Birdsongs From The Arctic To The Southern Swamps The pop-up book Birdscapes catalogues the calls of birds from all over the world, from Yellow-billed Loons on remote Arctic lakes to King Rails in southern swamps. Author Miyoko Chu of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology tells the stories behind how these bird songs were collected.
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Birdsongs From The Arctic To The Southern Swamps

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Birdsongs From The Arctic To The Southern Swamps

Birdsongs From The Arctic To The Southern Swamps

Birdsongs From The Arctic To The Southern Swamps

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

The pop-up book Birdscapes catalogues the calls of birds from all over the world, from Yellow-billed Loons on remote Arctic lakes to King Rails in southern swamps. Author Miyoko Chu of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology tells the stories behind how these bird songs were collected.


You're listening to Science Friday. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking about the Christmas Bird Count and about everything you wanted to know about birds and seeing them and listening to them and how to watch them and what's happening in the bird count this year. And my next guess has traveled down to Chiapas, Mexico, to study some coffee plantations that use the shade-grown technique on a shade-grown coffee farm. And the - actually, the shrubs line the forest floor, the coffee shrubs, and they grow in the shade of these larger trees overhead.

And the forest - this is really interesting, because the forest is not only good for the coffee plant, but it also attracts migratory birds which - they're no dummies; they'd rather spend the winter there or make pit stops on their journey rather than bake in the sun-drenched, low-level, conventional coffee farms. And the shade also offers them more places to forage and to hide. And along with the birds, you've got your bats and the bees. They flock to the shade-grown plantations for the same reason.

And new research suggests - and here's what's most interesting about it - that what's good for the birds, bats and bees just might be good for the biodiversity of the forest trees, too. Joining me now to talk about why is my guest. Shalene Jha is a Ph.D. student in the department of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and she joins us by phone today. Welcome to Science Friday.

Ms. SHALENE JHA (Doctoral Candidate, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Michigan): Hi there, Ira.

FLATOW: Hi, how are you? Tell us, why is this good for biodiversity of a forest trees, too?

Ms. JHA: Well, as you described, shade coffee farms provide a lot of habitat for native birds and bats, and these are critical players in dispersing the seeds of native of trees. So, what we found in our study was that if you looked at the genetics signature of some of these native trees - we looked at a tree called Miconia. It's Miconia, which is one of the most common understory trees in the near tropics. But if you looked at the genetic signature of this tree, in the coffee farms as well as in the forest, you can tell that in the coffee farm particularly the seeds are getting dispersed extensively. And we're attributing this to the abundant seed dispersers that we find in the coffee farms, which are migratory birds, resident birds and bats.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Is a shade-grown coffee a new thing?

Ms. JHA: No. So, shade-grown coffee actually was the traditional style of growing coffee, and only recently in the last 30 or 40 years have we seen this conversion in some places to sun coffee. So, because coffee is an understory plant, it was conventionally thought that it would always be best to grow in the shade because that brings forth the best flavor on the coffee and you can plant nitrogen-fixing over-story trees, so trees that provide nitrogen for the coffee plants to use. So, it was always grown in the understory, and only recently, with the advent of some hybrid or new breeds of coffee, people have started to grow it in the sun. What we find, then, is that you don't have a lot of the ecological services which benefit the coffee in shade systems, like the pollinators, the birds that handle the pests for the coffee, and the parasitoids, which also control coffee pests, as well as just, you know, for finding habitats for (unintelligible)...

FLATOW: How many kinds of birds can you find down there with the coffee plants?

Ms. JHA: Well, thanks to our colleagues at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, they've done a lot of coffee (unintelligible) and point counts of birds, and they found about 180 species, I believe, in shade coffee. So, it's extensive. I mean, there's a lot of bird diversity in these coffee plants.

FLATOW: Do they eat the coffee beans?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. JHA: They actually don't eat the coffee beans that often. There's usually, in these shade coffee systems, especially coffee that's certified as bird-friendly. There has to be a lot of over-story and sort of medium-sized tree diversity in these farms. And so, it provides birds with a lot of foraging options, a lot of berries and nuts and things. So, that's actually the reason why we chose to study the miconia tree because - the birds forage on.

FLATOW: Well, Shalene, thank you for taking time to be with us. Quite interesting.

Ms. JHA: Thank you so much for having me.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Shalene Jha is Ph.D. student in the department of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Michigan. We're going to continue talking about birds, lots of birds, this hour. And last time, we were in Brooklyn, speaking with - or listening to Michelle Dreger, a volunteer naturalist, do the Christmas bird count over the air in Brooklyn, in Prospect Park.

(Laughing) And when we last left Michelle, she was taking her tour - taking her group through the tour, and let's - describing what to see. Let's see where she is now.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

Unidentified Boy: Up there.

Ms. MICHELLE DREGER (Volunteer Naturalist, Audubon Society): What is it? Another robin?

Unidentified Woman: It looks like.

Ms. DREGER: Uh-huh, (unintelligible). There's a redwing blackbird on the floor.

Unidentified Boy: These are good binoculars.

Ms. DREGER: Yeah, there's a redwing blackbird in there somewhere.

Unidentified Woman: Yeah, in the tree over there.

Unidentified Girl: Hey, there's the - is he over there?

(Soundbite of people talking over each other)

Ms. DREGER: Yeah. There's a (unintelligible). Oh, it just flew away. There's a chickadee and a gold finch on the feeder along with a downy woodpecker.

Unidentified Boy: The chipmunk in that tree hasn't moved for awhile.

Ms. DREGER: Really? Here it goes. Here comes Jay(ph). He's coming down.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

Ms. DREGER: There's something big in the top of that tree. Let me look what it is. We got to a kestrel. Up on top. We're looking for - what's not on our list? - creeper, chipping sparrow, thrush. Keep an eye after those three.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

FLATOW: Wow, sounds exciting. I love the crunching of the snow. You can see what kind of weather we've have in the New York City area. Also with me is Geoff LeBaron and John Fitzpatrick, talking about the Audubon Christmas Count. Interesting out there in Brooklyn. Looks like they were having a lot of fun.

Mr. GEOFF LEBARON (Director, Christmas Bird Count, National Audubon Society): You know, one of the things I love hearing about that - we're just hearing a really young person out there with her. This is one of the best ways to start kids becoming interested in nature. Just take them up for a few hours at the Christmas Bird Count. It got me going at age six.

Dr. JOHN W. FITZPATRICK (Director, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Cornell University): It's - that's absolutely fantastic. There's - I mean, birds just really spark people's interest and - you know, kids of all ages really, but it's absolutely wonderful to get more and more kids involved with any birding or conservation activities, really.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. We have a question from BurleyLoon(ph) from Second Life and wanting to know, has the global warming - has global warming demonstrated any change in bird occurrence patterns?

Mr. LEBARON: Well, we - with the Christmas Count actually, what we can do, what we're - Audubon is the midst of starting to analyze what species have shifted over time over the last 50 to 100 years. And we - what this will do is it'll give us a lot of background and hopefully be able to sort of then make predictions about what might happen as human-induced global climate-change scenarios played out.

So, it is - the CBC is just a wonderful tool for looking into all sorts of things with bird distribution and also trend data. Audubon's published a couple of things over the last few years - "The State of the Birds," the Watchlist and "Common Birds in Decline," all of which would look at both the Christmas Bird Count data and with breeding bird survey data. So, it's wonderful people get out there; they actually get a connection with nature; they get to actually make a contribution that then comes back and then actually helps the birds themselves.

FLATOW: John Fitzpatrick?

Dr. FITZPATRICK: There is some evidence now beginning to accumulate from a bunch of studies both in the new world and the old world that withering distributions of birds are drifting northward through time. Exactly whether that's a consequence of global warming alone or a combination of that plus changes in human land use, that takes pretty detailed statistical analyses to sort out. But there's no question that spring is coming earlier; many birds are actually breeding a few days earlier than they used to. There are a few birds in the far northern Arctic that are undergoing some serious population declines now, that are suspected to be consequence of global warming. So, we're beginning to see some signal.

FLATOW: What is the status of that elusive ivory-billed woodpecker we heard so much about?

Dr. FITZPATRICK: I wondered whether you'd ask about that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: You don't think I would forget.

Dr. FITZPATRICK: The ivory-bill, which was spotted in 2004 and 2005 in eastern Arkansas, that individual has eluded us since that point. We have a very large and coordinated search across the entire Southeast in - not just Arkansas, but Louisiana, Florida, Mississippi, South Carolina. Short version of the story is we've been looking from the very beginning for a breeding pair of birds, and we have not yet found one.

FLATOW: Would it be fair to tag it as allegedly seen or supposedly seen, but not really - maybe it wasn't seen?

Dr. FITZPATRICK: No question that people differ in their comfort with the evidence. I'm personally comfortable that there was an individual bird there, but others are still skeptical.


Dr. FITZPATRICK: Irrespective of that, we do know that we need a mommy and a daddy to get some recovery going. And that's what we've been looking for from the beginning.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. LEBARON: And actually, we, a couple of years ago in sort of to assist with the study, we actually started up a new count in Arkansas that actually is covering the area where we do hope that we will find them. And we hope - what we do is we're hoping that we'll get new ivory-billed data in the database because we actually do have some historical data, ivory-billed data, from the '30s.

FLATOW: John, you also have a recording of extinct birds like the Kauai Oo, right?

Dr. FITZPATRICK: That's right. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has the world's largest collection of natural sound recordings, including three quarters of the world's bird species. And that I'm happy, or sorry, to say, depending on your attitude, does include a number of recordings of birds that are known to be extinct or suspected. Kauai Oo is one of the most haunting of all of those sounds.

FLATOW: We actually have some sounds of it. So, let's take a listen.

(Soundbite of Kauai Oo birdcall)

FLATOW: Wow, that is one of the most unusual sounds.

Dr. FITZPATRICK: Very unusual. Sort of jazz-like, slightly haunting sound. That bird, the important thing to know about - that's a male. And this bird used to duet. So, that bird is singing part of the song and the other half would have been filled in by the female. That was actually the last Kauai Oo, a male individual that lived several years in the Alakai Swamp. The bird was attracted down to the recordist by a playback of this sound. And here's this bird who thought he might be hearing a female. You're actually hearing the very last individual Oo ever to exist. It went extinct in 1988.


Dr. FITZPATRICK: It really makes you - once you hear it with that in mind, it gives you a new sense of depth and meaning when you hear bird sounds.

FLATOW: Yeah, to hear something that no longer exists.


FLATOW: Wow. Let's go to the phones. Let's go to Dennis in Three Rivers, Michigan. Hi, Dennis.

DENNIS (Caller): Hi. How are we doing today?

FLATOW: Hi. How are you?

DENNIS: Good. I appreciate you taking the call. I spotted a bird here about two weeks ago that I've been totally unable to identify. It was sitting in a mowed cornfield, pecking at the corn. It was 100 percent jet black. When it stood up, it had the side silhouette of a pheasant. But it was about half or two-thirds the size of a full-grown ringneck. When it ran a short distance, it had the same gait as a pheasant also. And I haven't been able to find it in any book.

Dr. FITZPATRICK: And it was basically either dark chocolate brown or jet black all over?

DENNIS: Correct.

Mr. LEBARON: Did it have a long tail like a pheasant?

DENNIS: Yes, it did.

Dr. FITZPATRICK: I mean, my first guess was...

DENNIS: …to a pheasant tail but very, very similar.

Mr. LEBARON: Yeah, I would wonder if it might be a melanistic or dark - unusually darkly colored pheasant.

Dr. FITZPATRICK: Yeah, I have two guesses. Geoff, I agree - one of them is just that you got a super dark pheasant.

FLATOW: It looks a pheasant, quacks like a pheasant…

Dr. FITZPATRICK: But the other possibility is - the other possibility that exists, especially where you are, is rough-legged hawk, which comes down from the far North in the winter time. And they come in two color phases and one of them, actually a fairly common colored phase is literally, all chocolate brown to nearly coal black. So - and they're often on the ground. That's because they feed on mice. So, it's possible you had a rough-legged hawk down there on the ground.

DENNIS: I don't know if this has any bearing on it, but the bird squatted down like it was going to hide from me and it was sitting in a wide open white field and a black bird. And it just didn't act like it'd ever been in that environment.

Dr. FITZPATRICK: Never saw it fly, huh?

DENNIS: No, it ran away and it didn't act real intimidated, but...

Dr. FITZPATRICK: Yeah, if it ran away, it's almost certainly a melanistic pheasant.

Mr. LEBARON: Yeah, because a hawk would have taken off.

Dr. FITZPATRICK: Yeah, a hawk would have taken off. And virtually every species of bird has this rare - kind of like albino but in reverse - has a rare color abnormality in which all of the feathers are completely pigmented with melanin, making it look basically black. So, you probably got a black pheasant.

FLATOW: Sounds like a basis of a new TV series here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: We're talking about birds this hour on Talk of the Nation, Science Friday from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow. And we're talking about the Christmas - the bird count and all kinds of stuff, answering your questions. Let see if we can get another phone call or two. Ray from Lumberton, North Carolina. Hi, Ray.

RAY (Caller): Hello there.


RAY: Lumberton, North Carolina but watching your vid and you in Second Life. You're in Second Life.

FLATOW: You're in Second Life.

RAY: I'm in Second Life and we all fly in Second Life. And you're in Second Life, actually.

FLATOW: Did you get a free t-shirt?

RAY: I did not get a free t-shirt. I'm sort of a newbie in Second Life. It's very unusual experience. I'm surrounded by many birds. There's a Daffy Duck here and a pink pelican or a flamingo and a pelican. And there's a parrot on your mic.

FLATOW: There you go.

RAY: Here in Second Life.

FLATOW: I know. We've got that there for the occasion. So, what's your question?

RAY: Well, my question is what is the type of bird that is flying above us now? I can't...

FLATOW: In Second Life, you mean?

RAY: In Second Life.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: I couldn't tell you but I'll bet you there must be a birding society or sort - some bird watching organization in Second Life.

Mr. LEBARON: I'm sure -

RAY: My guess is, if there isn't there is going to be after this.

Mr. LEBARON: And I'm sure there are people who will be keeping lists of birds that they've seen in Second Life, too.

RAY: And there should be a museum of all birds that have ever existed and their origin, you know, at least visually. That would be interesting. There's a lot - a lot to - anyway, I wanted to give thank you to Geomeek(ph) for bringing me here today.

FLATOW: You're welcome, man. Happy holiday to you.

RAY: Happy holidays.

FLATOW: Second Life would be a great place to show pictures of birds and things. You can get them to fly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Yeah, yeah. It's - we as - as the avatars know, they congregated around Science Friday's - Science Friday Island in Second Life. And we have birds - people coming - a lot of bird costuming going on in Second Life. We have that little parrot on our little microphone there for birders today. What would you like to see? Anything that's - that is surprising you about the bird count this year?

Mr. LEBARON: You mean, so far for this year?


Mr. LEBARON: What - I just took a quick look. I mean, we've - at this point, we've only got 92 counts completed online because obviously, I mean, the counts are still underway and will be conducted through January 5th. And then people have until toward the end of February to finish their data entry. But it seems like this year, we're having a really good season for snowy owls. John was talking about the rough-legged hawks - that's an Arctic raptor - and the snowy owl is sort of the - one of the charismatic mega (unintelligible) critters of the Arctic areas. And they apparently had a very good breeding season last summer. And also then, later in the season, lemming populations - they tend to eat small mammals and things like lemmings - tended to - it apparently crashed a bit. And we've already had two or three counts this year that have more snowy owls than any count had last year. So, it could be a very interesting year with that.

Dr. FITZPATRICK: There's another pattern underway right now in the northeast with a very unusual and beautiful bird called a white-winged crossbill. And I don't know, Geoff, whether you're starting to see counts that are finding crossbills on them yet?

Mr. LEBARON: I actually had four of them fly over me on the North Hampton count on December 14th. So, yeah.

Dr. FITZPATRICK: It's really an amazing bird. This is one of the birds that's bill is literally - it's crossed like a pair of scissors that don't meet the end - uses that funny bill to open up pine cones and eat the seeds out from inside the little plates covering the pine seed.

FLATOW: Wow. Well, we have to take a break. We're going to come back and talk lots more about birding and bring on a terrific new pop-up book called "Birdscapes." And we'll listen to the birds and how well the sounds of the birds are captured in this terrific pop-up book. So, stay with us. We'll be right back after this short break. I'm Ira Flatow and this is Talk Of The Nation, Science Friday from NPR News.

(Soundbite of ad)

(Soundbite of All Things Considered preview)

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to Talk of the Nation, Science Friday. I'm Ira Flatow, we're talking about birds - every year at this time - a part of the Audubon Christmas Bird Count with my guests Geoff LeBaron, who is the Christmas Bird Count director for the National Audubon Society. John Fitzpatrick is the director of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York. And my next guest also comes from the Cornell lab. Dr. Miyoko Chu is the author of "Birdscapes," a pop-up celebration of bird songs in stereo sound. She's director of communications at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. And she joins us by phone today. Welcome to Science Friday.

Dr. MIYOKO CHU (Scientific Editor, Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Author, "Birdscapes"): Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: Now this is such a terrific - I'm going to open up the book because it - it just makes so many beautiful bird noises. And from different - if you can't get out to the bird count and go to all these different places, you can open the book.

(Soundbite of chirping)

FLATOW: And listen to the birds. This one is the Sonoran desert.

(Soundbite of various bird calls)

FLATOW: Wow. Wow. You just want to be transported there, Dr. Chu.

Dr. CHU: Yeah. So, as you open up this book, you can hear that in stereo sound. But also - we can't see it on the radio, but you see an intricate pop-up scene showing that landscape and the birds that are making those sounds.

FLATOW: Beautiful landscape. It's almost a foot high, you know, it just pops-up. It's the best pop-up book I've ever seen. And how were the sounds collected?

Dr. CHU: Each sound in this book was collected by a recordist who had to go out and track that bird down, sometimes with an incredible amount of patience to get that in a recording. And all the sounds were drawn from our Macaulay Library, the world's largest collection of natural sounds. We had a lot to draw from. But even so, some of the sounds were collected on recent expeditions to feel in gaps in that collection of birds that we hadn't recorded yet.

FLATOW: One of the few sounds you recorded for the book is the yellow-billed loon, which breeds up there in the Arctic. Let's hear that one now.

(Soundbite of yellow-billed loon call)

Dr. CHU: This is a beautiful sound that you can hear from miles as you walk across the tundra. And yet, the sounds are still a challenge to record. Garrett Vinn(ph), our recordist, was very excited when he located a pair on a recent expedition, got himself under a camouflage cloth and waited there for 16 hours as the pair went around the microphone without ever vocalizing. It was another full year before he had the chance to go back, this time recording remotely and letting it run. And on his way back to the airport, he listened to those tapes and, lo and behold, that beautiful sound was on there.

FLATOW: Let me turn the page in the pop-up book and go to our next location. You can hear the creak. Pacific seabird colony

(Soundbite of various bird calls)

Dr. CHU: These are great sounds of birds that have been at sea for most of the year and then come and cram themselves on to these crest-like rocks in the ocean to breed, some of them standing shoulder to shoulder. And they are loud and vociferous and social. And they like to talk to each other. They're courting and they're locating each other by their voices.

FLATOW: Let's turn the page. This is such a great book, I just want to let the book speak for itself. Turn the page, we're now at the Eastern deciduous forest.

(Soundbite of various bird calls and woodpeckers pecking)

FLATOW: Now, the pop up has those woodpeckers right at the top of the trees, popping up right out of the book.

Dr. CHU: Yeah, those nice knocking sounds. And the thing I love about that scene is that it includes the voices of birds that are wonderful songsters that aren't here now. They've gone to the tropics for the winter and we all look forward to that beautiful sound in the spring.

FLATOW: Mm hmm. Let's continue our tour. This time we're moving to the Arctic tundra.

(Soundbite of various bird calls)

FLATOW: What are we hearing in this one, Dr. Chu?

Dr. CHU: Hearing a long-tailed duck. We heard from a willow ptarmigan and a snowy owl and that call of the yellow-billed loon that we heard earlier.

FLATOW: That's snowy owl pops right up out of the middle. This is - surrounded by all this other wonderful pop-up material here.

Dr. CHU: Yeah, you know, when you think of the Arctic tundra being so flat, it was actually quite a challenge for the pop-up artists to create a popup out of something flat. But they did a great job with mountains and melting water and lakes to show this habitat.

FLATOW: Well, if everybody wants to see - hear the rest of the book, it's called "Birdscapes: A Pop-Up Celebration of Bird Songs in Stereo Sound. And Miyoko Chu with Cornell Lab of Ornithology is here. How do you decide what to leave out? You couldn't put all the sounds in there, could you?

Dr. CHU: Oh, would have been amazing if we could've but we picked seven landscapes and chose them to contrast, whether it was a desert or, you know, the Arctic or a swamp. And then we picked the voices of birds that we thought were characteristic of those places and that would provide a lot of interest for people listening in.

FLATOW: Well, thank you very much for taking time to be with us.

Dr. CHU: Thank you.

FLATOW: Dr. Miyoko Chu is the author of "Birdscapes: A Pop-up Celebration of Bird Songs in Stereo Sound." If you missed the holiday gift, you know, or if it's a little bit late, this is the book. I would recommend they get it. It'll please kids, adults, everybody. It's a beautiful pop-up book and the sounds in it are priceless. Let's check back to Brooklyn. When we last left Michelle Dreger she was taking her tour. She's giving her tour of Prospect Park and seeing what there is to see in birding. Let's see what she finally - finally the count that she came up with.

Ms. DREGER: So, what do we have?

Unidentified Woman #1: One Kingfisher. At the vale, I saw four blue jays and there were two cardinals there. We saw the three swans. We saw a lot of white-throated sparrows. I don't have a number on them, except the ones that we just saw up on the hill. We saw six mallards. I counted one gull - you know there's many more than one. Forty-five Canadian geese, 12 coots, 14 robins, five cardinals, two house sparrows, 11 morning doves, three gold finches, two downy woodpecker females, one white-breasted nuthatch, one chickadee, one rusty blackbird, a male in winter plumage, two red-winged blackbirds, one junco, which is probably not accurate, one tifted - tufted, rather, titmouse, one kestrel, one Roufus-sided towhee - those were the cardinals - two red-tailed hawks, one was a juvenile, and one song sparrow. And then four white-throats that we saw on the hill and one blue jay - one more blue jay.

Ms. DREGER: And that's how you count birds.

FLATOW: Now the only thing missing was a partridge in a pear tree. On that one, Geoff and John?

Mr. LEBARON: That's a really nice count. It's a good illustration how you don't have to be out in some beautiful, pristine remote spot in the country. You can get a really remarkable bird list from a really good urban park, in a backyard or in the middle of a city.

Dr. FITZPATRICK: And it also really shows that you - I mean, something like the Christmas Count or the Great Backyard Bird Count is a really great way for anybody who wants to to get involved because you don't actually have to know exactly every bird, even most of the birds, in order to spot things and enjoy things and enjoy being out there. And especially with the Christmas Count, anybody that's a beginner will be paired with, you know, people who are knowledgeable, as the guide was there. So, it's just a wonderful way of getting going.

FLATOW: Well, how do people get on the list or become a part of this for next year?

Dr. FITZPATRICK: For the Christmas Count there's a - we - on the Christmas Bird Count Web site is And there's a link on there to get involved and that actually - there's a circle search tool there where you can actually look at the dates that have been posted for counts in - state by state or province by province. And I wanted to mention that we actually have counts all the way, as you said, from the high Arctic. But for the first time, this year I think we're going to have a count submitted from the actual mainland of Antarctic done at Cape Croker. So, we're actually extending our coverage even further south and Audubon's really thrilled about getting more and more coverage in Latin America and further south there.

FLATOW: There are a lot of birds down there.

Dr. FITZPATRICK: There are.

FLATOW: Yeah. Let's go to Dolores in Adrian, Missouri. Hi, Dolores.

DOLORES (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

FLATOW: Hi there. You're welcome.

DOLORES: We have a mystery bird. We live in south - well, central Missouri, right in the middle of the Midwest. We have lots of hawks, but we have a falcon we think. It's got the feathered legs - this is a bird that's been here for about a year. There's only one of them and it's white with black spots. The closest thing we've been able to find a picture of is the gyrfalcon. But that's an arctic bird. And we only had one of them…

Dr. FITZPATRICK: Have you seen the bird all year round?

DOLORES: It hasn't changed in a year.

Mr. LEBARON: And you have it year-round?

DOLORES: We have it year-round, yes.

Mr. LEBARON: Yeah, then it wouldn't be...

DOLORES: It's all by itself.

Dr. FITZPATRICK: And it's fairly large?

DOLORES: It's a - yes, it's a big bird. We have lots of hawk.

Dr. FITZPATRICK: My guess, Geoff, would be...

DOLORES: It's a little bigger than our little hawks.

Dr. FITZPATRICK: That's the red-tailed hawk.

FLATOW: You think it's a red-tailed hawk?


DOLORES: No, we have - we have...

Dr. FITZPATRICK: I would guess red-tailed hawk. What do you think, Jeff?

DOLORES: Hundreds of red-tailed hawks but it's bigger than that and it's white and it's got furry legs.

Mr. LEBARON: It's - there're - sometimes there are - I mean, as we were talking about the probable dark, you know, unusually dark pheasant, one of the things that happens fairly - well, I mean, it's rare, but it does happen with some frequency - is you get albanistic or mostly white red-tailed hawks. And white birds tend to look a lot bigger. And I want - especially since it stays around, I would wonder if it might be something like that.

Dr. FITZPATRICK: Yeah, my guess is red-tailed hawk and also, one thing to know about hawks in general is that the females, surprisingly, are substantially bigger than males. So, that's true basically all across the hawks and owls of the world and so you might have - and, by the way, out in the - on the edge of the woods or over corn fields and things, red-tailed hawks really do basically look white when they're sitting.

FLATOW: All right. Let's go to Chuck in Meadowlands, Minnesota. Hi, Chuck.

CHUCK (Caller): Hi. How are you doing? Anyway, I just - I'm sitting up here in the middle of the Sax Zim bog and you know, like three or four years ago, we had a huge eruption of owls and just tons of great grays. And unfortunately, you know, hundreds were actually killed by, you know, running into vehicles and stuff. And then we had a couple of absolutely barren years, but this year, they're showing back up again. And so, there have been several sightings and of course, as you've had stated earlier, lots of snowy owls and also, we've got some Northern hawk owls down here.


CHUCK: And I just had a black-backed three-toed woodpecker in the woods here in the front of the house just the other day. And I didn't take part in the bog bird count this year and - I was gone - but anyway, it looks like we could have another great year for owls.

FLATOW: Hang on there with that thought because I have to remind everybody that this is Science Friday from NPR News.

Dr. FITZPATRICK: Ira, you just heard - you just heard, as bird counts go, you just heard a series of very, very classy birds.

FLATOW: Well, you know, that brings up a question. I have a question from Second Life from Derf(ph) Alexander, who says, how do you count owls if they're - if they only come out at night?

Mr. LEBARON: Well, the birds that actually they're counting, most - a lot of the birds that they're counting up at the Sax Zim are actually out - you do see them during the daytime.

CHUCK: They're diurnal.

Mr. LEBARON: But yeah, they're diurnal. I also quickly wanted to say actually that the Sax Zim bog has the record high count for great gray owls in the entire database. So, that's a wonderful place.

CHUCK: That's great.

Dr. FITZPATRICK: Most of the other owls that we count actually are done by voice at night.


Dr. FITZPATRICK: On Christmas counts.

CHUCK: Yeah, we have a lot of...

FLATOW: What makes that bog so great for owls?

Mr. LEBARON: It's - well, for one thing, it's way up there and many of these birds - I think there's fairly good visibility. Unfortunately, I haven't been there by myself. But I believe it's a place where the birds and be relatively easily spotted when they're teed up. And Northern Minnesota is known - it's one of those places where people who are really interested in owls go up there in the winter and look for these wonderful northern owls.

FLATOW: Let me stay in Minnesota, in Oakdale, and ask Amy. Hi. Welcome to Science Friday.

AMY (Caller): Hi.

FLATOW: Hi there.

AMY: Yes, we are and...

FLATOW: I need you to turn your radio down. Amy, I need you to turn your radio down.

AMY: I'm sorry?

FLATOW: Need you to turn your radio down or whatever is noisy in the background.

AMY: Oh, OK. I'll step outside here, I'm sorry. We're in Minnesota and this morning we saw four bluebirds and we're concerned that they are still in the area and we're wondering if that's normal and/or what we can do - what we can feed them to help them out.

Mr. LEBARON: It sounds pretty unusual for you to have bluebirds up there in the winter, but it's...

Dr. FITZPATRICK: What town in Minnesota are you at?

AMY: We're in Oakdale - we're right in the metro area, Twin Cities area.


Dr. FITZPATRICK: Yeah, I actually grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota, and I agree with Geoff. It's a rare bird in the wintertime, but there are still - there're always a few. We even saw them back in the '50s and '60s, usually two to four. They live in very small groups, and most - almost entirely eating berries this time of year.


Dr. FITZPATRICK: So, if they're hanging around the Twin City metro area, they're probably feeding on ornamental hawthorn berries and rosebuds and things like that.

FLATOW: Thanks, Amy.

Mr. LEBARON: You can also put out mealworms for them, if they are actually hanging around in your yard.

FLATOW: Do you count, like, non-native species or birds that have escaped pet shops and things like that?

Mr. LEBARON: Well...

FLATOW: I know there are a whole bunch of parrots that live in Brooklyn.

Mr. LEBARON: We certainly do. On Christmas counts, we count everything. And actually, it's - well, in many ways, it's as important to keep track of the birds that are introduced and exotic species to see if they do become established as it is to track what's going on with the native species. And so, absolutely, we track the monk parakeets in Brooklyn. And you can go down to South Florida and see just about the range of parrots from all over the world down there, free flying in the wild. And we count a lot of them on Christmas counts, too.

FLATOW: And they come with the tourists?

Mr. LEBARON: They do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. FITZPATRICK: In fact, one of the things that the Christmas Count - the Audubon Christmas Count has done is it has given a spectacular track through the decades of how some of these species have started fairly small and local, and then, little by little, started to spread across the whole part of the U.S. So, the Christmas Count is one of the most important, long-term, scientifically valuable databases for tracking how distributions have changed through the years.

FLATOW: Well, gentlemen, I wish you great luck and good fortune in this year's Christmas Count.

Mr. LEBARON: Thank you very much.

FLATOW: And...

Dr. FITZPATRICK: Thank you. I'll be tromping the snows of Ithaca on January 1st.

Mr. LEBARON: I'll be down in Rhode Island tomorrow.

FLATOW: Well, good luck to you, and we'll all meet back here again next year.

Mr. LEBARON: It's a date.

Dr. FITZPATRICK: Deal, look forward to it.

FLATOW: Have a great weekend, and happy New Year.

Mr. LEBARON: You, too.

Dr. FITZPATRICK: Thank you.

FLATOW: Geoff LeBaron is the chairman of the Christmas Bird Count - he's the director for the National Audubon Society. John Fitzpatrick is the director of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York. And I also want to thank Miyoko Chu, who is the author of "Birdscapes: A Pop-Up Celebration of Bird Songs in Stereo Sound."

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: That's about all the time we have for Science Friday this week. If you're going out there, counting the birds, dress warmly. Greg Smith composed our theme music, and we had help today from NPR librarian Kee Malesky. Surf over to our Web site at, and we've got all kinds of bird-related materials there. Also, we've got the Science Friday pic of the week, which is also bird-related. Boy, everything is coming up feathers this week. Also, if you'd like to email us or podcasting, blogging, Twittering - you name it, we'll try it - if you have any - maybe you have some birds you saw that you'd like to send us for - your video, you took some pictures of birds this weekend, we'd like to feature them and your videos, if you have some to send to us. Have a great weekend. Happy New Year. I'm Ira Flatow in New York.

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