
An eagle sits near a nest on Pokegama Lake in Grand Rapids.

Erickson gave advice for feeding hummingbirds. On colder days, she suggested a sugar to water ratio of 1/3 of a cup to 1 cup. If it’s warmer, 1/4 cup to 1 cup is best.

Erickson also had advice when it comes to hummingbird nests.

“Usually they need spider silk,” she said. “And they need lichens to build their nests, so don’t be using pesticides and don’t wipe out all those spider nests — the spider webs up in your eaves.”

Eagles and ravens

Latimer went on to describe the eagle’s nest in his yard he’s been monitoring.

“I have been just astonished,” he said, to hear a certain call from the raven that lets him know when the eagles are in the neighborhood.

Close up of a Baltimore Oriole, with a bright orange chest, black head, and black and white wing
iNaturalist user eug302
A Baltimore Oriole is perched on a post.

“It’s so fun to pay attention in your own yard because that’s how you first start understanding bird language,” said Erickson, in response to Latimer’s backyard birds.

When it comes to Baltimore Orioles, Erickson explained how to recognize which are passing through and which are sticking around. She said each oriole has a regional dialect, depending on where they grew up. That means that a Duluth oriole sounds different than a Grand Rapids oriole.

“Pay attention to your orioles and you’ll be able to recognize the strangers passing through,” she said.

For more bird information and identification, Erickson recommended the app Merlin, from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, where she was once a science editor.

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Heidi Holtan is KAXE's Director of Content and Public Affairs where she manages producers and is the local host of Morning Edition from NPR. Heidi is a regional correspondent for WDSE/WRPT's Duluth Public Television’s Almanac North.
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