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Merlin's owl

When Laura Erickson was 4 years old, she picked up an encyclopedia and began teaching herself to read. Though she barely understood the words, she read all the way through the As. But she couldn't get pass the Bs. She was captivated by one word: ...

When Laura Erickson was 4 years old, she picked up an encyclopedia and began teaching herself to read. Though she barely understood the words, she read all the way through the As. But she couldn't get pass the Bs. She was captivated by one word: "birds."
"I read the bird article over and over and over," Erickson said. "It was so fascinating."
She then set out to search her suburban Chicago neighborhood for all those birds she read about, especially the resplendent quetzal, "the most beautiful bird in the world," Erickson said.
When she couldn't find any of those birds described in the encyclopedia, Erickson's uncle gave her a Golden Stamp Book that included birds she could find in the neighborhood. She was on her way to becoming the renowned ornithologist she is today.
For years, Erickson has shared her passion for birds with the public in a number of ways.
She is an author, hosts a regular radio program on KUMD, writes for various magazines, the Minneapolis Star Tribune and Journey North, an online service for teaching kids about migration. She also gives lectures around the country.
On Tuesday at 7 p.m. in the Mitchell Auditorium, Erickson will treat kids to a (K)nights in Science Armor program called "Owls -- Nocturnal Wonders." Tagging along will be Archimedes, Erickson's eastern screech owl.
Archimedes is a rehab owl that once suffered from a blood infection and loss of feathers. He was released three or four times, but was brought back because he flew at people begging for food. Archimedes was too imprinted on humans to survive on his own in the wild.
The woman rehabilitating Archimedes met Erickson last April at a birding festival in Ohio and was ecstatic when she learned that Erickson was a former owl rehabilitator. The woman was desperate to find a home or an educational facility for Archimedes before her license expired. The alternative was to have him euthanized.
Erickson had her husband fax the necessary transportation licenses to Ohio, and upon her return home there was a new addition to the family. Erickson's son named Archimedes after Merlin's owl from the Disney movie "The Sword in the Stone."
"I do regret not naming him Furby," Erickson said.
In her own backyard, Erickson has seen a great horned owl, barred owl and gray owl. On one New Year's Day, Erickson opened her curtains to see directly in front of her, sitting in a spruce tree, a great horned owl.
As a birder, Erickson has specific rules when adding backyard sightings to her list. Either the bird has to be touching the yard, or Erickson has to be touching the yard. If she's in the neighbor's yard and a bald eagle is flying over her house, that doesn't count.
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Erickson recently had the opportunity to birdwatch for tropical birds when she traveled to Costa Rica, a place she always dreamed of visiting.
For a few weeks Erickson helped care for her uncle, who bought her the Golden Stamp Book, as he struggled with cancer. After he passed away, Erickson's aunt asked where in the world she would most like to visit. Costa Rica, Erickson said, so her aunt bought the plane ticket. It's where she finally got to see the "most beautiful bird in the world."
She stayed there for a month. During an official two-week birding tour, Erickson said she saw 452 different species of tropical birds, and in one day saw 12 species. She also identified 34 species of hummingbirds.
Witnessing the vibrant colors and exotic sounds of tropical birds in the wild didn't spoil her affection for North American birds, however.
"Birds here have a quieter beauty," Erickson said.
During the (K)nights in Science Armor program, Erickson will show slides of various North American owls and will talk about adaptation, vision and hearing. She'll explain why some owls have ears that stick up, and why the great gray owl has crooked ears, for example.
The great gray owl has intricate hearing and can hear a mouse moving around under the snow. When the owl takes flight, it is completely silent.
"Silent flight allows them to keep hearing," Erickson said.
The owl plunges into the snow to grab the mouse, then lifts itself up with its massive wings. Left behind is an exquisite snow angel. A red spot in the middle of that snow angel, the heart, is evidence that the owl was successful.
That's just one story Erickson may have for the kids, and she has another treat in store for them -- owl calls.
"I'm winner of the American Ornithologists Union Bird Calling Contest," Erickson said, "in the repertoire calls." Erickson said she can do at least seven owl calls. The only one she can't do is a snowy owl.
She also can do many bird imitations. Erickson said the cardinal taught her how to whistle.
In her yard she even has blue jays grabbing peanuts from her fingers.
"It's always been something deep in my soul since I was little," she said.
Sandi Dahl is a news reporter for the Budgeteer News. To reach her, call 723-1207 or send e-mail to sandi.dahl@duluth.com .

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