Tag Archives: birds

Common Mergansers and the Itch

Swimmer’s Itch plagues many Michigan lakes.  Children are especially affected as itchy red bumps appear on legs and torso, soon after swimming.  Little can be done to alleviate the itching—the old remedy of baking soda is probably as good as any.  In a few days it disappears on its own, anyway.

This historic 1942 photomicrograph revealed some of the morphologic details displayed by a schistosomal cercaria, which is the larval stage of a parasite that causes “swimmer’s itch”, and was magnified approximately 150x. This was one of a series of instructional images used by the Minnesota Board of Health to train its state public health workers. The purpose of the images and the accompanying training was focused on protecting potable water supplies from contaminants including toxins, and pathogenic organisms, such as the parasite pictured here. This material was obtained from Professor William A. Riley, of the University of Minnesota. The sample itself was taken from Lake Owasso, Minnesota.
Image made available on Wikimedia Commons by the CDC/ Minnesota Department of Health, R.N. Barr Library; Librarians Melissa Rethlefsen and Marie Jones, Prof. William A. Riley. This media comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Public Health Image Library (PHIL), with identification number #8556.

The cause of the itch has been known for many years: a tiny parasite inhabits snails of the lake, shedding them into the water on warm summer days.  These cercariae are neither bacteria nor viruses, but a member of the flatworm phylum.  In short, they are worms.  Many years ago, at the University of Michigan Biological Station, I remember seeing them emerge from snails confined to a watchglass under a low-power microscope.  Compared to other such water creatures, they weren’t that small.  You could see them with your eyes if you cared to look.

After leaving the snails, apparently tired of the pace of life there, they swim around looking for a secondary host, frequently diving ducks such as the Common Merganser.  Finding one, they bore through its skin, somehow finding one another in the circulatory system to mate (I believe the animals are bisexual).  Afterwards, they migrate to the digestive tract where they produce eggs ready to be shed into the water with the duck’s feces.  Gaining the freedom of open water, they locate snails to infect, thereby completing the cycle.

An eruption of cercarial dermatitis on the lower legs after having spent a day getting in and out of canoes in the shallows of a lake, 21 September 2007, en.wikipedia. Image courtesy of User:Cornellier

We humans should be bystanders to this unwholesome series of events, but for one thing: the cercariae mistake us for ducks.  Only after entering the outermost layer of skin do they realize their awful mistake, but it is too late for them: our body’s immune system reacts to kill them off, that response leading to an angry, itching bump, swimmer’s itch.

Various methods have been used to control the pest.  At least two of them have been tried locally: copper sulfate and removing duck populations.  Copper sulfate kills snails, one of the hosts, but that method has been largely abandoned because it is not particularly effective in the long run and because it has harmful effects on other life.

Getting rid of ducks is easier said than done.  You can’t shoot them all—after all, there are game laws and many of us (including me) like them.  One technique is pyrotechnics.  At first I thought this had to do with firecrackers and bombs to drive away flocks, but that is not exactly so.  As applied to duck control, pyrotechnics has to do with firing a variety of noisemakers including propane cannons, thunderboom sticks, and bird bangers.  A loud noise sends flocks flying, no matter what the source.

Glen Lake has tried this method for several years with inconclusive results.  The Glen Lake Association on its website reports the itch still is bothersome, but not as bad as at Higgins Lake, where no such control has been attempted.  For some persons, the intermittent detonations may prove as annoying as the itch.

A friend whose family owns a cottage at Glen Lake for many years tells me that the lake has always had a swimmer’s itch problem.  The red, itching bumps were a rite of summer.  Usually, they do not discourage children to the point they will not go in the water.  Swimming and splashing in the water are just too much fun.

Female Common Merganser, Sylvan Heights Waterfowl Park, Scotland Neck, North Carolina, January 2011. Image provided by DickDaniels through Wikimedia Commons.

There are some things you can do to avoid swimmer’s itch (aside from scaring ducks and poisoning snails).  There is some evidence that the cercariae are to be found more often on sunny, warm days, especially close to shore.  Onshore winds drive them close to beaches where children are likely to play.  Shorter swimming sessions might make infection less likely, too.  Unfairly, suntan lotions often contain compounds that attract the itch organisms.  Parents cannot catch a break—they must protect their children from the sun and from annoying creatures in the water.  Apparently you cannot do both at the same time.

Common Merganser (male). Image taken in Cobourg, Ontario, Canada, February 2007. Image made available through Wikimedia Commons.

My reaction is that we will probably have to use these common sense measures of control—at least for now.  As a duck lover, I hate to see flocks constantly chased off lakes by loud noises.  Besides, how long will it take for them to get used to booms and pops?  After all, the sounds of traffic in New York City used to be so quiet that they were ignored in 1850.  Now, in 2017, it is no different, only we accept 70-decibel noise as normal.  Wouldn’t the ducks do the same as we did—learn to ignore the noise?

Richard Fidler is co-editor of Grand Traverse Journal.

Tactics of Pigeon Hunters: Passenger Pigeons in Benzie County, 1880s

Dear Readers:
This follow-up article to one published in our March issue on Passenger Pigeons was inspired by the following correspondence your editors received from an admiring reader:
“I thoroughly enjoyed your recent article on passenger pigeons.  Since the topic isn’t discussed very much I thought I would seize the opportunity to share some of my notes on the topic.
A unique source (locally) is a personal history, “A Brief Sketch of the Life of Charles B. Slyfield,” that resides at the Benzie Shores District Library, with copies of it held at the Benzie Area Historical Museum.  Mr. Slyfield’s history is thirty-some pages and covers commercial fishing, tug operations, the history of Frankfort, and his dog Hero in addition to pigeon hunting. ~ Andy B.”
Naturally, our regular contributor Stewart McFerran took to this new resource with a renewed vigor on the subject of Passenger Pigeons. Charles B. Slyfield (1854-1924) was a fisherman and lighthouse keeper at Frankfort, in addition to a hunter.  ~ Your editors at Grand Traverse Journal

by Stewart A. McFerran

Smith Bennett, Passenger Pigeon flock being hunted, from "The Illustrated Shooting and Dramatic News", 3 July 1875.
Smith Bennett, Passenger Pigeon flock being hunted, from “The Illustrated Shooting and Dramatic News”, 3 July 1875.

About the first of May we pitched our tent and set and baited the traps. Father had hired William Salsgiver and his net to work with us as he was an expert pigeon trapper. The pigeons nested up river about five miles and would fly just as soon as day would break. The first flight would be all males. Then about 7 a.m. the females would start and keep it up until about 10 a.m.

Father rented 40 acres of marsh land on the South side of the Betsy River where there was situated a salt spring and pigeon marsh where the pigeons would assemble in great numbers to eat the muck and drink the water.   (A Brief Sketch of the Life of Charles B. Slyfield,  published in 1912)

Needless to say a slaughter of passenger pigeons ensued. However, these observations from Slyfield’s younger years bring up some questions with regard to the extinct bird. Why would they “eat the muck”? Was there some sort of larva or invertebrate that was nutritious within the muck? Or was there a mineral that the birds craved?

The segregated flights from the nesting ground to the feeding ground is in itself a fascinating detail.

In addition to nesting habits, Slyfield provides detail on their cross-lake roosting and feeding habits: “Old hunters and sailors tell me that great numbers of pigeons had their roost in Wisconsin and flew to Michigan each morning to feed on Michigan beechnuts.” By his reckoning, as the pigeons flew at a speed of I believe 180 miles an hour, they could cross the lake in 20 minutes. [Note: the fastest bird is said to be the white throated needletail which can attain a speed of 105 mph in horizontal flight]

Readers of Slyfield’s biography can appreciate the detail he offers about the pigeons, and we realize this deep understanding of the pigeons’ habits were also just the thing that allow hunters to exploit them in such a shamelessly unsustainable way. Certainly, as Slyfield includes the Passenger Pigeon extinction event in his memoir, he must have realized by the end of his life what it meant for the ecology of the region. Details of ecological relationships that Passenger Pigeons had are fascinating.

Another Benzie County native, author Bruce Catton, also wrote about the tactics of Passenger Pigeon hunters, some years after Slyfield’s death:

Men caught birds alive by fastening big nets to the tops of springy saplings, fastening the nets close to the ground, baiting the area and then springing the trap when the birds came to eat; it was said that a single trap would catch from three to five hundred pigeons.

James St. John, Stuffed male passenger pigeon. From the Field Museum of Natural History collection.
James St. John, Stuffed male passenger pigeon. From the Field Museum of Natural History collection.

The new theology has borrowed, without credit, one of the fundamental planks in the old religion: despite his disclaimers, man stands at the center of the universe. It was made for him to use, and the best and wisest men are those who use it most lavishly. They destroy pine forests, and dig copper from beneath the cold northern lake, and run the open pits across the iron ranges, impoverishing themselves at the same time they are enriching themselves; creating wealth, in short by the act of destroying it, which is one of the most baffling mysteries of the new gospel.

Before “sustainability” terminology was coined and in common use, Catton wrote about “the mysteries of the new gospel” in his 1972 memoir Waiting for the Morning Train. This, in my view, makes him not just an important writer of history but an unappreciated environmental writer.

We may not be able to watch the majesty of a cloud of Passenger Pigeons in the sky today, but the vivid descriptions Slyfield and Catton survive on as a record of their existence, even if questions about their muck-eating remain unanswered. Hopefully, their writings also provide a sobering reminder for those who would abuse our Region’s natural resources.

Copies of Mr. Slyfield’s biography are available for review at the Benzie Shores District Library, and for sale at the Empire Area Museum. Copies of Bruce Catton’s Waiting for the Morning Train are available for checkout at the Traverse Area District Library.

Stewart A. McFerran is an outdoor enthusiast and regular Benzie-area contributor to Grand Traverse Journal.

Hunting the Last Passenger Pigeons, Benzie County, 1880

by Stewart A. McFerran, Benzie resident, outdoor enthusiast, and regular contributor to Grand Traverse Journal

What does it mean to be “sustainable” in industry or practice? The passenger pigeon industry came to an end as a consequence of UNsustainable practices. The Petoskey area is often cited as the last mass roost in 1878, but there was a mass roosting of passenger pigeons on and around the Platte River in Benzie County in 1880.

Passenger pigeons made a big impression as they flew in huge numbers across North America. This plain pigeon was a unique species because of sheer numbers and gregarious nesting habits. From all reports,  the flocks could blot out the sun, their nesting grounds spreading out for miles.

Lewis Cross, Passenger Pigeons in Flight, 1937, Collection of the Lakeshore Museum Center, Photo by Fred Reinicke.
Lewis Cross, Passenger Pigeons in Flight, 1937, Collection of the Lakeshore Museum Center, Photo by Fred Reinicke.

Simon Pokagon, a Potawatomi tribal leader, author and Native advocate, had observed (and is frequently quoted on) the migrations of passenger pigeons in the Manistee area since 1850: “I have stood by the grandest waterfall of America and regarded the descending torrents in wonder and astonishment, yet never have my astonishment, wonder, and admiration been so stirred as when I have witnessed these birds drop from their course like meteors from heaven.”

According to reports published in the Grand Traverse Herald, April 1880, a network of spotters located a salt spring in Benzie County that would attract large flocks of the birds. Mineral rich water bubbled out and over a mound and down a slope. Millions of pigeons congregated in this area. The owners allowed pigeon netters to catch passenger pigeons there for a fee:

Article on pigeon nesting grounds, April 1880, Grand Traverse Herald.
Article on pigeon nesting grounds, April 1880, Grand Traverse Herald.

“Last week several small flights were observed on the Platte River. They came in clouds millions upon millions. It seemed as if by common consent the entire world of pigeons were concentrated at this point. The air was full of them and the sun was shut out of sight, and still they came millions upon millions more. The nesting is now more than fifteen miles in length and six to eight miles wide, and the birds are still coming in countless numbers. Old hunters say it will probably be the most extensive nesting ever known in the State.”

The large groups of hunters that flocked to Northern Michigan to shoot the remaining passenger pigeons arrived by train. They were well practiced in the dispatching, collecting, preserving and shipping of passenger pigeons. The market for the birds was well established in New York, Philadelphia and Chicago.

What market, you might ask? Passenger pigeons were on the menus of American colonists from the start. At one time, the birds were considered a godsend and kept starvation at bay. Other times passenger pigeons were a delicacy. Pigeon pies were popular and Delmonico’s in New York served passenger pigeon. Pigeons were salted, smoked and pickled. (Greenberg, 2014).

Article on pigeon nesting grounds, April 1880, Grand Traverse Herald.

“Fully three hundred (hunters) are now at the grounds. This meeting will be a source of considerable revenue to the farmers in the neighborhood and to the whole country hereabouts.”

Conservation efforts to preserve and prevent the ill-treatment of the birds proved ineffective, a matter of too little, too late. The 1870s saw an increase in public awareness on the brutality of these hunts, leading to protests against trap-shooting. Various states enacted laws to curtail the slaughter over the next twenty years. In 1897, a bill was introduced in the Michigan legislature asking for a 10-year closed season on passenger pigeons. Similar legal measures were passed and then disregarded in Pennsylvania and New York. By the mid-1890s, the passenger pigeon had almost completely disappeared, and was probably extinct as a breeding bird in the wild. (For more information on conservation efforts, see W.B. Mershon’s The Passenger Pigeon, published in 1907, and available freely online.)

Martha, thought to be the last passenger pigeon, died on September 1, 1914, at the Cincinnati Zoo.

James St. John, Stuffed male passenger pigeon. From the Field Museum of Natural History collection.
James St. John, Stuffed male passenger pigeon. From the Field Museum of Natural History collection.

Benzie hunters had the distinction of hunting some of the last passenger pigeons. They had help from gun toters and netters from afar. But we can learn a lesson from Martha: No one will ever hunt a passenger pigeon again. The passenger pigeon will never be counted during a Benzie Christmas Bird count because our ancestors did not have the foresight to use sustainable practices.

Grand Traverse Herald, April 1880.
Greenberg, Joel. A Feathered River Across the Sky. New York: Bloomsbury, 2014.
Mershon, W.B. The Passenger Pigeon. New York: The Outing Publishing Company, 1907.

“Our 35 observers saw a respectable 59 species on count day”: Report from the Benzie County Christmas Bird Count 2015

by Stewart A. McFerran, Benzie resident, outdoor enthusiast, and regular contributor to Grand Traverse Journal

Brian Allen, Benzie County Christmas Bird Count 2015 organizer, scouting for birds. Image courtesy of the author.
Brian Allen, Benzie County Christmas Bird Count 2015 leader, spotting for birds at Green Point Dunes, Lake Michigan. Image courtesy of the author.

From the perch on Green Point, a wide expanse of Lake Michigan to the South and West stretches as far as the eye can see. It would seem to be the prime spot for the Christmas Bird Count. But this year there are few birds to be spotted–so few that Brian Allen said that he is going to Peru where there are lots of birds to see.

The Christmas Bird Count was started in the year 1900 by Frank Chapman. At the time it was the custom to engage in side hunts, a sort of competition to see who could shoot the most birds; Except for this custom falling to the wayside, little else has changed in how the count is recorded between then and now. Chapman founded Bird Lore, a publication that listed the first Christmas Bird Count (later the Count was moved to the Audubon Magazine). Copies of Bird Lore are available to view and download through the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Compiling the Bird Count is Brian Allen, one leader of the Benzie County Count.
Compiling the Bird Count is Brian Allen, one leader of the Benzie County Count. Image courtesy of the author.

The Audubon Society organizes the effort each year to count rather than shoot birds. The results are compiled and published on the Audubon Website. Thousands of groups across the country meet in the field around Christmas to count avian species. There are others who stay at home and keep note of the kinds and numbers of birds they see at their backyard bird feeders. In 2013 there were 71,531 people that participated in the Audubon Christmas Bird count. There were 2,369 locations in the Western Hemisphere. Each location has a compiler.

I joined the Benzie Audubon group for the 2015 Christmas Bird Count.  Brian Allen was the leader  of one of eight field groups spotting in the Western Region of Benzie County December 21, 2015. As with all the Christmas Bird Count groups across the country we would count all the birds we could spot in a fifteen mile circle. The Benzie Audubon compilers are John Ester & Carl Freeman.

A beautiful day for a bird count; Brian Allen on the shores of Lake Michigan in Benzie County. Image courtesy of the author.
A beautiful day for a bird count; Brian Allen on the shores of Lake Michigan in Benzie County. Image courtesy of the author.

Compilers create reports, noting weather, temperature, and other variables that may affect bird viewing, like this one provided by Ester for the Benzie group: “Again this year our count was blessed with good weather. The day started with clear skies, meaning cold temperatures but a gorgeous sunrise. By afternoon we were in the mid-forties and up. The warm weather meant lots of open water and plenty of natural food. Perhaps for this reason birds were in shorter supply–we saw 3,673 individual birds, as opposed to 5,205 last year. But our 35 observers (25 in the field, 10 at home) saw a respectable 59 species on count day, plus two more as ‘count week’ species.”

Allen and I had a portion of the circle South of Betsy Bay along Lake Michigan. Our area included Upper and Lower Herring Lakes. Armed with binoculars and a clip board we stopped at a number of different locations. The variety of habitats we trekked included beach, woods, stream, field, and lake. Year after year some of the same birds can be seen in each of these habitats.

We finished in time to attend the Benzie Audubon potluck where the species were read out loud.   Our total was 21 bird species, making the trip to Peru unnecessary.

Benzie County Christmas Bird County 2015 team.
Benzie County Christmas Bird Count 2015 team. Image courtesy of the author.

Peacock Identified as Mystery Bird

Thanks to Christopher and other readers, we have our answer for the December Mystery Photo! Fulton Park housed the peacock population of Traverse City during the winter months. During the summer, they occupied more pleasant surroundings by the bay near downtown.

Fulton II

Fulton Park is located on Carter Road just outside the city limits in Leelanau county.  A building on the property once housed an exotic, gorgeous bird that made outrageous squawks near Clinch Park, downtown. Name that bird!