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Bird by bird, the avian population is shrinking

The songs of tens of millions of birds have been silenced. It feels as if the lights are dimming.

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Forty-three years ago, when I reached what my grandfather imagined to be the eve of puberty, I was summoned to spend the weekend with him at his house in rural Connecticut.

I knew what to expect because my four older brothers had undergone the same rite of passage. The climax of the weekend would be the ceremonial presentation of a double-barreled shotgun, followed by sober instruction on firearm safety and general manliness. Next, my grandfather would take me on an excursion into the woods and we'd fire off a few rounds.

But when my turn came the ritual had changed. Instead of a gun, I was given a double-barreled pair of binoculars, and then my grandfather took me on my first bird walk.

I was bewildered. But within an hour my disappointment was forgotten, shoved aside by sheer awe at the sight of a redstart hovering in midair, the sound of a wood thrush's flute music, the swoosh of chimney swifts rushing in formation overhead. Out of the cacophony of the dawn chorus, my grandfather taught me to pick out the rhythm of a dropped ping-pong ball in the field sparrow's song and the towhee's exuberant "drink your tea!" By their silhouettes alone I learned to distinguish a phoebe and a kestrel.

That weekend my grandfather lifted the veil to a world that had not existed for me before. I didn't want our time together to end because I would have to go back to my family's farm where, to the best of my knowledge, there were no birds.

Of course, back home in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, I found all the birds I'd been introduced to in Connecticut and many more, ambassadors of every color: electric-blue indigo buntings, blood-red scarlet tanagers, earth-toned veeries. I still remember the first blackburnian warbler I ever saw, his throat and cheeks so vividly orange, his face looked like it might burst into flames.

Spring and summer mornings thereafter, I'd wake up and listen to the birds singing in my backyard. If there was a sound I couldn't recognize, I'd throw on a shirt and pair of pants, grab my binoculars, and track it down, something I still do today.

In his later years, my grandfather used to grumble that birds were becoming scarcer and scarcer. It was tempting to write off his gloom as the natural tendency of the elderly to romanticize the past, or maybe just an old man's deteriorating hearing and eyesight. But it was true that the whippoorwill that had kept me awake nights when I visited him as a boy had gone quiet, and the woods and fields of the Northeast felt emptier to me.

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