Why Birds Matter?

Every year, in between Tax Day and May Day, millions of people celebrate Earth Day, and while I am among them, my personal appreciation for the planet does not peak until the late spring and early summer. The reason: the arrival of the birds.

Many migratory birds fly thousands of miles, braving bad weather and bad luck–collisions with skyscrapers, wind turbines, communications towers, power lines and jets, not to mention too-close encounters with domestic cats–to return to old nesting grounds and raise their young, yet one more time.

And I’m proud of them.

A sobering number–perhaps as many as half of these courageous creatures–make this hazardous, hardwired journey each year and never return. So when I recently spied a small flock of returning Chipping Sparrows scratching in the grass one recent morning, roughly the same time they had appeared year after year, I found myself breaking into a smile, rewarded like a small boy mesmerized by a magic trick that never reveals its secret.

Indeed, I’ve been watching birds since I was a small boy, living in the country before it became suburban Long Island, when there were still just a handful of TV stations that went dark at midnight to a recording of “The Star Spangled Banner.” Not much to do for a bunch of boys when told by weary parents, “Go outside and play,” so I turned to nature for my own personal (and cheap) entertainment. I started identifying birds, with the help of a simple pocket field guide, standard 7x 35 binoculars, and a smart older brother. My early bird days were not much different from other collecting hobbies, like stamps and coins, identifying different species and adding them to my “Life List.”

This first phase of birding was easy. Identifying a roster of common species is something any neophyte could manage, even without binoculars. Year by year, the challenge of adding new species became more difficult. It took a lot of effort to search out less common and more secretive species; identifications got trickier as I sought to distinguish dozens of similar species of warblers and sparrows–especially since these kinetic little things rarely sat still for my convenience.
That’s why the spring migrations have always been so welcome. They offer an annual window where I can to witness hundreds of species traveling along the Atlantic Flyway, an avian superhighway that migrants have followed for tens of thousands of years. Early on, enthusiasts like me seemed to be members of an eccentric club, but as the Green Movement grew, so have the admitted ranks of birders, including a fair number of famous names, from Jimmy Carter and Stephen Breyer, to Jonathan Franzen, Steve Martin, Cameron Diaz–and yes, even Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger.

These days, my birding has become a more intermittent activity, amid family and career demands. I’m not focused on amassing an ever growing Life List, nor am I what the British call a twitcher–someone who would travel long distances to see a rare bird. But my emotional bond to birding remains strong, and in some ways has deepened in unexpected ways.

Birds still matter.

The first thing I’ve come to see is how much birding has connected me to the pure vitality of life. When I wake up each morning, the first thing I hear is a profusion of songs. For a few uninterrupted moments, I witness life wholly devoted to recreating life: birds unabashedly announcing their presence to the world, staking their territory, eating, tirelessly raising their young, and surviving–hopefully–until the next migration. I call these my Copernican moments: the understanding that, despite our determined efforts to prove otherwise, the universe does not actually revolve around us humans.

Bird watching has also taught me some interesting lessons about myself–mainly how to look for things I want. In searching for birds, I usually set out like a hunter, going from habitat to habitat, assiduously covering as much ground as possible. It works. But over time, I’ve discovered another, often equally effective, strategy. Just stay in one promising location and be still. Wait for the birds to come to you, and often–as in life–what you’re looking for will appear if you’re patient, aware, and ready for its arrival.

I often wonder what secrets we humans have yet to discover from birds.

What could we learn about energy consumption, for example, from the migrating Blackpoll Warbler, which would get 720,000 miles a gallon if it burned gasoline instead of reserves of body fat? And what more will we learn about the origin of species by researching the habits of today’s birds, which most paleontologists believe have evolved from small carnivorous dinosaurs? (Yeah, I love the idea that I can still walk among the dinosaurs–fast-forward a few million years–in my own Jurassic backyard.)

Still, I worry for the birds. Never mind the hazards of migration. Some days I wonder whether any songbirds will survive at all, considering the changes we’ve imposed on the landscape, destroying breeding and wintering habitats, north and south. I don’t need to see a canary keel over in a coal mine to sense danger; I can already detect the diminishing numbers of species in my community, which simply can’t support the needs of most birds, except the suburban-hardy Robins, House Sparrows and Starlings.

I’ve never been an intransigent tree-hugger, but I’m not an economy-centric advocate, either. Those who mock environmentalists for trying to protect endangered species like the Spotted Owl or Red Knot fail to understand that saving birds is no liberal conceit; it’s a conservative ideal. Birds, like all living things, evolve and some species inevitably become extinct, but they remain important parts of a diverse and intricate world. In protecting birds we protect ourselves–if nothing else, from being overrun by insects. And more than that, just having them around makes this planet a more vibrant and joyfully noisy place.

–Ron Roel

Forty Forward!