Meditation on a life of birding.
Every fall, thousands of snow geese descend on Addison, Vermont, stark-white birds with black wing tips falling to the fields and ponds near the Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area. Every fall I intend to drive north to see them, and every fall I forget and am left with the worry that I will miss the last great season.
Last November, in Butte, Montana, a flock of snow geese touched down on what appeared to be a lake, but was instead a pool of toxic, bright-red mine waste called the Berkeley Pit. Bystanders remarked that the scarlet-hued lake, or more precisely the Superfund site, was “white with birds.” Thousands died from exposure to sulfuric acid and heavy metals, dropping lifeless onto roadsides and Walmart parking lots, earthbound heaps of feathered flesh.
Birds are sensitive to toxicity, often more so than humans. Parakeets die when exposed to fumes from hot nonstick pans. I think of the bright-yellow caged canaries taken deep underground to warn miners of carbon-dioxide levels. For me, the mass death of birds is an early indicator of future human welfare, a bad omen. Margaret Atwood, in an interview, said, “An involvement with birds is a reliable hook into the state of the planet.”
The first bird I recall from my childhood in eastern North Carolina was a cobalt-blue peacock, screaming from the reaches of an oak tree behind my backyard fence, having escaped from the old farm our new neighborhood cut into. I stood on top of my hot metal sliding board in bare feet, staring in disbelief at the exquisite, distressed bird.
As a child, I watched birds in a passive way, noting with sadness the impoverished homes they made in the sickly trees of the McDonald’s drive-thru, or in the white plastic neighborhood supermarket sign, the curve of the letter D cupping a nest. My mother looked at seagulls as though they were rats with wings, but we would pause, reverent, when the pelicans came in low over the crashing waves of the beach we frequented.
In my twenties, I fell in love with loons while on a camping trip in the Adirondacks. Like a good affair, the attachment was swift and fierce. I sat up in the middle of the night, breathless in my blue tent on the rocky shore of a glacial lake, woken up as the loons calling to each other in mournful tones, their tremolos sending shivers down my back. Soon after came binoculars, a Sibley guide, an Audubon membership, and an obsession with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s digital archives of birdcalls.
It does not surprise me that many authors, such as Jonathan Franzen, Margaret Atwood, and the late Peter Matthiessen are birders. Birding is a way of heightened, finely tuned seeing. Franzen called birding the “third revelation of my life,” one that ranks with the realization of sex in its ability to make the world seem new.
Birds color my sight now, and I look for them everywhere. There was the enormous, endangered cassowary I did not see in Australia. The proud vulturines, industrious weaverbirds, lilac-breasted rollers, and dancing ostriches I watched in Kenya. In Paris, I developed a rapport with a raven who came to my window at dawn and dusk for respite from the busy street. I know where to look for pileated woodpeckers on my afternoon running route. Every spring my family endures the nesting barn swallows, with their aggressive stunt pilot antics. Instead of watching the Super Bowl, I drove with a group of friends to look for snowy and short-eared owls and found six of the latter barking at sunset, swooping into the grass on the hunt for voles.
I’ll often take a train along the Hudson into the city and look for eagles. Spotting one last week, I tapped my seat mate, a stranger, on the shoulder. “Did you see that?” I asked. He shrugged. Every day, I marvel at most people’s ambivalence when faced with such biological wonder.
Nature handed literature a readymade metaphor with the bird. There is Angelou’s caged bird, Keats’s Nightingale, Poe’s raven, Ibsen’s duck, Coleridge’s albatross, Dickinson’s hope with feathers. There is the proud political eagle, icon of justice, and the biblical dove, olive branch in mouth. Naturally, the metaphors fall prey to overuse and cliché. Birds bring us news, emblematize freedom, evoke elusiveness and beauty. And to me, they are also a barometer of environmental health: as birds go, so do we.
Claude Lévi-Strauss believed ravens entered mythical status in human storytelling because they moved between life and death. He later lamented that he loathed watching “a frightful disappearance of living species, be they plants or animal. And it’s clear that the density of human beings has become so great, if I can say so, that they have begun to poison themselves.” Every time I learn of mass bird deaths, I think of this idea, the strange human capacity for self-destruction and habitat degradation, and our failure to glimpse the red flags in the birdlife all around us: oil-slicked birds in Texas, quiet forests, the weakened shells of puffin eggs.
I measure my literary achievements not in books but in the lines or phrases I like, one being the title of my first book, Birds of a Lesser Paradise, a riff on diminished natural extravagance which I wrote while in the throes of my first bout of environmental anxiety. I pictured a Lesser Bird of Paradise alone in a cage with dull feathers, molting. One day, at a reading in Little Rock, Arkansas, a woman in my signing line opened her copy of the book. Balanced across the pages was the dead body of a bird, an exquisite indigo bunting, likely a casualty of death by windowpane. “I thought you might like this,” she said, choked up. “I knew you’d understand.”
Christopher Cokinos’s Hope is the Thing with Feathers: A Personal Chronicle of Vanished Birds explores the death of a Carolina parakeet, the body of which I saw in a museum in middle school. Used for millinery and killed for sport, the intelligent birds that once filled the southern sky with clouds of green feathers became extinct in 1918. The explorer John K. Townsend wrote of their behavior while being shot en masse:
They seemed entirely unsuspicious of danger, and after being fired at only huddled closer together, as if to obtain protection from each other, and as their companions are falling around them, they cure down their necks and look at them fluttering upon the ground, as though perfectly at a loss to account for so unusual an occurrence.
The Carolina Parakeet, like the other birds in Cokinos’s book—the heath hen, the passenger pigeon, and the ivory-billed woodpecker—met its once unfathomable demise at the careless hands of enterprising humans. Jonathan Rosen, pining for the extinct ivory-billed woodpecker in his book Life in the Skies, Birding at the End of Nature, writes that, “among its gifts to us, the ivory-bill can help us see ourselves as we really are, torn between our own desire to be free—to shoot and develop and cut down and expand—and the desire to live among free things that can survive only if we are less free.”
Like old-school naturalists, human beings have a knack for killing the things they love. Perhaps our past method of cataloging nature is not so varied from the future—picture the Smithsonian’s glass-topped drawers of specimens, gorgeous and gruesome, a vibrant educational catalog of what was. Keats’s nightingale may one day live on in song and not body.
Kurt Vonnegut put forth what he called “the canary in the coal mine theory of the arts” and noted that “artists should be treasured as alarm systems.” In the conclusion to her landmark, data-driven book Silent Spring, Rachel Carson supposed we might learn from early mistakes, that we might become more humble in our scientific pursuits:
The “control of nature” is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man … It is our alarming misfortune that so primitive a science has armed itself with the most modern and terrible weapons, and that in turning them against the insects it has also turned them against the earth.
As seasons change, I turn my eyes skyward and watch the small flocks, wishing them clean water, successful breeding, and safe passage. Every fall, when our barn swallows leave their muddy nests in the rafters, I marvel at the instinctual knowledge and fight in their small bodies, and hope to see them again in spring. I witness. I keep watch.
A friend of mine—a talented cellist who can bird by ear—recently shared a picture of a kill site in the snow, a violent and beautiful image, the brushstrokes of a large wingspan as an owl landed to carry away a chickadee. It was only just there.