We Pause for a Brief Message from…The Crows

crow-cancer-survivors-2-6-17-7464Today may be Monday, but it was also a beautiful day, with ample sunshine at least in the morning and early afternoon hours, and we warmed up to 54 degrees, which is downright balmy. So I went for a walk this afternoon in search of…birds.

Unlike my most recent visits, there were no Cardinals or White-Throated Sparrows to be seen, although I heard one or two. The Black-Capped Chickadees were more vocal but hiding.

I checked the two usual places in Millennium Park before I set off for the Cancer Survivors Garden and then as I approached. I thought I saw four large black birds perched in a tree down at the southeast end. Could it be…?

crows-cancer-survivors-2-6-17-7427Yes, they were Crows. And there they sat, silent and still. I wondered if maybe one of them was the individual that had flown by on Thursday and since today was such a nice day, it gathered friends to hang out with to see if I was for real.

I put peanuts and some pretty-stale-by-now Birdz cookies at the base of the tree they were in. And the Crows just sat there in the tree, still, silent.

I went to a far bench where I could sit and watch them, and they remained stone-faced. After a minute or two I decided I should probably go back to work. It was only as I started walking away, they all followed me.

I didn’t mind being tricked out of more treats. I put peanuts and the rest of the stale cookies at the base of one of the trees where we used to hang out, and sat down and watched them party. Two Chickadees showed up and also got to work on some birdseed. The Crows started to call a little bit. It was like seeing old friends and picking up right where we left off.

All I can hope for is that this is not a singular occurrence and that we meet again on a regular basis. I realize I have to hold up my end too: it’s up to me to show up more often as well.

Spring is coming.

In case you’re wondering, we didn’t talk politics. In fact it occurred to me later that the Crows really don’t like crowds, and maybe the protests and marches kept them away, so it was only fitting they had me to themselves for our reunion.


Reflections on a Post-Groundhog Day

noca-millennium-2-2-17-7364This really has nothing to do with Groundhog Day except that, according to the official Groundhog, we are in for 6 more weeks of winter. I can tell you that as annoying as that prospect might be, it’s nothing compared to dreading the “what next?” incredulity of news coming from the nation’s capitol.

The Northern Cardinals have been hanging out at the northwest corner of Millennium Park by the entrance to the Boeing Gallery.


This is not going to be a political rant, indeed, I’m trying to escape our new reality for a few moments of sanity, as long as birds are still around to help. Sometimes I have to wait a while before the birds show up, but eventually they do. All these photos are from the last week or so, Millennium and Maggie Daley parks in downtown Chicago.


Both colorations of White-Throated Sparrow

I haven’t seen my Crow Friends downtown for what seems like months and probably is. At least too many weeks.Here we had been spending winters together,  but this winter they have all disappeared. I am all but lost because, especially when life gets too confusing, the crows are of invaluable comfort and perspicacity. I live in hope that they return in the spring. I think they will. Where they have gone for a retreat, I have absolutely no idea. But in what seemed like an omen, as the sight of a crow often does, Thursday as I sat quietly on bench at the Cancer Survivors Garden, one crow flew silently across the sky going north, and did not stop or acknowledge my calls, but still the sight of it gave me hope. I was so hopeful I almost forgot to take a quick picture for posterity.

The Cancer Survivors Garden which has now been absorbed by Maggie Daley Park is for the most part asleep for the winter, with no birds present. I suspect every last berry has been picked off of every last bush.

The usual suspects are still around elsewhere. White-Throated Sparrows usually call before I see them, but if I stop with some treats they come out fearlessly. It’s the City Sparrow-Country Sparrow phenomenon again, like the City Mouse and the Country Mouse. The White-Throated Sparrows in Chicago’s Loop parks have likely learned how to take advantage of human generosity from the House Sparrows that honed it down to a fine art.

The Black-Capped Chickadees are good at this too but they often move so quickly they’re hard to catch with the camera.

Dark-Eyed Juncos are still around too, not so many, perhaps, and on a dark background on a dark day, well, here you have it, but I was lucky to catch the one on the left with its tail feathers spread out, as you usually don’t see the white feathers except when they’re flying away from you.

And then there are those moments when we bond.


One of the White-Throated Sparrows was starting to sing last week. Could have been this guy.


For humans, the ice rink is a popular pastime these days.

And another popular pastime, below.

Unless something newsworthy occurs in the meantime, I’ll be back next with more from the Galapagos.


Spring, Summer, Fall – Which is it?

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Blue-Winged Teal

It seems we have been through all the seasons in the course of one week. But in spite of the weather, the days are getting longer and although my efforts to observe spring migration have been limited, I still have a post within me struggling to get written.

I went to McGinnis Slough on Saturday. It was overcast but warmer than the past couple days, and not yet the predicted 80 degrees for Sunday. Sunday birding was out of the question anyway as I was singing with the Unity Temple Choir. More about that below.

The surprise right off the parking lot was to see several Great Egrets fishing and a couple Great Blue Herons as well. I expect to see these birds this time of year, but to have so many on the viewer’s side of the slough was what surprised me, although I did not get close enough for great shots because I didn’t want to risk disturbing them anymore than I already was…

Passerines were few and far between.

There were distant American White Pelicans although a couple came in for a second or two.

Among American Coots, Ring-Necked Ducks, a couple Buffleheads and a Scaup or two there were several Northern Shovelers.

Above, a surprise visit from a Muskrat, and a Double-Crested Cormorant drying off.

Maybe my best captures were the Caspian Terns.

Caspian Tern McGinnis 4-23-2016-6863

Caspian Tern McGinnis 4-23-2016-6861At opposite ends of the slough, I ran into two other individual birders and we exchanged information. The second one suggested I go to the newest section of Orland Grasslands to look for Lapland and Smith’s Longspurs. I find it a bit funny that I exchanged names with neither of these people, but it’s probably all any of us can do to talk to each other with the distraction of looking for birds first and foremost in our minds.

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A section of Orland Grasslands

By the time I got to Orland there were no Longspurs that I could see, but I did have a couple Horned Larks. Next time I’ll go there first and maybe get luckier.

A well-camouflaged Killdeer was present also…

Killdeer Orland 4-23-2016-7096And more Caspian Terns.

Caspian Terns Orland 4-23-2016-7108As for Sunday’s choir performance, below is the poster that tells it all.

Beatitude Mass for the HomelessThis beautiful and moving experience will be part of me for a long time to come. And in a moment of reflection later, about the unifying experience while we were singing, I realized maybe I gained an insight into something the birds do all the time…

So I wrote a little poem about it:

 A choir takes flight.
Sopranos, altos, tenors, baritones, basses all come together
As one organism, on the wave of a vibration
One sound with many voices.
Imperceptibly, a slight hesitation explodes rapid-fire through the entirety,
The entrance dangling in the balance,
Just as imperceptibly, swept back into the fold of the music
Like a murmuration of starlings
Carried far above the trappings of gravity
Into the rafters

Crow Celebration

Crows LSE 9-23-14-6575

As I was going through the accumulated mail this weekend, I found the latest issue of the Chicago Audubon Compass and as I was reading down the list of presenters at the upcoming Birding America XI which will happen on March 19, 2016, I saw that Kevin McGowan from Cornell University is the keynote speaker!! I am so excited! Kevin McGowan studies CROWS, and I found I knew a lot of what he was talking about from his video presentation last year, “To Know The Crow: Insights and Stories From A Quarter-Century Of Crow Study” which is still available for viewing on the Cornell website.

Hot Dog Crows 2-18-15-4617

Kevin McGowan was all excited about following the peanut tradition, but I wonder if he knows the power of hot dogs. I bought some new hot dogs yesterday to start off the cold weather season. I may start spoiling my crow friends later this week. In the meantime here are a few crow pix that didn’t make it into previous posts.

Crow LSE Park 5-1-15-8879Crow 8-19-15-9335Cookie Crow 2-17-15-4418

I can hardly wait to continue my crow study which always goes better during the winter months when there are fewer distractions…

Crow Grant Park 078_1

Thoughts on Songs for Birds

Painted Lady

Painted Lady

(All the photographs in this post were taken at Lurie Garden, Millennium Park, Chicago on a couple afternoons last week…and have nothing to do with the content.)

It was a somewhat quiet weekend, with plenty of time to sleep and reflect. I had only one mission, and that was to drive into the city on Saturday morning to take my guitars in to Chicago Fretworks for repair. I have been thinking about doing this for years, only to somehow talk myself out of it with that inner voice that asked, “When are you going to find the time to play?” and knowing full well that after not having played for more years than I care to admit, it would be worse than riding a bicycle after a long absence, for the frustration of trying to build up calluses on my left fingertips alone.

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Clouded Sulphur

But a number of forces have converged to light the fire under me to start playing my guitars again. Perhaps the most significant force is a need to respond to all the insanity. It has been and will always be wonderful to play piano, but I miss the guitar for the intimacy of cradling an instrument on my lap, with the vibrations of the strings going right through me. This is how I will write songs again. Only this time, they will be songs for birds.

Common Green Darner

Common Green Darner

I trust the indoor crowd will bear with me while I regain enough facility to sound not too bad. I have fewer expectations of any prowess than I did when I went back to playing piano, so it shouldn’t be too humiliating. Then there lurks in the back of my mind the thought that eventually, weather permitting, I could play music for wild birds again. Even if it means coming downtown on a weekend, I would love to play music for my crows. And by that time have something else to sing for them besides “There is Nothing Like a Crow” to the Rodgers and Hammerstein tune for “There is Nothing Like a Dame.”

Twelve-Spotted Skimmer

Twelve-Spotted Skimmer

The forces that have converged? I am giving credit at this point only to the positive ones. Falling in love with David Wax Museum. Not wishing I was young and on the road again, just finding so much in their music to explore and connect with. The music is infectious, and David Wax’s lyrics are often priceless. Personal Anthems.

Hearing Mavis Staples interviewed twice on NPR: she talked about singing protest songs for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The sense that music had a purpose beyond music. I don’t necessarily aim to inspire anyone, but I feel the need to protest the insanity. To make noise. And this is the only true way I know how.

American Lady

American Lady

If there can be any silver lining in the disappointing fact that Operation Rubythroat’s excursion to Guatemala in November–which I was looking forward to–has been canceled due to lack of participation, I will have more time to play the guitars and the cost of rebuilding my Guild 12-string will be less painful!

Monarch on Swamp Milkweed

Monarch on Swamp Milkweed

Making music is good for an old body, too. All the pains and inconvenient stiffnesses that were making my life miserable, no doubt in a negative response to the insanity, seem to be floating outward, released, wafting in the air, or in the case of swimming, lost to the water in the pool… I can almost fly. If nothing else, my heart will soar. With the birds.

P.S. The pictures in this post are not related to the topic but I suspect they’re not totally unrelated either?

Wasps in the Rattlesnake Master

Wasps in the Rattlesnake Master

The Essence of True (Crow) Love

Cookie Crow 2-17-15-4415

Ah…Birdz Cookies!

Or you could just say Food is Love in just about any language. Like Music…

In the midst of this miserable cold, my crow friends and I are reunited in thought and purpose. Last week they sent me a request for Birdz Cookies, and so it was Birdz Cookies on Monday and Tuesday. On Monday, I put out lots of peanuts and broke up the cookie pieces on top of them, and the Crows went straight for the cookies.

Then yesterday, after two days of cookies, why not some of those delicious hot dogs I used to bring?

Hot Dog Crows 2-18-15-4608

Between my knee event (which I am happy to report is totally over), the weather, the baby boom indoors and other distractions, I haven’t managed to get up early and visit the crows an hour before work all winter, so I have focused on the Millennium Park bunch whenever I get out for a late lunch break, and now that my knee is working properly the weather becomes less of an excuse for staying inside when I realize my friends don’t have that choice.

WTSP 2-17-15-4014

White-Throated Sparrow

Sparrows 2-18-15-4550

Sparrows, mainly House

NOCA and HOSP 2-17-15-4386

Northern Cardinal and House Sparrow, both males

This has also been good for the Cardinals, Chickadees, White-Throated Sparrows and House Sparrows.

NOCA 2-16-15-3832

On Monday, the male Northern Cardinal actually came toward me and posed for pictures when I pointed the camera at him. It had to do with the peanuts I shelled and left for him on Friday. He was asking me to repeat the favor, which I did after taking a few more pictures. Then later he was down on the ground sampling the general offering.

NOCA 2-16-15-3818 NOCA 2-17-15-4404

On Tuesday I was surprised to see the Robins back at what I believe must be some type of hawthorn trees in the northwest corner of the park, I guess to clean up every last fruit they might have left on their last visit.

AMRO 2-17-15-4315 AMRO 2-17-15-4302

The Black-Capped Chickadees have been more about food than enticing me to take their pictures.

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Black-Capped Chickadee

But from time to time the female Cardinal wasn’t too shy to engage the lens.

NOCA 2-17-15-4330

NOCA 2-17-15-4325So as cold as it is I will probably venture out again today. The sun is shining brightly, and it is always a bit warmer by the lake, even in this extreme cold. It’s amazing how much even one or two degrees makes a difference.

WTSP & NOCA 2-17-15-4079 Cookie Crow 2-17-15-4417

The “what-to-feed-the crows next?” question has been on my mind, since after cookies and hot dogs, simply peanuts seems too mundane. So I rustled up an omelette this morning with about 10 eggs that have been in the refrigerator too long to boil for the indoor crowd’s egg food. I figure the crows have probably sampled Egg McMuffins and will recognize an omelette (indeed I think one crow sent me the thought on the way in that I could have added cheese — ha!). Plus it’s eggs in a cache-and-stash form.

WTSP 2-17-15-4436

White-Throated Sparrow

I do intend to wade through the Gull Frolic pictures by the weekend…but the park birds were making it a lot easier for me to post about them sooner.

I Can Hear You Callin’

Black-Capped Chickadee

Black-Capped Chickadee

I think I was hearing the music to “It Keeps You Runnin'” by the Doobie Brothers/Michael McDonald when I thought up this title instead of the Three Dog Night music which is where it belongs, but the phrase was inspired by two experiences I had this week on the way to the train in the morning through the snow and cold.

Snow Blizzard 2536.jpg-2536

As if to welcome the new year, I heard both a Black-Capped Chickadee and a Northern Cardinal singing on January 2. It seemed quite remarkable then, as it was already snowy and cold, but as the weather deteriorated further, it has been eerily quiet around the neighborhood through all the arctic chill. Wolf-whistling European Starlings, something I could always count upon in previous years, are a distant memory,

Thursday morning I was in a general funk on the way to the train. Every body part ached, piles of snow seemed almost insurmountable, layers of clumsy clothing further impeding whatever is left of my agility, and I was not looking forward to going to work and was generally tired of even trying to deal with it.

Winted Clothes 2681.jpg-2681

Then when I was perhaps three blocks from home, a distant Black-Capped Chickadee started to sing, immediately interrupting my misery. I  tried to respond – my whistle not being very whet – and he sang back. My whistle improved, and we continued like this, back and forth, for a moment of another block or so until I got out of range. Donald Kroodsma so aptly describes the song, “Hey, Sweetie” – and I realized the Chickadee had come to my rescue and completely dispelled all my negative, self-absorbed thoughts. It was almost as if he heard me calling out for help and responded in the only way he could, by offering song, since he was too far away for me to hear his call, “dee-dee-dee.” How wonderful for him to be there to remind me that music is the most important thing in life.

Northern Cardinal

Northern Cardinal

And yesterday morning, again on the way to the train, albeit the weather forecast improving slightly and my mood much improved by the fact that it was Friday, a Northern Cardinal began to sing with a bit of reserve. I whistled back, almost under my breath, and that must have inspired him because he started to sing louder, more elaborate phrases. I do not in any way attribute this to “countersinging.” He knew I was not another bird and he was not trying to out-whistle me. Indeed, I think he was glad to have an audience and was inspired by my response to his singing because then he knew someone was listening. And this gets back to the very first times I started playing music for birds and listening to their response. We began to communicate in this way: we were listening to each other. It’s not all about territory and attracting mates. It’s about the sheer joy of making music and offering communication to the universe. The birds have known this for millennia. Through them I again come to realize music is the defining force in my life.

As I sit here brewing another pot of bird-friendly coffee, my indoor birds call and sing, back and forth, and the radio is playing infinite Strauss waltzes and polkas. Outside, a considerable melt is progressing, now with a forecast for flooding. Walking home through driving rain, deep puddles and melting snow and ice last night was an adventure I don’t care to repeat. Although I welcome changes in weather as they dispel monotony, now a little monotony would be appreciated.

But the birds never stop paying attention, and to them, every day is new, and now, longer than the last. They are attuned to every nuance in the climate because they live in it. Most likely the extended daylight has triggered the singing responses of my avian friends in the morning. And I am thankful that I was out walking early enough to hear them. I am also convinced my responses to their singing were almost as important to them as their expressions of life were to me.

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I’ll Scratch Your Back if…

African Spoonbill and Sacred Ibis

African Spoonbill and Sacred Ibis

I’m finally starting to go through all my pictures from the East African safari and instead of feeling overwhelmed, I’m enjoying the process. I’m also surprised at how many species I still remember. Two weeks in Central Standard Time has not totally wiped away the experience.

Allopreening in birds has always fascinated me. I’m sure it’s related to grooming in primates, which I think some propose led to the human behaviors of smiling, laughing and talking. It’s definitely a social, bonding function.

For instance I have two surviving healthy budgies who would never have had anything to do with each other until it became apparent to both of them that they were It, and in addition to keeping each other company, they now engage in allopreening more and more, and it’s lovely to see.

African Spoonbill

African Spoonbill

On the second day in Tanzania when we stopped to look at some shorebirds, spoonbills, ibises and herons, I could not help but notice an unusual instance of interspecies allopreening, namely a Sacred Ibis preening a bent-over African Spoonbill. I don’t know if I pay more attention to this kind of behavior because I live with birds, but I suspect that might be why it came up on my radar.

Sacred Ibis Preening African Spoonbill

Sacred Ibis Preening African Spoonbill

This is an extraordinary amount of cooperation, and I only have to wonder what precipitated it…that silent, unspoken world of communication that birds are so much better at than we are.

Sacred Ibis Preening Spoonbill-4537.jpg-4537

It then occurred to me that I could also get a video clip, and so there is a short one below.

It’s obvious that the bird being preened is getting a lot out of this, but there has to be something in it for the preener too. It seems almost more enjoyable for the bird doing the preening. Maybe in another life he was a hair stylist. “You have such beautiful white feathers. Let me straighten them out for you.”

Bye, Bye Birdies

Cooper's Hawk

Cooper’s Hawk

It’s so hard to leave, but preparation for it has also made it hard to do anything else. I’m leaving for the airport in less than 3 hours and I still have to buy fresh veggies for the indoor crowd and finish packing. So this will be a very, very quick post. The Cooper’s was in Grant Park last Friday when I managed to go down early before work.

Crows in Millennium Park

Crows in Millennium Park

These pictures were taken over the last few days on my way to work or on a very brief lunch break. I managed to say goodbye to my crows in Millennium (there were about 20 overall) and on the way in to work, to my little friend Lincoln’s Sparrow who was still there as of yesterday. But I fully expect everyone at 155 N. Wacker to disappear over the next three weeks when I don’t show up to shower them with birdseed.

Crows with peanuts

Crows with peanuts

The Hermit Thrush below was last seen a few days ago, but there were still some in Millennium Park as of Thursday.

Hermit Thrush, 155 N. Wacker Drive

Hermit Thrush, 155 N. Wacker Drive

Goodbye, little Lincoln’s. He’s been such a good friend. And he gave me an excuse to try out and learn how to use the flash attachment, bless his heart.

Lincoln IMG_1811_1

Lincoln’s Sparrow

The crows in Millennium have settled in as the crowds are dissipating. I hope I haven’t made them too tame.

Crow IMG_1712_1

I know the crows will be there for me when I return. I look forward to posting all about my trip when I get back.

Thanks to everyone for reading and following my blog!! I’m off on safari…!

Walking Home


Little Chickadee
Following me home
Chatter, chatter, chick-a-dee-dee-dee
Sing your song
I answer
Your song, again
I whistle back
You improvise, a test
I follow you
To my door

Last night the weather was imminent, we had been warned all day of possible severe thunderstorms, hail, flooding – and none of it, despite the trains being delayed, had yet come to pass. I was a block and a half away from home when a Black-Capped Chickadee I never saw recognized me and started chattering. I answered him in the English transliteration which is really not very accurate, but he understood anyway. And then, as I reached the corner of my block, he continued by singing his “Hey, Sweetie” song. By now he was following me. I whistled back to him. He sang again, and I answered. In front of my house, from my neighhbor’s tree, he decided to see if he could trip me up by singing an alternate version of his song, in another key, going in another direction. I mimicked him again. Back to his old song, only this time in a higher key. He almost had me there, I can only whistle so high. But what an incredible exchange!

I hated to close the door on him, but after a while I had to go in. Although the weather did not “start” for at least another half hour.

I just felt like it was worth a post to commemorate this exchange with the Chickadee. He is very likely one who shows up at my feeders and chatters in my ear when I’m in the yard. He also knows that I listen to his song whenever he sings it, and I respond to him. This is not counter-singing, he knows I’m not another Chickadee on his territory. This is communication. Two musicians, hamming it up. He must think I’m pretty smart for being such a large, flightless creature. I am flattered to be included in his dialogue.

Apologies for the picture, it’s old and the wrong season, but it’s all I could find spur-of-the-moment.