Birds to Listen and Look for in Your Backyard Birding experts talk about the signs of spring in the avian world, from migrations, to nesting, to birdsong. They'll also weigh in on some threatened birds that enthusiasts should make a special effort to see this spring.
NPR logo

Birds to Listen and Look for in Your Backyard

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Birds to Listen and Look for in Your Backyard

Birds to Listen and Look for in Your Backyard

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


Up next, time for a spring field trip. Boy, you're getting spring fever? I surely am. Do you know that between now and June, 10 to 30 million birds will pass over the U.S.-Canadian border every night. I don't think they're stopping for a check at the border, like what we have to do. And at every night, 10 to 30 billion birds from Cerulean Warblers to Sandhill Cranes. Spring bird migration is under way in most of the country as birds that winter here in the U.S. head north and birds that winter in Mexico and other points south make their way back here.

In this hour, we're going to help you plan your spring birding excursions. Now, we usually have a winter birding tour around the winter spring - the winter bird count. Well, we thought, you know, it's the end of the season, you know. Why don't we have people figure out or we'll help you figure out where to go to see the birds when they start migrating?

So we're going to try to do that today. And whether you're a novice or a seasoned twitcher, get out a pencil, piece of paper, maybe a laptop. We've got some insider tips for you and where to go to add to your life list. What's that? You can't get away, you say.

Well, we've got some nature for the homebound or the desk-bound, the Internet-bound, if you will. That's coming up later. We'll tell you how to follow the birds, where the birds are on the Internet.

But first, let me introduce my first guests. Jeffrey V. Wells is the author of the "Birder's Conservation Handbook." He's also a senior scientist at the Boreal Songbird Initiative. He joins us today from Maine.

Thanks for talking with us today, Jeffrey.

Mr. JEFFREY WELLS (Senior Scientist, Boreal Songbird Initiative; Author, "Birder's Conservation Handbook") Thanks, Ira.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Glenn Phillips is the executive director of the New York City Audubon. He joins us here in our NPR New York studios.


Mr. GLENN PHILLIPS (Executive Director, New York City Audubon): Pleasure to be here.

FLATOW: Jeff Wells, let's talk about some of the birds on the cover of your book. We had a clip of a Rusty Blackbird. I think we're going to go see if we can hear that one now.

(Soundbite of Rusty Blackbird chirping)

FLATOW: Tell us about that Rusty.

(Soundbite of Rusty Blackbird chirping)

FLATOW: Where can we see that? Where is it migrating?

Mr. WELLS: The Rusty Blackbird is a bird that actually winters in the southeastern U.S. for the most part. The bulk of the population winters there. And then right now, it's in the midst of a migration up north into - mostly into the Canadian boreal region where 90-plus percent of the entire population breeds.

FLATOW: And how is the population doing?

Mr. WELLS: Unfortunately, the Rusty Blackbird is one of the fastest declining birds in North America. It's one that sort of flew under the radar screen - pardon the pun.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WELLS: But it's, you know, many people are familiar with more common blackbirds like grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds, you know, and they're numbered in the tens of millions. And perhaps, it was because these other birds are so common that the decline in the Rusty Blackbird went largely unnoticed in the - until the last decade. It's actually declined by, perhaps, as much as 99 percent over the last 40 years, so a massive, massive decline.

FLATOW: How would we spot one? What would have looked different? What would be different about it than the regular blackbird?

Mr. WELLS: Well, unlike the Red-winged Blackbird, it doesn't have any red on the wings. It's actually just all black. And unlike the grackle, which is all black, it has a much shorter tail. But one of the best ways to tell it is it actually sounds kind of like a rusty hinge as you could hear. And often, you can actually pick out the sound of a Rusty Blackbird amidst a larger flock of other blackbirds.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. WELLS: They're often seen in wooded areas where they like to forage -picking through leaf litter and that sort of thing for invertebrates and sometimes along the edges of cornfields and things like that as well.

FLATOW: And the best parts of the country to see them would be where?

Mr. WELLS: Well, in the - the southeast U.S. is sort of the heart of their wintering range from sort of eastern Texas across through Louisiana to Georgia and northern Florida. And now, right now, they're passing through New England and the northern states across to, sort of, Michigan, Wisconsin area as they make their way north. So you could see them anywhere in there. As a matter fact, there's actually a project going on right now to try to monitor where the birds are and how many there are through a Web site called

FLATOW: Yeah, we'll get to that a little bit later and get into details on it. Glenn Philips, how can people get started in birding? What are the some of the essentials you need?

Mr. PHILLIPS: Well, you really need either eyes or ears.

FLATOW: Huh-huh.

Mr. PHILLIPS: And beyond that, it's kind up to you…

FLATOW: Binoculars would help?

Mr. PHILLIPS: Binoculars are great, if you're looking at smaller birds and you want to be able to notice the small details, but they're not necessary. You can do - particularly this type of year when birds are really moving, when they land here in New York or anywhere, they're hungry and they are really easy to see.

FLATOW: What is this life list I keep hearing people talking about?

Mr. PHILLIPS: Well, you know, a life list is exactly that. It's just a list of all birds that you've seen in your life, and many birders keep life lists, and not all do. I don't actually keep a list but, you know, I always know when it's the first time I've ever seen that bird.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: You do?


FLATOW: And so you're not writing down the time and the date and the place?

Mr. PHILLIPS: You know, I've never done that, but there are - sometimes I wish I had because then when you start doing that, you start to notice changes from year to year.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. PHILLIPS: So, you know, if you've been doing the Christmas bird count every year and you always keep your own data, you'll know, you know, this year we saw Rusty Blackbirds and last year we didn't or…

FLATOW: What's interesting about birds - I have a bird feeder in my backyard -is you never what's going to show up there. And we were talking before that you live in an apartment in Manhattan and you have hummingbirds right in the city.

Mr. PHILLIPS: Yeah. You know, you really never know what you'll see. This year in New York City, we've had, you know, I've had hummingbirds on my roof terrace many times, but this year - right at this moment, there's a Western Tanager in Central Park. Who knows what it's doing there, but usually the range of this bird is on the Pacific coast. And today…

FLATOW: It heard about the real estate values going…

Mr. PHILLIPS: Maybe.

FLATOW: …going down a little.

We have to take a break. Our number 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK. If you'd like to talk about birding. Also, go to our Web site and there's a link there to Second Life. We have a group going on in SCIENCE FRIDAY island there. You can talk to other avatars and also ask us questions. 1-800-989-8255. Stay with us. We'll be right back and answer all your questions, give you hints about watching the birds this spring. Stay with us. We'll be right back.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

We're talking about the - seeing the migrating birds this hour with my guests: Jeffrey V. Wells, author of "Birder's Conservation Handbook: 100 North Americans Birds at Risk," also Glenn Phillips, executive director of New York City Audubon.

And Jeff, I know you took Flora Lichtman, our digital producer, on a great field trip to Jamaica Bay. Right outside JFK Airport, there are, like, swamps there, right?

Mr. WELLS: Yeah. It's a major wetland complex and it's a recognized important bird area, one of the 2,000 in the United States that - places that are critically important for birds as nesting habitat or feeding grounds or migratory stopover sites.

FLATOW: And Flora has that whole tour up on our Web site at if you want to watch what they saw out there in Jamaica Bay. So, there are other places all around the country like these places that you could go visit?

Mr. WELLS: Yeah. All over and - every city, every county. There are just really a huge number of places that are fantastic places to see birds, but are also critically important for the future of the species.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

We have a question from a Second Life. Mocca(ph) wants to know, why - I'll ask you, Jeffrey, why are the birds declining? You talked about those 90 percent declined at that bird's species. Are all birds declining like that? And why are those declining?

Mr. WELLS: Well, not all birds are declining. There are - a huge number, unfortunately, that are. When I was trying to decide on which 100 species to include in the book, I looked at all the different species of concern lists that are out there. And it turns out that over half of the birds in North America are listed in one or more of those lists. So, there's a lot birds that are not in good shape.

There are, unfortunately, a number of other birds that are showing really steep declines like the Rusty Blackbird. Sometimes, we don't know really what the exact root of those changes are, but there are some things we do know, like, you know, in many parts of the country, we've lost 50 percent of our wetlands over the last 100-plus years or, you know, that we've lost 99 percent of natural tallgrass prairie and so on. So, you know, I have some of those kinds of - that kind of information in the book about some of those sorts of threats. And there are, you know, some other ongoing threats that aren't just, sort of, historical as well.

FLATOW: Is global warming or climate change representing anything of a threat?

Mr. WELLS: Oh, absolutely, that's the number one threat to birds to, really, all, you know, life at this point. And I really, you know, try to highlight that whenever I talk about the major threats. That's the biggest long-term threat to all the birds. A place like Jamaica Bay, you know, will be under water in 50 or 100 years if we don't do something about the amount of carbon we're putting in the atmosphere. So, you know, it's the number one long-term threat, certainly.

FLATOW: Now, I know there's a national effort by the American Bird Conservancy asking people to turn off their lights from 9 - 8 to 9 p.m. tomorrow to help migrating birds. Why are lights such a problem? Besides the energy that we're going to save from doing that, why do the birds need the lights off?

Mr. WELLS: Well, Glenn might want to mention something about this, but in big cities, in particular large buildings, birds do get confused and get attracted to lighted areas, especially under foggy conditions when they're migrating and they could run into buildings and die. So, you know, that's certainly an issue that in major cities that people are working on. You know, in this case, I think the major idea is, you know, sort of to make a statement about global warming pollution and reducing energy. But, you know, there are these other problems with birds attracted to lighted tall buildings.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. PHILLIPS: Collisions with buildings are a pretty significant killer of birds and it's really, you know, mostly preventable. You know, lights at night are - if you think about it, birds have been flying from the tropics up to Canada, you know, long before there was a Canada, and for tens of thousands of years, there were no lights. It was…

FLATOW: They weren't crashing into trees because they could see them.

Mr. PHILLIPS: No. Exactly. And now there are lights that - if you look at a map of North America at night, you see huge patches of bright, bright light. And that has significant impact on birds. They depend on light visible cues for migration, and so it's - they're easily distracted by a tall bright building.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Jeff, you're saying in your book, you could list hundreds of more kinds of birds that are under - at risk but you don't do that. But you do say that house cats represent a major threat.

Mr. WELLS: Yeah. House cats kill tens of millions, maybe hundreds of millions of birds a year. You know, in many areas, there are, you know, a major sort of what I call an invasive introduced predator. I'm actually a cat lover and I have two cats that stay indoors. So, it's not that I have something against cats but they do kill a lot of birds, and you know, these attempts by people to establish, you know, these feral cat colonies in different places are, unfortunately, really bad for birds. You know, there's - even in my own experience, I've seen an entire, you know, tern colonies wiped out by one or two local cats in one or two nights. So, you know, they can have - a few cats can have a major impact, and there are, of course, tens of millions of cats out there.

FLATOW: Let's go to Rita(ph) in Kansas City.

Hi, Rita.

RITA (Caller): Hi.

FLATOW: Hi there.

RITA: I was calling because several years ago, I was bird-watching with my mom over - near Lawrence, Kansas, and we saw a bird neither of us recognized except by - I knew exactly where it was in the bird book. I said, oh, it's on the same page with the orioles. And so, we looked in there. There was the spotted oriole, and, oh yes, we were both sure that's what it was until we saw the map, and the map said they were only in Florida.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RITA: And now I'm starting to think that, in fact, maybe we really did see a spotted oriole after I've heard your guest today.

FLATOW: Well, let's find out.

Mr. PHILLIPS: You know, it's possible that birds - strange birds turn up in strange places all the time.

FLATOW: You were talking about Central Park, right?

Mr. PHILLIPS: Yes. You know Western Tanager today…

FLATOW: Where does it normally live?

Mr. WELLS: Normally, it's on - Western Tanager - its an obvious name. They are in the western United States. So, they're in California on up you'll see them. That's, you know, we had this winter out on Montauk, there was a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher from Texas. What's it doing - right now in Staten Island, there's a Western Grebe, another western species. This winter, we had a Scott's Oriole, which is from - normally found in - sort of Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, in Union Square Park, in the middle of one of the busiest neighborhoods in Manhattan.

So, birds turn up in strange places. I've often been asked: Is it a sign of global warming that we're seeing more of these birds in weird places? And I'm not sure. It could be. But it could also be because there are more people looking today than ever before. There are just so many birders out there looking at birds that I think we notice things that we didn't notice before.

FLATOW: I want to bring another guest to help us talk a little bit more about the center of the U.S., some of the spring activity in the central flyways specifically. That's a patch of land 50 miles wide in central Nebraska. It's a Brad Mellema. He is director of the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary in Gibbon, Nebraska.

Thanks for being with us, today.

Mr. BRAD MELLEMA (Director, Iain Nicolson Audubon Center, Rowe Sanctuary): My pleasure.

FLATOW: Tell us what kind of birds are you seeing? What's happening?

Mr. MELLEMA: Well, the central part of Nebraska is really coming alive with spring migration as we speak. And our marquee bird that comes through this area among many others is the Sandhill Crane. And the Sandhill Cranes are making their way north to begin their breeding habits in parts north of here. And what happens is we get over fully 80 percent of the full population of Sandhill Cranes that winter in places across Texas, New Mexico, even over to Arizona, even parts of the country of Mexico. And they all gather, if you visualize, an hourglass shape across North America into this small section of the Platte River.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MELLEMA: And they feed, and rest, and fatten up, and get ready for their flight north to - visualize that hourglass again - from Hudson Bay in Canada all the way across Canada, Alaska, the Yukon Delta, even across the Bering Strait into Siberia to nest and - couple of eggs.

FLATOW: We actually have an audio clip of what the Sandhill Crane sounds like, so let's hear that.

(Soundbite of Sandhill Crane chirping)

FLATOW: Wow. That's very distinct.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MELLEMA: Now, I want you to visualize that. Of course, it's the Sandhill Crane. And here in Nebraska on Rowe Sanctuary, we'll have a couple of roosts on the critical Platte River both upstream and downstream for our visitor center hosting anywhere from 20 to 40,000 birds simultaneously.

FLATOW: All those birds squawking like that at once.

Mr. MELLEMA: It's football-stadium loud when they all get excited. It really -the auditory experience of watching the Sandhill Cranes, in my mind, is 75 percent of the experience.

FLATOW: Wow. Okay. So let's say that some people are getting excited about seeing and hearing these birds, where should they go? What's a good perch, so to speak, for them?

Mr. MELLEMA: Sure. Well, a lot of people do come to Nebraska every spring, and the broader crane season, we like to say, is from mid-February through about mid-April with — right now, we're seeing what we consider to be peak numbers of birds in the region. And this is a great time to come to Nebraska, and we'll have good viewing up through about, oh, the first week of April. So, we've got another week or 10 days, where we can count on good numbers of birds being in the area. And so…

FLATOW: Is there a sanctuary, a park or some place they could go?

Mr. MELLEMA: Yeah, yeah. Well, Audubon has a sanctuary here on the Platte River and there are also public viewing decks that are provided between the cities of Kearney and Grand Island, Nebraska. The birds do fan out further than that, but the larger concentrations are kind of in that 60- to 80-mile stretch of the river.

FLATOW: What else might you see flying overhead?

Mr. MELLEMA: A lot of waterfowl.


Mr. MELLEMA: The snow geese and other — the white fronts in the Canadas came through and left for the Dakotas about a week ago or — it was interesting to see, we had as many as a half million geese on the stretch of the river mixed with the Sandhill Cranes. Now that was a loud thing to see. And we're starting to see other songbirds make their way through. And so there's a - the migration really is starting in earnest here in Nebraska right now.

FLATOW: So, what, you have about a six-week period where it's a good time to come see it?

Mr. MELLEMA: Yeah, with the Sandhill Cranes, absolutely.

FLATOW: Yeah. Wow. Thank you for thanking time to be with us, and good luck to you.

Mr. MELLEMA: My pleasure.

FLATOW: Brad Mellema, who is the director of Iain Nicholson Audubon Center at the Rowe Sanctuary in Gibbon, Nebraska.

We're talking about birds this hour on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow, here with my guests, talking about other kinds of birds. And what do you think of that sound? That was an amazing - there's an amazing sound -you've seen it.

Mr. PHILLIPS: They are magnificent birds. And I have yet to visit the Rowe Sanctuary, but I hear it's really a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Or, well, I've actually been told you should do it multiple times in your lifetime, but…

FLATOW: You're talking with…

Mr. WELLS: Definitely…

FLATOW: …with Glenn Phillips of — the executive director of New York Audubon, and Jeff Wells, author of "Birder's Conservation Handbook."

Yes, Jeff? You wanted to…

Mr. WELLS: I was going to say, you know, definitely one of the last great wildlife migration spectacles on Earth. You know, we've lost enough a lot of them, but that's one that's still going strong. And, you know, some of the waterfowls, some great success stories with increases…


Mr. WELLS: …there, so…


Let's go to Chris(ph) in Portland, Oregon. Hi, Chris.

CHRIS (Caller): Hi, there. Thanks for taking my call.


CHRIS: Quick comment. I live in Portland now, but I'm originally from Kansas and we used to love to go out to the Squaw Creek, a national wildlife refuge there in — around December or so, and see the geese migration. You'd see hundreds of thousands of geese spiraling down and landing in the - that alone is a huge spectacle. And we'd see the bald eagles that would follow the migration and pick off the cripples during hunting season. You could - you know, it would be common to see 25, 30 bald eagles in one tree. And…


CHRIS: …later on in the season we'd see the Sandhill Cranes, too. It's really spectacular. But my question was, I thought that we had heard recently about, I think, it was an ivory-billed woodpecker sighting. They thought it was extinct, and someone saw one. They thought in, I believe, it was Arkansas. I wonder if there is an update if they ever found one. What's the status on that one?

FLATOW: Let me ask - let me read just a quick station break.


Any - yeah, we - there was a lot of fuss made about that first sighting, but no one — has anybody backed it up with another one?

Mr. PHILLIPS: Well, you know, there are teams out - I know there's - I know someone who's going out this spring to look for the ivory-billed woodpecker. You know, I'm not sure whether I should keep my fingers crossed whether they'll see it or not. You know, it's - I have such mixed feelings because it would be magnificent to know that the birds are still there. But, also — then that means we'll probably lose them during my lifetime, and I'd rather it was somebody else's fault.

FLATOW: What do you mean? What do you mean, we'll lose them?

Mr. PHILLIPS: Well, it - there's really unlikely that there's enough of a population for, you know, if we're talking two, three, four, six birds…

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. PHILLIPS: …that — for there to be a viable population of ivory-billed woodpeckers to last, you know, into the next…

FLATOW: I see what you're saying.

Mr. PHILLIPS: …millennium.

FLATOW: You won't be around for that. Yeah, I don't blame you.

Jeff, do you have any comment on it?

Mr. WELLS: Well, yeah, I actually was at Cornell when we sort of - I led the first search teams for the first couple of months while I was at Cornell because I was writing this book, so I had the, well, it felt like I had the free time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WELLS: So, and you know, what better thing to do than try to find, you know, this thought-to-be-extinct bird. But, you know, it's - there are people that have continued to look and lots of sorts of, bits of, you know, sounds and things, but unfortunately, you know, none of it's really panned out to be 100 percent certain or, you know, on some - in many people's eyes…

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. WELLS: …not certain at all. So, you know, unfortunately, I think it's not good news. There's, you know, there hasn't been, despite a massive search effort with just millions and millions of dollars and thousands of people, they haven't been able to get, you know…

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. WELLS: …verifiable proof. And, you know, the thing that I like to always remember about ivory-billed woodpeckers, you know, a bird - the rusty blackbird is actually a bird that inhabits the same habitat that the ivory-billed woodpecker did or does, if you believe it's still there.

You know, so another bird that - it was, you know, indicative of that habitat and the changes there. And I just hope that in all the flurry of work that everybody is doing to try to, you know, see if there's any that still existing that we don't forget the lessons. You know, because there was a time in, you know, 1930s when we rediscovered ivory-billed woodpeckers - they had been thought to be extinct even then, and we discovered this population of six or eight pairs of them, and we absolutely knew they were there. And it was this last fragment of forest that still had things like red wolves that are now, you know, extinct except in captivity virtually and, you know, panthers that we just have, you know, 100 left in southern Florida and so on.

It had all those things and it had ivory-billed woodpeckers. But over — about a 10- or 12-year period, that entire forest was cut down to the last tree. And we, you know, there was one female left that would come out of this one Rhus tree, calling for a mate until that tree blew down. And that was the last one anybody absolutely knew, for certain, existed. And, you know, what was the major reason why we cut those trees down? To make packing cranes.

You know, so those are kind of lessons, you know, we need to think about today when we're cutting down forests for things like, you know, tissue paper and paper towels and, you know, and other products. And do we really need…


Mr. WELLS: …to be doing that, you know? So just…

FLATOW: Well — yeah.

Mr. WELLS: …just lessons there that we should think about.

FLATOW: We had a show many years ago about shipping palettes, and a third of all the wood in the world is locked up in these shipping palettes, you know, that they ship things on back and forth. Some of the greatest hardwoods in the world are locked up in shipping palettes.

We're going to take a break. We'll come back and talk lots more about birds with my guest, Jeff Wells, and also — he's the author of the book, "Birder's Conservation Handbook: 100 North American Birds at Risk." And also, we'll come back and take your questions, 1-800-989-8255. And Glenn Phillips is here, executive director of the New York City Audubon.

So stay with us. We'll be right back after this short break.

(Soundbite of music)

I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

We're talking this hour about birding, bird-watching, and where you can watch and see the migrating birds this spring with my guests. Jeff Wells, author of the "Birder's Conservation Handbook." He's also senior scientist at the Boreal Songbird Initiative. Glenn Phillips, executive director of New York City Audubon.

And what about you folks at home? If some of you are there in your chairs, very happy to stay there, don't want to get your shoes dirty, wandering around looking for birds, we have the perfect couch potato's place for you to visit. It's called It's a great resource for the armchair naturalists, and you outdoor types could find interesting stuff there, too.

So, for example, we talked about the life list. You can keep your own life list there. You can check into a kind of wildlife you might expect in your area. You just enter in the zip code there and see what kind of birds might be showing up.

Joining me now more to talk about it is Tom McGuire. He's editor and publisher of He's on the phone from Washington, D.C.


Mr. TOM McGUIRE (Editor; Publisher, Well, thanks, Ira. It's a pleasure to be here. It really is.

FLATOW: Thank you. So, you can go there, as I say, you can type in your zip code and find out what birds are migrating?

Mr. McGUIRE: Yeah. You know, I think one of things that really sets us apart and the thing that I really enjoy talking to people about with eNature is the fact that we're about helping people who don't know what the birds are around them and figure out what they're seeing, because I think one of the most daunting things for some people when they get interested in birds is just what the heck have I seen? And a lot of the questions that we receive from folks are about that exactly, you know, question as well. That's the question they want to pose to us.

So, we set the site up to really make it easy for people to answer that question, kind of on their own and really kind of tie it back, as you're saying, to things like zip code. It's a comprehensive database of all the birds and actually the plants and animals in the United States.


Mr. McGUIRE: So, you could do really cool things, like, if you see a bird and you know where you are, you know, because of the database, you can say, gosh, I saw a bird that was 10 inches long, sitting in a pine tree in New Jersey and, what was it? And we can tell you what the suspects were. And you can look at the picture and you can figure out what bird you saw.

FLATOW: How did you get involved in it?

Mr. McGUIRE: Good question.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. McGUIRE: I'm a reformed capitalist, I guess, you'd say, but years ago, I went to work for the World Wildlife Fund. And then, over years of kind of working around conservation, and particularly on conservation education, realized that there's a real need for people to sort of understand nature at a fundamental level, I guess, you'd say. And it kind of goes back to what we've talking about earlier in terms of conservation. And I think we believe that you have to appreciate nature before you can care about it.

And that's what eNature is about. It's about helping people who are sitting on their desks or at their desks or in their chairs or whatever and they hear a bird and they want to know more. It's - you know, we're hoping that something will actually come and motivate people to learn a little bit, and then actually go outside and experience it themselves.

FLATOW: And you have good — some really good freebies on your site for people who are now into the Web 2.0 generation or a cell phone generation.

Mr. McGUIRE: Oh, yeah.

FLATOW: You can - you have some great ringtones that are free to download.

Mr. McGUIRE: Yeah. And we're hoping to add a lot more of those. But, you know, when I talk to people who — at zoos or at the Audubon Society, and my peers in other places who trying to reach out to folks to help build that connection to nature, I mean, we're all kind of worried. I mean, kids can tell you dozens of Pokemon characters, and they can't tell you a single bird in the backyard.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. McGUIRE: So, we got to figure out a way to talk to them in ways that they are receptive to and, you know…


Mr. McGUIRE: …sitting down with a dusty old book isn't going to work.

FLATOW: So, you got almost 500 ringtones in birds are going to have. And I guess, we could assign each one to the person who's calling us and…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. McGUIRE: Exactly.

FLATOW: …according to the personality of those people.

Mr. McGUIRE: You can have, you know, the Swainson's hawk, or you can have the red-winged blackbird, depending on who that person is.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. What would you like to do on the site and a feature that you haven't done yet?

Mr. McGUIRE: Oh, we certainly want to add video because that's really important because, again, you know, if we're just sort of a static Web site where it's sort of go-and-find-out-what-bird-you-saw, it's not near as interesting if we can say, gosh, here is what a red-winged blackbird looks like in a picture, but gosh, here's a video as well. Here is what it looks like when it's flying. Here is the call.

If you go to the site right now - and I think, actually, you might have been using some of the bird calls - we've got on the site right now the audio for almost every bird. So, some of your guests were saying earlier, one of the best ways to identify a bird is to listen to it. Again, we can help you do that, I mean…

FLATOW: So, you don't have to go out and purchase a CD or something with all the bird calls on them?

Mr. McGUIRE: It's all right there. And then if you put it on your cell phone, you got a ringtone as well.

FLATOW: Oh, yes. Will you stay with us while take some calls?

Mr. McGUIRE: Absolutely. I'd love to.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to Steve(ph) in Richland, Michigan. Hi, Steve.

STEVE (Caller): Hello, Ira. I love your show. I'm glad you're doing more bird stuff. You need at least once a quarter to do a bird show.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Thanks.

STEVE: I want to point out that we, with Michigan Audubon Society, have an extensive sanctuary program. And if you have the space-station view of the Great Lakes, you know, that our birds follow the lakeshores. And here in the springtime, they're going north. And a lot of them on each side of the state of Michigan end up passing through Whitefish Point and the Whitefish Point Bird Observatory.


STEVE: And, boy, if you want to run up your east of the Mississippi Raptor total, I've seen 16, 17, 18 different kinds of raptors alone passing through Whitefish Point between the end of April and early — and into May.

FLATOW: All Right. So…

STEVE: It's a spectacular location.

FLATOW: We'll put in a vote for that site to visit.

STEVE: That's real typical. I mean, there are lots of sort of choke points, I guess you'd call them, along the migratory paths that birds take where people have sort of historically have gathered to do exactly that to sort of learn about birds and move from being sort of an aficionado, perhaps, to being a twitcher, you'd like to call them earlier.

FLATOW: That's what they are, twitchers.

STEVE: Yeah.

FLATOW: Okay. Thanks, Steve, for calling.

STEVE: My pleasure.

FLATOW: Take care.

1-800-989-8255. Demi(ph) in Prairie Village, Kansas. Hi, Demi.

DEMI (Caller): Hi.

FLATOW: Hi, there.

DEMI: Hi, Ira. Thanks for taking my call.

FLATOW: You're welcome.

DEMI: I was - wanted to bring up a point. As I drive across I-70 from Kansas to Colorado, you see wonderful sunflowers and now, you see whole crops of wind farms. And I'm wondering if an environmental impact study needs to be — is required before they put in these wind farms so that migrating birds don't fly into them, because I've read some pretty horrible stories about that.

FLATOW: Good question.

Mr. PHILLIPS: There is absolutely a requirement to do some studies before they put wind farms in. And one of the things that happens is that, for most - in most points, the farms are actually not as bad for birds as you think. There is a risk. If they're well-sited and well-designed, that in fact, wind farms and birds can be compatible.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. PHILLIPS: But there are certainly some bad examples where, early on — I grew up outside of a wind farm that's notorious for killing raptors, and…

FLATOW: That was years ago.

Mr. PHILLIPS: They don't…

FLATOW: They're not windmills like those days?

Mr. PHILLIPS: Well, there are. And there are many…

FLATOW: They're still around...

Mr. PHILLIPS: Yeah, that site in the Altamont in California that was sort of the case study for bad planning in wind farms.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. PHILLIPS: It was great wind, but it also happened to be, like, the wintering grounds for something like 70 percent of the raptors in that part of California.

FLATOW: So the siting. Yeah.

Mr. PHILLIPS: You have to put them in places that are appropriate, not in places where birds are gathering.

FLATOW: Here's an interesting question from "Second Life." C.V. Axel(ph) writes from Davenport, Iowa. I have an eight-pound cat, how much weight can a red-tailed hawk carry away?

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Should you be afraid that your red-tailed hawk is going to eat your cat, or take it away? Or is that a legitimate concern?

Mr. PHILLIPS: You know, the cat should be indoors anyway, so it would be safe from red tails. And certainly, you know, red tails are doing very well. We talk about some birds are declining, some birds are doing well. We have - in Manhattan, there are eight pairs of red-tailed hawks nesting alone this year, and their numbers are up across the region. So, you know…


Mr. PHILLIPS: I don't think many cats are at risk from red tails, but…

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. PHILLIPS: …but it's possible.

Mr. WELLS: Ira, I wondered if I could add…


Mr. WELLS: …something about the wind farm question because it's kind of an important one, I think, for bird people. The one thing I agree completely with what Glenn is saying that, you know, more often - most of the time, you know, wind farms are not a major problem for birds. I mean, that all of the studies that have been done so far on modern wind farms have found very few examples of major incidences of mortality.

But one thing that I think people overlook is where their energy comes from now and the impacts right now, you know, in - where you guys are, in New York City, your energy is probably coming from coal. It was mined in Appalachia, in the heart of the range. If a bird has declined by more than 80 percent, the Cerulean Warbler - and we're talking about hundreds and hundreds of thousands of acres are going to be lost from mountaintop removal mining there, you know, and as well as energy and, you know, it's affecting gas and oil wells in the range of sage-grouse and prairie chickens, you know, all the birds that are rapidly declining.

And, you know, the Alberta tar sand is the largest - second largest oil deposit in the world in northern Alberta, part of the range of - where rusty blackbirds are trying to breed, you know, an area the size of Florida that's going to be strip mined and crisscrossed for oil and gas. So, people need to balance out where those things are. Just because you don't see them in your backyard doesn't mean we should forget the kinds of impacts that, you know, these other kinds of energy extraction industries are having.

Mr. McGUIRE: Sometimes, the carbon footprint can step right on the birds, too.


Mr. WELLS: Exactly.

FLATOW: Let's - me ask you this question, Jeff. If we're out — and we've covered the East Coast, the Midwest, let's go to California and the other states in the coast there. Where are good places? What are good birds to look for out there?

Mr. WELLS: Well, the West Coast is full of incredible places for birds. You know, California is one of the favorite places for birders to visit because it's got so many good birds, you know…

FLATOW: Give us your favorites.

Mr. WELLS: San Francisco Bay is incredible. It holds massive numbers of shorebirds and waterfowl. Monterey Bay, you know, the seabirds are just astounding there.

FLATOW: Got a special one? Special city that you like?

Mr. WELLS: Well, the marbled murrelet is a interesting bird, that is one that I profile in my book among some other seabirds that occur there. But it's a pretty interesting bird because, you know, most seabirds nests on islands or cliffs, and this bird actually goes up and flies into old growth trees and lays its single egg way up in the - hundreds of feet up into - in a Redwood tree or some other sort of tree along the Pacific Coast, and raises this little young bird up in one of these trees, bringing food to it from the ocean. And, you know, you can imagine the first flight of this chick. He has to make it, sometimes, you know, 10, 20 miles inland. He's going to make it all the way to the ocean in one shot.

So, just an incredible life history, and that's a bird, unfortunately, that was really decimated by the logging of the redwoods in Northern California and the other kinds of old-growth forests along the Pacific Coast.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to the phones to Kathy(ph) in Finger Lake. Hi, Kathy.

KATHY (Caller): Hi. Ira, I really enjoy your show. And this is great. I wish my husband could hear it. We live in Upstate New York in the Finger Lakes near Canandaigua, and we were headed over to Seneca Lake and saw not a bird, but a flock, hundreds of these white geese. I just wondered if your guests knew if - would - could they be Canadian geese? White snow geese? Is there…

Mr. WELLS: They're probably snow geese. I've spent many years in that area and saw flocks. I went and saw about a half-a-million snow geese on Keuka Lake, one - about this time of year, many years ago.

KATHY: Okay. Okay. Yeah. We have - we're out in the country in a little town and we have - we've never seen so many birds. My husband is from New Jersey, and I'm from the city. And this is - we don't even know what they all are, but I'm inspired to go buy more books and figure out what is out in our backyard, because it's not your standard - we have tons of standard birds, but we see different types of woodpeckers and hawks, and it's fascinating. So, thank you. Thanks for having me on the show.

FLATOW: Kathy, if you miss - your husband can always get the podcast. It will be ready by the end of the day, so…

KATHY: I know. I told him. He's down in business in Jersey and I said you've got to go in and download Ira's show today. I'll call him and tell him because he loves birds. He just sits out on our back porch and we listen to them, and watch them, and photograph them and everything else.

FLATOW: All right. Kathy, thanks for calling. Have a good weekend.

KATHY: Thank you. You too. Bye-bye.


We're talking about birding this hour on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

Mr. McGUIRE: I think, Ira, I just…


Mr. McGUIRE: The things that makes us - this is Tom again - the thing that makes this time of the year so great is that you've got the residential - the birds that live around you are arriving as well as the ones cycling through, and most of the trees haven't started to bloom yet. So, everything is out there to see. It's a great time to go out and look for birds.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Well, I want to bring up my favorite topic - we have a couple of minutes left - my kind of bird that I cannot get to my backyard, which is a hummingbird.

Have a sound — we have a bit of sound of hummingbirds. And I…

(Soundbite of hummingbird chirping)

FLATOW: That's why they call them hummingbirds, I guess.

(Soundbite of hummingbird chirping)

FLATOW: Thanks, Charles.

How do I get hummingbirds to my back yard, Jeff? I mean, what can I - I'll ask anybody. Tom, if you want to jump in or…

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: …land or anything.

Mr. McGUIRE: I can absolutely jump in on this. I don't want to step on everyone else but, yeah, we have lots of resources on the site that you tell how to attract hummingbirds, but also because we set this thing up so that it's so localized. We actually have it set up to help you figure out what plants to plant in your yard to attract birds and other wildlife as well.

I think it's one of - the other important things that people tend to forget when they're talking about, you know, birding and the impact of humans on birds, you know, native birds want to eat the plants that, you know, are native to that particular region. So, actually, one of the best things you can do if you want to attract birds, hummingbirds or whatever birds to your yard, are to, you know, plant the plants that really are supposed to be there, and don't bring in the exotics.

Mr. PHILLIPS: You know, hummingbirds - this is Glenn from New York City Audubon here in…

FLATOW: And you have them in New York City?

Mr. PHILLIPS: I have it here in New York City.

FLATOW: I'm so jealous.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PHILLIPS: In the East Coast, we mostly have ruby-throated hummingbirds. It's the only species that breeds in the northeast, and it's the only one that's really reliably here.

FLATOW: They are the sound we've just heard.

Mr. PHILLIPS: Yeah. Their migration is timed or — well, I don't know if it's timed, but it coincides with the blooming of columbines. So, one way to…


Mr. PHILLIPS: …attract them to your garden is to plant columbines. There - and you'll also know if the columbines are in bloom that, likely, you're in the spring...

FLATOW: I have some - we have trumpet vines growing now. I'm thinking that would help but…

Mr. PHILLIPS: You should - that should work in the fall.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. PHILLIPS: In the city, well, I've had them in my, you know, on my roof terrace in New York City. They're here because it's migration. They don't nest in New York City, but they'll nest in - not too far away from here.

You know, in the West Coast, there are other species. In the mountain region, there are other species. And, you know, they all have their own kind of favorite local plants. And there are also a lot of exotic things that they'll feed on.

I would - I do encourage people to plant natives when they can. But I think it's just, you know, keeping lots of flowers in bloom, particularly in the spring and fall when they're moving and, you know, also - even, you know, people forget that hummingbirds also eat other things. They think of them as feeding on nectar, but, you know, I've watched hummingbirds picking out spiders from spider webs.

FLATOW: Really?

Mr. PHILLIPS: They will eat small insects also. It takes a lot of protein to keep a body going, and sugar doesn't provide that. And so, keeping a yard that's rich in wildlife — so, that it's not using too many pesticides, you know, just having lots of different stuff in your yard will always make it more accessible for birds.

FLATOW: Well, we've run out of time. I want to thank all of my guests this hour.

Jeff Wells, author of the "Birder's Conservation Handbook." Glenn Phillips, executive director of New York City Audubon, and Tom McGuire, editor and publisher of eNature.

Thank you all for being with us today.

Mr. McGUIRE: Thanks. Pleasure is ours.

FLATOW: We're going to leave you today with a little bit of bird sounds, our own bird sounds. Annette Heist, our senior producer, recorded this herself in the Pennsylvania Pocono Mountains. These are the migrating red-winged blackbirds.

(Soundbite of red-winged blackbirds)

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.