Our Birds

John Nelson Click to

John Nelson is the author of Cultivating Judgment (New Forums Press), on the teaching of critical thinking skills, and has contributed fiction and essays to The Gettysburg Review, The Massachusetts Review, The Snowy Egret, and Birding.  His essay “Brolga the Dancing Crane Girl,’ on birds and dance, was awarded the Carter Prize for the best non-fiction piece published in Shenandoah during the 2011-2012 season.

It was among the first birds my wife and I spotted on our first outing in Guatemala, in a busy grove beside a pond on a lush hillside. It’s not a hard bird to identify, a rich blue above, rusty-chested, but I was momentarily disoriented. Then I knew: what the hell are you doing here?  With recognition came the delight of finding an old friend in an unexpected place, in odd company, with a Social Flycatcher, a raucous clique of Band-backed Wrens, and, distantly calling, an Ocellated Quail we never did track down. I dimly recalled that Eastern Bluebird was on the tour checklist, but it wasn’t a bird I’d come here to see, and I wouldn’t have grumbled if I’d missed it. In fact, I abandoned it when our guide called out another thrush—Rufous-collared Robin—a life bird for me. I studied the robin a while, then returned to the bluebird, still fixed intently on its perch until it stooped for a bug. Around us, in a flurry with local sparrows and siskins, were other birds I knew well, Eastern Wood-Pewee, Magnolia Warbler, Ruby-throated Hummingbird—all “our birds,” that is, common where we live, in Eastern North America. After all, the bluebird and pewee didn’t get their names because they hail from East Guatemala.

I’ve felt this same little thrill of recognition, the same swelling of local pride—“There, that beauty is one of our birds!”—when I’ve found other Neotropical migrants in lands far from our home in Gloucester, Massachusetts. A flame-throated Blackburnian Warbler catches the sun as it forages in a treetop on a Venezuelan mountain. Two Wood Thrushes posture like street toughs and bicker over territory in our “yard” at Chan Chich Lodge in Belize. Of course, they’re not really “our” birds at all. Yes, we see them every year, though sometimes it takes effort, and some raise families in our town or not far from here. Yes, these are the birds, especially the wood warblers, that foreign birders yearn most to see when they come to New England in spring. But if home is where you spend most of your time, or the place to which you always return after a long, strenuous journey—what biologists call “site fidelity”–then for these birds home is tropical America, among manakins and antbirds quite exotic to any New Englander.

It might be more apt to say that meeting these birds abroad is like visiting the homes of friends, or nodding acquaintances, that you’ve known only on the job. Some, you find, behave quite differently on their home turf. Kentucky Warblers and Yellow-breasted Chats, skulking and elusive in Massachusetts, like underlings cowering in fear of reprimand, are hopping around out in the open as if they own the joint. The Eastern Kingbird, so bossy at work on its breeding territory, squelching rivals, harassing crows, joins a crew of wimpy kingbird transients on its winter grounds in western Amazonia. Steven Hilty describes it in Birds of Tropical America: “Its pugnacity is traded for docile subordination to virtually all its tropical relatives, and its territoriality is traded for a period of nomadic wandering.” And that Hooded Warbler couple, such a tight-knit unit at the nest, now hardly seem to know each other. They came down on separate flights, hang out in different clubs, and don’t even seem to like the same food. Other species give pleasure, and reassurance, simply because they seem so abundant on their winter grounds, packed into a space—suitable habitat in Central America—much smaller than their potential nesting area in North America. In the mountains of Guatemala, Wilson’s Warbler and Townsend’s Warbler became known to us as Mr. Wilson and Mr. Townsend, always around, always together.

Of course the work vs. home analogy doesn’t really hold up, just as it doesn’t apply to many humans, especially females, who have to work harder at home than they do at work. These birds aren’t lounging in Caribbean man caves or shooting the breeze around the barbecue. They’re not the free spirits some would like them to be. In fact, when I find these familiar birds in Guatemala, Venezuela, or as far south as Argentina, I’m always struck by how hard they must struggle just to get there and stay there. Their migrations are solitary, energy-sapping, life-risking journeys of thousands of miles, back and forth every year, often in miserable weather, without a map of the stars for navigation, and utterly self-propelled, with a self-reliance that shames us. They’re not whining about body scans or the size of the free pretzel packets.

If and when they finally do make it home, there’s no time to rest.  There are groceries to be gotten, a new set of predators to evade, from kinkajous to forest-falcons, and testy, territorial neighbors, the specialists whose dominance of well-defined tropical niches may have induced the migrants to migrate in the first place. “One bush,” says an ancient Greek proverb, “does not shelter two robins.” Or they may find that home isn’t there at all, that it’s under cultivation or pavement, and have to search for a new neighborhood. And in six months or so, they’ll have to do it all over again, accomplish the same amazing metabolic feat, with the same or greater problems awaiting them back at work. Some problems are man-made, theoretically fixable.  Others, like the conflict between migratory and maternal impulses, described by Charles Darwin in The Descent of Man, are as inescapable as the need to eat or preen. Leave now, when the time to migrate is ripe, forcing vulnerable offspring into their own lives of radical self-sufficiency, or wait until it may be too late? Those birds that never leave North America face their own dilemmas. Will they make it through the winter scarcity?

A visit to tropical America in winter, following the migrants and the mystery of migration, is also a trip back in time, recapitulating the dynamic course of avian life in the Western Hemisphere. In his article “Long Trail in the Sky: The Glacial Origins of Bird Migration,” Wayne Petersen says: “Many ornithologists believe that the modern-day migrations are reflective of long-term variations in climate and habitat that took millennia to forge into the migration patterns observable now.” In heading south, some migrants, including many sparrows and shorebirds, are not really heading home at all, for these are species whose ancient origins can be traced with some assurance to the temperate or boreal regions of North America. When the glaciers moved south, these birds went south too, faced by a choice between probable extinction and a journey to a region where food was still to be found. When the glaciers finally retreated, the birds returned to their historic breeding grounds, where food was again available, though many relive the prehistoric journeys south when the food supply grows leaner each fall. In his description of the Water Ouzel, a species of our Western mountains now known as the American Dipper, John Muir sees in the bird the full history of glaciation in North America: “Were the flights of all the ouzels in the Sierra traced on a chart, they would indicate the direction of the flow of the entire system of ancient glaciers, from about the period of the breaking up of the ice-sheet until near the close of the glacial winter.”

Other migrants, including hummingbirds, wood warblers, orioles, and tanagers, come from families that likely originated and evolved in the American tropics. In migrating south, these birds are returning to an ancestral home. They are, in the words of naturalist John Hay, birds in tune with planetary rhythms, “ancient claimants, with a profound sense of direction and internal ties to their natal sites.” Rudyard Kipling once divided men into two basic types, “those that stay at home and those that do not,” and the same might be said of birds. “Long-distance migrant species,” says John Kricher in A Neotropical Companion, “represent the relatively few that ventured northward into the temperate zone, extending their ranges, perhaps because the northern summer presents an abundance of proteinaceous insect resources for the rearing of young, longer days in which to feed, fewer predators, plus the availability of abundant nesting sites.” Hilty calls these species the “gamblers,” who, like human migrants, rolled the dice on their chances of finding a promised land, while the “conservatives” stayed home. Each strategy carries its own risks and rewards, if “strategy” is the word for it. Some Amazonian birds can’t adapt to the bright light outside tropical jungles, and some stay-at-home species are so instinctively agoraphobic that they won’t cross any body of water, even a river, much less fly 500 miles nonstop across the Gulf of Mexico.

Meanwhile, some migrants push their luck so far that it’s hard to call it gambling at all. In Chile I was taken aback by the unmistakable tail flash of an American Redstart, a species far from its usual winter home and recorded only a few times in that country. It raised the unanswerable questions we often ask of vagrant birds: Why exactly did you come here? Did you feel wanderlust? If there are resources for you here, how did you know about them? Are you a pioneer, or are you just lost?

If a bird like the redstart, which breeds within a few miles of our house, is not one of “our” birds, then which birds are?  Well, the residents of course, the Black-capped Chickadee, the Downy Woodpecker, our all-weather New England comrades who suck it up, tough it out, snuggle to keep warm, and don’t flee south each year at the slightest hint of snowfall. These are our own conservatives, despite claims that conservatives are a rare breed in Massachusetts. But if we go by duration of stay or the usual human definitions of residency, we’d also have to include birds like the Snow Bunting, King Eider, and Harlequin Duck, Arctic breeders we call “winter visitors.” Whether they are visiting or returning home, they are as inseparable from coastal New England, as well-fitted to the habitats we offer, as the ducks, woodpeckers, and nuthatches that spend their whole lives here. Watch the Harlequin Ducks in December foraging in rough surf below a granite headland on Cape Ann, and you’ll see why they have been called North America’s only “torrent” duck. And the Snow Buntings, camouflaged on sand or patches of dirt, feeding beside dirty mounds of snow, are as much true New Englanders as the clamdiggers bent over on our mudflats in mid January.

If there’s pleasure in finding a local breeding bird in the tropics—a Wood Thrush on our doorstep in Belize—there’s a converse pleasure in seeing these “winter visitors” on their breeding grounds in the Arctic. When I went to Alaska a few years back, I wanted to find birds I’d never seen before—a Yellow-billed Loon, a Rhinocerous Auklet, or the legendary Bristle-thighed Curlew—but I was just as enthralled by birds I already knew. They were all decked out in their breeding plumage, the now yellow-billed Lapland Longspurs in stylish black ascots, and the phalaropes sporting vivid reds, not the drab garb they wear around Massachusetts. But it was more than that. A Long-tailed Jaeger, a species I’d seen in New England only far out to sea, was hundreds of miles from any ocean, hunting in a vast expanse of alpine tundra below Denali. The Harlequin Ducks were far inland as well, at a mountain stream—a stretch to call it a “torrent”—and one of them thought it was a Dipper, walking the stream as it searched the rocks for prey. The Buff-breasted Sandpipers, meanwhile, were just plain nuts, jerking around, wobbly as drunks, sidling up to blasé females to show off their sexy armpits. I realized I’d never known these birds at all. At most I’d glimpsed them. Their lives were strange, complex, and dramatic in ways I’d never imagined. “In a world older and more complete than our,” wrote Henry Beston about the mysterious synchronicity of migrating shorebirds, “they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings, they are other nations.”

In fact, no birds are truly “our” birds. It’s not just that we don’t own them, though we may cage them, classify them, or name them as pets or scientific species. Birds may evoke feelings of familiarity, empathy, even intimacy, but they move through time at a pace, and with an intense adaptability to extreme shifts in their routines—most evident in their migrations—that gives their life histories a dynamic shape radically different from even the most peripatetic of human lives. Even the birds we can safely call neighbors, the New England loyalists, are “our” birds only for a time. Life, whether human or avian, is never static. The great forests of Canada, where many wood warblers and other migrants breed, have been called “boreal refugia,” but they are threatened now, as are many habitats in the world. In the scope of geological time, any refuge is transitory. My wife and I live with the chickadees on a granite hilltop, high above marshland, in no apparent danger of flooding, but this land was once under the ocean, with no chickadees in sight and no humans to watch them. Someday it will be under water again—in the long run, as part of glacial advance and retreat, or in the shorter run, through global warning. Whether or not our descendants are around to see them, there will be no chickadees in these parts to see, just as there will be no Baltimore Orioles in Baltimore, if there is still a Baltimore.

Yet in another sense, all birds are our birds, wherever they might be and whether or not we ever get a chance to see them. Ornithologist Chris Leahy says that all the individuals on earth—every person, bird, organism—share a “single ecosystem,” and this isn’t a mere figure of speech. Take, for instance, two bird species, far flung and seemingly unrelated. The Wrentit, neither wren nor tit but suggestive of both, is a solitary, sedentary bird of California chaparral and coastal scrub, a permanent resident, reluctant to fly and notorious for its refusal to stray far from home. The Cape Rock-jumper, a bird of rocky mountain slopes and scree, is endemic to a small range at the southern tip of South Africa. The two come from different families, live in different habitats on different continents, with different sources of food, and it’s safe to say they’ll never meet. But take one of their neighbors—a Little Blue Heron, a Ruddy Turnstone, or a Peregrine Falcon, all species found on almost every continent—and then move on to the neighbor’s various neighbors around the world, and it won’t take you six degrees of separation to connect the Wrentit and the rock-jumper, or any other two species, as well as most of the planet’s fauna and flora. They’re all interdependent, needing the same things to thrive, threatened in the same ways—by human encroachment, habitat destruction, invasive species. And they’re all our birds to the extent that we take a stake in them, whether they’re in California chaparral, South African scree, or the Mongolian steppes. It’s a question of how badly we want them to endure, for our grandchildren if you like, or simply because it would be a shame for such marvels to perish from the earth.

Next winter my wife and I plan to visit the Bahamas. I’d like to add a few species to my life list, like the Great Lizard Cuckoo, from a genus endemic to the West Indies, but I’m also hoping to find a Kirtland’s Warbler, a jack spine specialist that breeds only in a very restricted range in or near northern Michigan. Listed as endangered, the warbler is making a comeback because of efforts to preserve its breeding habitat and defend it against the nest parasitism of Brown-headed Cowbirds, but its survival depends just as much on preservation of habitat in its only known wintering grounds, the Bahamas and nearby Turks and Caicos. If I’m in luck, I’ll also see some old friends, like the Little Blue Herons that feed at a pond down the road from us, or the Pine Warbler that returns each April to our suet feeder and breeds in a pine grove behind our house, though I won’t know if I’m looking at the same bird. When spring comes to Massachusetts, I’ll look for these birds again, and those Eastern Bluebirds from Guatemala, for the pleasure of recognition and with worry about their welfare and a deeper appreciation of their struggles. They make me feel more rooted at home, yet connected to the places I’ve visited—marshes, mountains, and forests I won’t see again —along with the birds who share those places and the people who live among them.