Year of The Bird
10,000 species make hearts soar
Tallahassee is a good town for bird watching, owing to the diverse habitats it harbors.
I begin my days sipping a highly caffeinated energy drink and watching the Carolina wrens, mourning doves, cardinals, house finches and occasional brown thrashers — that I tend to call “John” — at the feeder outside my window.
And, by the time I commute from the south end of town to its middle, I am likely to have seen white egrets, blue herons, black crows and wood storks.
It should come as no surprise, then, that our town is home to a large community of birders united in ways that ensure that when a pair of whooping cranes shows up at a pond in SouthWood, all of the birding brethren instantaneously know about it.
Many of them flock together at Wild Birds Unlimited on Thomasville Road, where I am regular enough to be recognized by store personnel who cannot quite remember my name, but think that they should.
Never have I encountered anyone at that store whom I would consider capable of disturbing another’s peace. They might take steps to deny squirrels the peanuts they intend for blue jays or fire a slingshot at a free-ranging cat, but even those acts would require for them considerable soul searching.
In 2018, organizations including the National Audubon Society and the National Geographic Society are celebrating what they have declared the Year of the Bird, coinciding with the 100th anniversary of the passage in the U.S. of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
National Geographic kicked off the observance with the cover story for the January edition of its magazine, a piece written by novelist and bird freak Jonathan Franzen, who invited readers to consider “Why Birds Matter” and conceded that he cannot readily explain why birds are important to him.
For me, the answer to that question is simple and magnificent. In a world given to disorienting technological change, the disappearance of privacy and the ascendency of despotism, birds inspire natural wonder, and that I find precious.
Not long ago, I learned of a behavior called anting, engaged in by birds, including cardinals, that rub ants on themselves or permit ants to crawl over them. Why, no one knows for sure, but ants secrete formic acid, a natural insecticide, and that may have something to do with it.
Cardinals and other anters must somehow be able to distinguish and avoid fire ants. Amazing. And what’s more, birds fly.
National Geographic quotes naturalist Thomas Lovejoy, who once commented, “If you take care of the birds, you take care of most of the problems of the world.”
I once independently said the same thing about trout. Franzen points out that birds, for all of their terrific abilities and instincts, cannot preserve the habitats on which they depend.
Or as the communication scholar Kenneth Burke may have said, borrowing from his own definition of human, they are not “separated from their natural condition by instruments of their own making.” They don’t make tools for making tools and are thus limited to found objects.
A green heron may drop an insect on the surface of a pond to attract a minnow, but it is incapable of crafting a Bass-Oreno and is thus limited and thus dependent on the kindnesses of humans for its continued survival.
It inhabits only one nature, that to which it is born.
Birds can, however, influence people, if you let them. Set aside distractions and focus on them, and your blood pressure will drop; I swear it’s true. Franzen, who says that he has become that man whose heart lifts “whenever he hears a grosbeak singing,” is resolved to spend the second half of his life as a bird-watcher.
Invest further in a relationship with birds, and you may find that you can influence them without raising a tool. Among some friends and relatives, I am known as a shaman because I seem able to summon birds.
I went to the window at the home of a friend who reported disappointment because he had not seen a painted bunting all year. And a bunting appeared.
At the home of my brother, Tad, I noticed that a hummingbird feeder had been neglected. “They don’t come around anymore,” I was told. I filled the feeder and, momentarily, a ruby-throat arrived.
I reflected intently on past sightings of bald eagles, including, as a child, watching one devour a muskrat at the edge of a lake, and an eagle, youthful but white-headed, buzzed the pond where I stood fishing.
I could go on.
But 10,000 species of birds around the world remind us that the improbable is possible.