Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, contests and more!
Start Your Free Trial

The pleasures of finding life birds for a new puppy

BIRD DOG: Pip started birding only in March but already has four falcons on her life list. Photo by Laura Erickson
BIRD DOG: Pip started birding only in March but already has four falcons on her life list. Photo by Laura Erickson

On March 20, I got a puppy, a Havanese named Pip. I’ve taken her on a few birding walks, but my first goal is teaching her good birding manners, which start in the backyard. Fortunately, her breed doesn’t have a strong herding impulse or the hound/terrier drive to chase prey.

The first birds Pip noticed were four pigeons. The moment she saw them, she charged, even though she was hardly bigger than they. Their noisy wing-clapping on takeoff startled her, but she tracked them in the sky until they disappeared. She chased pigeons a couple more times but then seemed to figure out that running makes them disappear. Now she advances a few steps at a time, stopping to watch in between. She looks at smaller species but isn’t interested in chasing. Some birders could learn how to approach rarities from her.

I’ve watched Pip track noisy airplanes, a goldfinch making its flight call, and a silent migrating Bald Eagle. She looks through the trees when robins sing or Pine Siskins twitter. I want my dog to keep keying in on birds, so every time she notices one, I praise her.

To keep track of our adventures, I’ve started a life list for her. I’m rewarded in two ways: I’m getting more disciplined at using eBird (I enter every bird we see), and I’m enjoying wonderful trips down memory lane. I started my own life list in March 1975. It’s fun comparing how easy it was to see birds then versus now.

The first bird on Pip’s list was a House Finch singing as I carried her to my car from her breeder’s house, near Chicago. House Finches hadn’t arrived in my part of the Midwest back in 1975. The Eurasian Collared-Dove I saw with Pip two days later, also in the Chicago area, was unheard of virtually everywhere on the continent in 1975. In early April in northern Wisconsin, we saw Trumpeter Swans, a species that was listed as endangered in the state until 2009; I didn’t see my first, in Yellowstone National Park, until 1979, years before the first reintroduction programs. On the other hand, Number 20 on my life list, Red-headed Woodpecker, is more localized and harder to see nowadays.

Then and now, Gyrfalcon is a rare bird at the national level, but it was easy for Pip, since one hung out all winter in Superior, Wisconsin, across the bridge from my home in Minnesota. Both Merlins and Peregrine Falcons are easy to find in Duluth now, unlike in 1975. So oddly enough, Pip had three species of falcons before we added American Kestrel. I couldn’t have imagined that back in 1975!

Keeping a list for Pip is already paying off in insights about how bird numbers have changed in 40 years, and it’s fun. As I always say, no one, not even a dog, should go through life listlessly.


This article from Laura Erickson’s column “Attracting Birds” appeared in the July/August 2015 issue of BirdWatching magazine. Subscribe

Read more by Laura Erickson

Simple chickadees observe a complex social hierarchy.

How photographing birds opened up a whole new world.

Why even a Big Year can’t compete with birding at home.

Bidding farewell to a favorite birding spot.

How habitat created by one neighbor brought birds to a whole neighborhood.

Originally Published

Read our newsletter!

Sign up for our free e-newsletter to receive news, photos of birds, attracting and ID tips, and more delivered to your inbox.

Sign Up for Free
Laura Erickson

Laura Erickson

Laura Erickson is the 2014 recipient of the American Birding Association’s highest honor, the Roger Tory Peterson Award. She has written many books about birds and hosts the long-running radio program and podcast “For the Birds.” Her column  “Attracting Birds,” about attracting, feeding, sheltering, and understanding the birds in your backyard, appears in every issue of BirdWatching. “Snow Bird,” her first article in the magazine, appeared in December 2003. It described the migration and winter habits of the American Robin.

Laura Erickson on social media