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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Bird Talk

Air Date: Week of November 7, 1997

Orinthologist Kenn Kaufman joins Steve for a birding lesson. Mr. Kaufman's book, "Lives of North American Birds," is a reference to birds' breeding habits, migration patterns and population status. Meet the whip-poor-will, a bristle thighed curlew, and a white tailed kite in this talk.


CURWOOD: There are no ordinary birds. So says Kenn Kaufman, a man who has seen just about every bird there is in North America. He knows their voices and names like old friends. Mr. Kaufmann has just published a natural history reference called Lives of North American Birds. But you won't want to take this 700-page, 3-pound hardcover for a walk in the woods. It's for after the hike. It's a book to pull out and thumb through while you relax in front of the fire or out on the porch. Here, with a few well-chosen words, you can learn more about a species you may have just seen or heard: how it breeds, where it migrates, or how it's surviving the epidemic of extinctions. Kenn Kaufman joins us now for some bird talk. Welcome, sir.

KAUFMAN: Well, thank you.

CURWOOD: Let's get to know a few of these feathery characters. Let's start with the whip-poor-will.

(Whip-poor-will calls)

CURWOOD: Boy, that whip-poor-will really can keep going, can't he, eh?

KAUFMAN: They can. I know some people who get tired of hearing them. But I really love the sounds of those night birds that call on and on. To me, it's a comforting sound. It's reassuring if I'm camping out, just to hear them all night.

CURWOOD: Well, we have a place in southern New Hampshire. When I was a boy I'd hear that every night. You know, I mean, that's how I'd go to sleep. Just at twilight, just at dusk, the whip-poor-will would begin and would keep singing until I'm sure I was asleep, because I don't think he would stop. But these days, I don't hear the whip-poor-will, at all. In fact, I don't think I heard one for maybe 15 or 20 years in this place until just this summer I heard one, and it was around for 2 or 3 days. It was like a major occasion; we all ran to the window and listened. What's happening to these birds?

KAUFMAN: Whip-poor-wills have declined a lot in some parts of their ranges. There are a few areas where they're doing well, and they've actually extended their range a little bit in the coastal parts of the Carolinas. But in most of the Northeast their numbers have dropped a lot. They feed on large insects that fly at night, things like moths and beetles, and a lot of those insects are probably becoming less common. Partly because of spraying for gypsy moths, which doesn't really affect the gypsy moth that much but it sure wipes out a lot of the beautiful native moths like luna moth. And so the indiscriminate spraying has really had a major effect on the night-flying insects and on the birds that eat them.

CURWOOD: Let's see, how about one more here? Let's play a tape of the bristle-thighed curlew.

(Bristle-thighed curlew call)


CURWOOD: Ooh, that's so mournful, isn't it?

(Call continues, is joined by others)

KAUFMAN: Oh, it's a wonderful sound. To me, it takes me back to the hilltops in western Alaska. You'd never see a bristle-thighed curlew without making a major attempt for it. But it's up in these beautiful places: hilltops in the tundra, flying around, making those clear whistles.

CURWOOD: Can you describe the bird for somebody who might not know what a curlew is?

KAUFMAN: Curlews are large sandpipers, with long bills that are curved downward. And there are several kinds of curlews, but the bristle-thighed is quite a scarce bird, and the bristles on the thighs, you don't see those in the field. It's just some elongated feathers. But it's mostly brown with some cinnamon color on the tail. So it's not very colorful, but they're very elegant, graceful fliers, fairly large birds. And they make this major migration across open water of the Pacific. They fly from Alaska to islands in the southwest Pacific, and they may be making a single flight that goes for 2,500 miles.

CURWOOD: Wow. That's a lot of fuel they have to take on for that, huh?

KAUFMAN: It's a lot of fuel and it's a pretty amazing feat of navigation, too.

CURWOOD: Now, I understand that the bristle-thighed curlew uses a tool?

KAUFMAN: That's right. There aren't very many birds that are known to use tools. But where the curlew winters on islands in the Pacific, in some places there are nesting colonies of sea birds there, and they're mostly feeding on crabs and insects and things. But they will also eat the eggs of other birds there. If it's a small bird like a tern, the curlew can just break open the shell with its bill. But if it's a large egg, such as one from an albatross, those shells are pretty thick, and the curlew's been seen picking up rocks and actually hammering on these eggs with the rocks to break them open.

CURWOOD: That's pretty amazing. The curlew getting rarer and rarer still?

KAUFMAN: The curlew is dropping in numbers. It was never a very common bird, apparently, but it's got a problem in that where it winters on these little islands in the Pacific. Formerly that was a totally safe environment. If they made this long flight, once they got to the islands there were no potential predators at all. So in molting, in replacing their feathers, they would drop all the flight feathers at once, all the long wing feathers, and they would be unable to fly for a period of a few weeks. That was no problem as long as there were no predators there. But as humans and their domestic animals are moving onto these islands, it's a serious problem for the curlews.

CURWOOD: All right. I think I'm ready for a good news story. And I'd like to turn now to the white-tailed kite.

(White-tailed kite calls)

CURWOOD: I guess that's the sound that a mouse would not like to hear because it's a kind of hawk, isn't a kite?

KAUFMAN: That's right. There are a number of kinds of kites, and the term kite is sort of a catch-all for a lot of small hawks that are graceful fliers. The white-tailed kite may not sound like much, but it is a beautiful bird, very graceful in flight, and they do catch a lot of small rodents.

CURWOOD: And how are they doing? I mean, they were once a pretty rare bird, right?

KAUFMAN: That's right. The white-tailed kite was even considered endangered back in the 1930s. But it's been gradually increasing over the last few years, and even expanding its range. They're nesting in a number of states now, such as Arizona and Florida, where they were unknown just a few years ago.

CURWOOD: So these guys are making a comeback after their decline. What happened?

KAUFMAN: There are a couple of things that contribute to the success story for the kite. One thing is that people stopped shooting them, which (laughs) certainly helps.

CURWOOD: Yeah, it does help.

KAUFMAN: Another factor, this is still controversial and not totally proven, but one of their main food sources in the past, they ate a lot of voles, the little short-tailed rodents called voles. And vole populations tend to go up and down. They'll be in big numbers for a while and then there will be a crash. And whenever there was a population crash, that would be sort of bad news for the kites. With the introduction of the house mouse from Europe, there are always a lot of them, so the kites, they seem to have a more stable food source now.

CURWOOD: Uh huh. You know, somebody listening to this interview may be mildly curious about birds, but is sort of wondering what all the excitement is about. What would you tell such a person?

KAUFMAN: There are a number of things that enter into it. One thing is variety. There are just so many kinds out there. I mean, my North American book covers 900 species. If you take in the whole world, there are close to 10,000 kinds of birds. You never run out of variety there. Birds are beautiful to look at, I mean that's obvious. And they're mentally challenging, too. Going out and finding these birds and recognizing them and then finding out what they're doing can be a real mental challenge. It can be a physical challenge as well. I just think there's really nothing that's better. They are a part of the real world, and sometimes when we're surrounded by artificial things it's just really great to connect with something that's real.

CURWOOD: Well, Kenn Kaufman, I want to thank you for taking this time with us today.

(Bird calls)

KAUFMAN: Well, it's been a pleasure to talk birds with you, Steve.

CURWOOD: Kenn Kaufman's book is called Lives of North American Birds, published by Houghton Mifflin.



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