Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

Laura Erickson knows how to feed the birds without even trying

Woodpecker in the snow
A pileated woodpecker perched on a feeder in the yard of a home in Stillwater, Minn.
Photo courtesy of Deirdre Kramer | 2010

A long time lover of birds has a new book out on how to feed them without putting out bird feeders. You may have heard Laura Erickson before. She’s been hosting the podcast “For the Birds” since 1986.

Now she has a new book on the shelves, 100 Plants to Feed the Birds and she joined MPR News host Cathy Wurzer to talk about her book and what birds she’s seeing out her window.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation. 

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Audio transcript

INTERVIEWER: A longtime lover of birds has a new book out on how to feed the birds without putting out bird feeders. You may have heard Laura Erickson before. She's been hosting the podcast For the Birds and a radio show since 1986.

LAURA ERICKSON: At this very moment in the pre-dawn twilight at 7:10 AM on January 30th, 2023, I'm looking out my home office window watching a female cardinal down in my big platform feeder, a dark-eyed Junco feeding on the ground beneath it, and a fluffed out chickadee pecking at a sunflower seed from a box elder branch.

INTERVIEWER: Sounds beautiful. We have, of course, been following Laura Erickson for many, many years. And now she has a new book on the shelves, 100 plants to feed the birds, and she's with us right now. It is my honor Laura Erickson, how are you?

LAURA ERICKSON: Oh, Cathy. It is my honor, I'm delighted to be here.

CATHY WURZER: My gosh. OK. Clearly you've got a lot of birds out your window here today just based upon what we heard.

LAURA ERICKSON: Well, they weren't all singing, the cardinal has been pretty quiet this winter. The male has been singing quite a bit in the past couple of days in my neighborhood. But it's been a hard winter on birds and my yard's been quiet but my eyes are entertained all the time with my chickadees, especially.

CATHY WURZER: Oh, I love the chickadee, I think the chickadee should be Minnesota State bird. I mean, I know that's heresy to say that.

LAURA ERICKSON: Cathy back in the '80s and '90s I actually had a political campaign and I got it passed in my caucus to have the chickadee named Minnesota's emergency auxiliary backup state bird to serve during the six months of the year when Loons have flown the coop and are not fulfilling their responsibilities.

CATHY WURZER: I think that you were completely correct in getting that passed because, I mean, the chickadees they're here all the time, I love loons but they go off and enjoy the rest of the winter in a warm place. You're right. Say now for folks I mentioned, we've been following you for years. Your empire started as a radio series in Duluth, what's the story there? I should know but tell the rest of the listeners.

LAURA ERICKSON: Well, I moved to Duluth in 1981. I'd been very active in Madison Audubon Society but I was pregnant when we moved here and we had three children. But by 1996 I was going stir crazy needing to tell people about birds, the way I'd been able to in Madison and all the niches were filled for the bird clubs here, so I started the radio show.

CATHY WURZER: And you've been going ever since. I mean, we should say to folks is you started at KUMD, I remember that, which is now a different-- it's got a different call letters. But aren't you statewide now?

LAURA ERICKSON: I have programmed, some stations one is in Jamestown, New York, one in Powell, Wyoming. I just do the program as a volunteer and totally out of love because I love blathering about birds and getting people excited about them. So I've been doing it all this time for free. At around 2008, I figured out how to produce it as a podcast too. So I get letters from listeners from all over, internationally as well. I've gotten emails from people in Japan about programs I've done.

CATHY WURZER: Well, it's a fun program, people love to talk about the birds. Let's talk about your new book, 100 plants to feed the birds. Now I love feeding birds. We've got at my mom's place on the North Shore there's a ton of bird feeders out there. You're not talking about bird feeders, you're talking about plants?

LAURA ERICKSON: Correct. Bird feeding is wonderful for the birds that eat seeds and suet. It probably doesn't help many populations except it does keep some of our chickens alive for certain in the winter. But much, much, much more important year round for those same chickadees but also for every bird is making sure we have plenty of native, locally native plants that are giving the birds everything that they need far more than bird feeders.

Bird feeders are delightful for birds but they really are like fast food restaurants that they can quick get a meal in a pinch. They're not high quality restaurants, they're never going to win any restaurant awards for sure. But yeah, our feeders are great for birds but plants give them everything. Even those chickadees that eat seeds and suet when they're raising babies need to feed the babies caterpillars and other native insects which they get out of our native trees and other plants.

CATHY WURZER: So just briefly, what kind of plants do you have in your garden that are really helpful?

LAURA ERICKSON: Well, I don't have a garden per se. My favorite plants in my yard which were here when we moved in are my box elder trees and my maple trees. When evening grows speaks are anywhere in East Duluth, they're in my yard because the box elder trees are the trees that have a few seeds even now hanging up there. And they're like these banners, eat at Joe's or eat at Laura's that the evening grosbeaks notice as they're flying over and then they'll notice the bird feeder.

CATHY WURZER: Oh. See, if I've been told that box elder trees are junk trees, don't even bother planting them but clearly I'm wrong.

LAURA ERICKSON: Well, people don't understand how the importance of trees as more than just something that stands in your yard for a while. Boxelders are not as long lived as maple trees. And their leaves aren't quite as beautiful when they turn colors and the fall and stuff. So if you're planting a tree to have a beautiful yard, go with the maple. But if you want to lure in, evening grow speaks. And also thanks to both climate change changing the composition of trees at Minnesota.

So we're getting more hardwoods up here. And also just because of bird feeders, red bellied woodpeckers are very common now in Duluth. But my yard was the first one that we have documented red bellied woodpecker nesting in one of my Boxelder trees. So I'm very fond of them.

CATHY WURZER: OK. And I'm sure this is another story for another time. But I'm betting the number of birds you're seeing in Duluth has changed over time, the species because of climate change.

LAURA ERICKSON: Oh, Hansa evening grosbeaks in particular have declined terribly. That wasn't so much climate change as a bunch of other things. But yes, we're seeing many more red bellied woodpeckers. But some things they're really declining here partly because of climate change but also because of the vast loss of important insect populations. And that's why I'm trying to get everybody to plant native plants.

CATHY WURZER: I think that your message is something to be listened to and heeded. Laura Erickson, I'm happy to have you back on the show here. Thank you so much

LAURA ERICKSON: Thank you so much, Cathy, it's been wonderful talking to you.

CATHY WURZER: Laura Erickson is the host and creator of the long running audio series For the Birds.

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