A Life Returned

One morning a few weeks ago, I stepped out our back door onto the patio, walked quietly up to the bird feeders, and very gently plucked a small House Finch from one of the perches. She offered no resistance, save for a surprised squawk and a feeble twitch in my hand—an attempt, no doubt, to escape, which might have succeeded had she been stronger. But this was a sick bird. Eyes crusted closed, the bird hadn’t seen me coming, and in her weakened condition she was barely able to struggle. This was a classic case of Mycoplasmal conjunctivitis—House Finch eye disease.

Holding her safely and securely in what’s known as a bander’s grip—back against my palm, hand cupped around her wings, tail, and feet, index and middle finger on either side of her neck with her head peeking out between them—I carried her into the house and placed her in a small carrier. To keep her quiet and relaxed, I draped a cover over it, ensuring that enough air flowed in to allow her to breathe easily. Then I called Judy Pasko, a wildlife rehabber I know in Cummington, and we were off.

An hour later I was on my way back home, the little finch in Judy’s care. For me, it was all over but the waiting. Judy would do everything she could, but the bird’s condition wasn’t good: the disease was advanced, and she was very weak. The next 24 hours were critical. If she made it through a full day of treatment, she’d have a decent chance to survive.

First spotted by Project FeederWatch participants in the Washington, D.C. area early in 1994, House Finch eye disease spread like wildfire all along the Eastern Seaboard. Co-sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada, FeederWatch is a citizen science project that gets ordinary people involved in monitoring the birds that visit their yards and reporting what they see. Sightings are collected in a central database, which scientists and conservationists can use to look at population trends, migration timing, appearance of specific species… if there’s a question they can ask, this massive data set—submitted by thousands of regular people who just love birds—can help them get at an answer. In February of 1994, FeederWatchers began reporting House Finches with red, crusty, swollen eyes. But what was it? Where did it come from? And how did it spread?

The first two were easy to answer: Mycoplasmal conjunctivitis is an illness caused by the parasitic bacterium Mycoplasma gallisepticum, which jumped species from infected poultry. The third was a little harder; two decades after its emergence in House Finches, the jury’s still out. Most likely, the pathogen passes from one bird to another through contact with infected droppings or the hallmark eye secretions, but no one’s entirely sure. What’s certain is that it does spread, and easily: in addition to House Finches, Evening Grosbeaks, American Goldfinches, and Purple Finches have all succumbed to it. And in 2002, the disease crossed the Rockies and began racing through the western U.S., infecting House Finches all the way to the Pacific Coast. My little bird was in good company.

And she was also in good hands. Judy called the next day with an update: the finch was still with us, and seemed a little stronger after her first course of medicine. She wasn’t out of the woods yet, but things were looking up. Now she faced a few weeks of treatment, rest, and acclimation to the cooler weather heralding winter’s approach. If all went well, in about three weeks she’d be ready to be released. I’m not usually given to prayer, but I asked for Mother Nature’s intercession, and hoped that She might convey this little bird back to health.

Sometimes prayers are answered. This morning, Judy drove the finch back home. The bird she released in our yard was feisty, energetic, and possessed of all the vitality that this disease had drained from her—the fire of life burning deep and strong within her feathered breast. She flew to the top of the tallest tree, and was immediately joined by another of her kin. The two finches sat in each other’s company, perhaps enjoying their reunion, and then she took flight again, descending into the yard. She landed in a nearby Ash and, head tilted in our direction, regarded us—we two who had helped her back to life. I looked into her eye, and the full force of connection hit me—a freight train carried on gossamer wings. Weeks before, I had reached out my hand and delivered her into the hands of another who would save her. And here she was, healthy, beautiful, and free.

It doesn’t always end this way. There have been others who’ve been less fortunate, who we’ve tried to help and who were already too far gone. But as Judy said this morning, you do what you can, even if doesn’t change the outcome. If nothing else, at least they knew safety, comfort, and love before they passed.

My family and I took a trip to California this past April, and on a beach in Monterey we found a female Surf Scoter in clear distress. We wrapped her in my jacket and brought her an hour away to a wildlife rescue center—gaunt, bedraggled, and barely holding on. She died during the night. Why had we found her, my son wondered, if we couldn’t save her? In the end, what good did we do?

Sometimes, it seems pointless. If the bird’s going to die anyway, why bother? The answer is simple: because we can. Because we should. Because all life has equal value, and must be treated with respect, with reverence, and with love. And because, regardless of outcome, there’s nobility in the attempt.

And once in a while, in the face of uncertainty and through great care, a life on the edge comes back to us. In that moment, hope is reborn, life is proven stronger than death, and we are given the gift of connection to all that is, was, and will ever be. And for a time, at least, the world is good.


To learn more about Judy Pasko and to support her work, you can check out her website, Cummington Wildlife Inc.

You can get more info about House Finch eye disease through the Project FeederWatch website here

… and here

… the Cornell Lab’s All About Birds website here


… and here.

And you can learn more about Project FeederWatch here.




A Collision Of Worlds: Passerines And Pipelines

Yellow Warbler

I’m sitting in the livingroom watching a beautiful Yellow Warbler work the Bradford pear trees in the front yard, flitting from branch to branch, exploring the newly-opened blooms for insects and snaffling up whatever he can find. He just arrived yesterday, and quickly declared the trees as his own, chasing off the errant Chickadee or warbler that might dare encroach on his territory. But his defense goes only so far: he allows the Tufted Titmouse pair to forage freely, the Chipping Sparrows don’t seem to bother him, and he ignores the other recent arrivals—a pair of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, another pair of Gray Catbirds, and a solitary male Baltimore Oriole, resplendent in vibrant orange and rich black. Maybe it’s self-preservation that guides him: With the exception of the sparrows, these birds are all larger, some double his size, and perhaps he fears injury. Or it could be that they don’t care for the same foods he fancies. Whatever the reason, as long as no Chickadees are about, there is harmony among the leaves.

Life is good for this little bird, and he seems to know it. To my ear—and at the risk of anthropomorphizing—his song sounds joyful and exuberant, celebrating the return of warmer weather and the cornucopia spread before him. His antics are entirely endearing, and I find myself captivated by the bonfire of life contained within his tiny, delicate form. I could sit and watch him for hours.

Spring migration is in full effect; the trickle of intrepid early northbound wanderers increasing to an unstoppable feathered flood, each day bringing new arrivals, some bound for far northern latitudes, others looking for a secure summer home in which to nest and raise their young. Many of our yard birds have already begun pairing up, Catbirds, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, and Chipping Sparrows among them. Others, like the lone Oriole, our resident Carolina Wren, and the little warbler pause regularly from their venatic pursuits and burst forth into full-throated song, staking their territorial claims and advertising their availability to the fairer sex.

Baltimore Oriole

For migratory birds, timing is everything—and these next weeks are critical. Migration is hard; young birds need time to develop the strength and skill necessary to survive the rigors of a multi-thousand mile journey, so the adults have to get down to the business of nesting and rearing post haste if they’re to give their offspring the best chance. The line separating life and death is thin, and serious disruption could push the year’s new birds over it.

Sadly, just 50 miles away, in Sandisfield, Massachusetts, that’s exactly what’s poised to happen. This sleepy Berkshire County town sits in the middle of a controversy between local landowners and environmentalists and the Tennessee Gas Pipeline Company. Tennessee Gas (or TGP)—a subsidiary of Kinder Morgan—has just recently cleared the final hurdle to begin construction of a highly controversial natural gas pipeline known as the Connecticut Expansion Project. TGP’s pipeline expansion will cut through four miles of state forest and private land, and involve clearing 29 acres of prime woodland habitat—land upon which many species of birds are already nesting. For these birds, the project is an unmitigated disaster. Migratory birds face an entire host of threats already; this project adds a fair amount of insult to a great deal of injury. Not only will any land cleared by TGP be unavailable for future nesting, the chaos of tree cutting and bulldozing may be too much disturbance for current nesting birds to handle—potentially forcing them to abandon their nests, and any eggs or newly-hatched young within. It’s possible that some might try to re-nest, but finding another suitable nest site takes time, and puts additional pressure on late hatchlings to quickly build up the reserves they’ll need to undertake their southbound odyssey. One way or another TGP’s expansion project may well be the death of them.

Or not—with a little hope. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sent a letter to TGP recommending that they do any clearing and cutting outside of breeding seasons, to minimize any potential impact. But it’s only a recommendation. It has no teeth, and it’s entirely up to TGP whether or not they follow it. The fate of the birds remains to be seen. Now, they’re not bad people. From many who’ve dealt with them, the general impression is that TGP officials are professional, respectable, and polite. But there’s a lot of money on the table, and they’re determined to get it. And when money is the goal, what chance do the birds have? What consideration do their needs receive?

Chipping Sparrow

It’s not a question of malice that’s driving TGP forward in spite of the very real and damaging environmental consequences, it’s a lack of appreciation. What the officials at TGP fail to understand is this: Nature has an intrinsic worth that cannot be expressed in the material. Clear air, clean water, and healthy forests are fundamental to our survival; you can’t put a price tag on them. And there’s no dollar value you can assign that’s fair compensation for the life of a bird. Walking in the woods heals us; watching animals go about the business of life connects us to them and to the larger world around us, and reminds us that we are a part of something greater. Nature nurtures. We need but seek Her out and approach Her with respect, reverence, and humility—and with knowledge of our dependence on Her.

That’s what TGP has forgotten, and what those opposed to the expansion project are fighting for. And fight they should, as should we all. Yet in that fight we must not lose our humanity, and rather than demonize those who stand opposed to us, we would do well to educate them to Nature’s true worth, and to the dire consequences of pursuing such harmful courses. I’m not naïve enough to believe that we can awaken them all to the truth, so we must remain steadfast and vigilant. We may influence some, though—and regardless, there’s nobility in the attempt.

It’s important that we also recognize our own role, indirect though it may be, in bringing projects like the TGP expansion to life. TGP is, first and foremost, a business, and as such, responds to the realities of the market. If we, as consumers, demand or require more power to sustain our lifestyles, TGP and other utility companies will fall in place to meet that need. We are not entirely without fault, and if we really want to see a change, we have to first turn the mirror inward and see what each of us, as individuals, can do to set the wheels of change in motion. If we want to give wildlife more room, we’ll have to commit to taking up less ourselves. If we want to decrease our impact on our environment and the lives of the other animals within, we must start living more consciously, and find or adopt more sustainable ways to fuel our own lives. If, through our actions and our choices, we can show businesses like TGP that we’re willing to move the greater good of our environment and our non-human kin to the fore, perhaps we can convince them to care as well—or at least understand the importance of factoring more into their decisions than money. It smacks of great hypocrisy to decry the impact of others without first managing our own. Pausing in our relentless onslaught against Nature and giving Her a little space shouldn’t be too much to ask, and will ultimately benefit us all—for we all, environmentalist and utility company alike, must remember this: The wealth of Nature is not in what we can extract from Her. Rather, it lies deep within Her embrace, expressed in the grand scale of life on Earth, in the complexity of its interconnection, and in the simple beauty of a single bird.

A Common Death

Brown-headed Cowbird

Spend enough time in the woods and sooner or later you’ll find yourself among remnants of the dead. A skull here, a pile of feathers there—the last remains of some unfortunate creature, a shard of the life that was. This is death as a state of being—sad, of course, but static, disconnected, a few steps removed from the vital force that gave those remains shape and motion.

Coming upon a predator devouring a fresh kill is a step closer, but there the act is done, the prey inert, a lifeless form converted into a package of protein and fat, minerals and vitamins, whose consumption powers the life engine of another. A few years ago, I discovered a Peregrine Falcon making a meal of a Northern Pintail, and though I couldn’t help but have sympathy for the duck (while also allowing that I’d feel terrible if the falcon starved), it still lacked a certain emotional resonance.

Seeing an animal die is another story all together. It strikes at something fundamental and profound, and cuts to the core of your humanity. Sharing the last moments of another living being is at once the most intimate and heartbreaking of experiences.

Sharp-shinned Hawk

This spring, I watched a Sharp-shinned Hawk take a female Brown-headed Cowbird in our back yard. A group of them were feeding on the ground, and the raptor struck like lightning, scattering all but the target bird now clutched firmly in its talons, struggling in a desperate attempt to escape. Wing outstretched, the hawk paused for a moment, letting its prey quiet, then flew off to a secluded spot to eat.

There are many who believe that most—if not all—animals are driven purely by instinct, and lack emotions, self-awareness, or anything resembling inner lives. From a detached, intellectual perspective I suppose this is plausible. But get out and open your eyes to the world around you, your heart to the lives of those with whom we share it, and your mind to the breadth and depth of a non-human experience of it, and you’ll begin to appreciate that the scope of life is greater than our narrow human understanding of it.

When you watch a doomed songbird struggle in a raptor’s grasp, hear her cries as she fights for life, it changes your perspective. You’re bearing witness to something primal and deeply connecting: we all want to live, and in that moment, you recognize that you and the bird are the same—that bird knows that she is dying, will cease to exist as an individual. This has nothing to do with the survival of the species. Intellectually, each one of us knows that our death will not affect the future of our species as a whole; in such terms, a single human is insignificant. We know this, yet somehow it matters to us if we live or die. Animals know this as well. A zebra caught in a lion’s jaws, a sea lion snared by a killer whale, a cowbird trapped in the talons of a Sharp-shinned hawk—on some level, they all recognize that their deaths don’t spell the end of the species, yet each one still struggles to break free, to get away. To live. Why?

You can, if you’d like, argue that they’re simply obeying instinct. I disagree. They struggle because they all realize something fundamental: If I don’t escape, I am going to die. In the drama that unfolded in our backyard, the cowbird fought not out of some pre-programmed instinct, but because the bird didn’t want her life to end. Put another way, the bird recognized that she was unique, a discrete individual unlike any other member of her species. Far from a living machine bound solely by instinct, this little bird was driven by the same fears and desires within us all: I don’t want to die. I want to live.

Why is this important? It means that we have to rethink our approach to the world around us, change the nature of our relationship to it. If other animals do have emotions, do on some level experience loss, pain, joy, love, sorrow, then it’s no longer possible to see them as shallow, unfeeling creatures and treat them as callously as we do. We can no longer visit wanton death and destruction upon them or their homes. We must consider their lives as equal to our own.

It also means, though, that we, as a species, are not alone. There are threads that connect us with all life on Earth; beyond shared biology or genetics, we have commonalities of emotion and experience. We may not understand the emotions or inner lives of other animals, but we can be sure they have them. And though their experiences of the world may be different than ours, they are no less rich for it.

We spend an inordinate amount of time trying to remove ourselves from the province of Nature, but we, like all animals, are inextricably caught in Her grasp, subject to the same laws and bound for the same fate. We can rail against it all we want, but it will come to naught. And in the attempt, we cheapen ourselves, breaking connections that have historically sustained and nourished us. With these links gone, we inflict horrors upon our environment in the name of progress, failing to recognize that the damage we do only hastens our own demise.

It wasn’t always this way. There was a time, not so long ago, when we understood our connection to the Earth, and appreciated our dependence on its bounty. In these times of ecological crisis, perhaps the way forward lies in looking back, in mining our collective cultural memory and returning this knowledge to the surface. If we, as a species, can find the will to do this, then I believe there is still time. If we can learn to walk more gently upon the planet, we may yet avert the worst of things.

If the cowbird’s death reminds us of our links to the world around us, and fires in us a desire to protect and nurture our common home, perhaps she would be content. Perhaps then she would know that, beyond sustaining the life of a single bird, she helped to save us all.

Carl Safina has written extensively on the emotions and inner lives of animals, most notably in his recent work, Beyond Words: What Animals Think And FeelI highly recommend it.



A Most Unexpected Guest

Clay-colored Sparrow, home

Clay-colored Sparrow, home

For nearly 15 years, we’ve lived in a sleepy Massachusetts town nestled within the Pioneer Valley, about 90 minutes west of Boston and just shy of an hour north of Hartford. Not much goes on here: There’s no downtown to speak of, our arrival predates the local supermarket, and the only options for dinner out are pub fare, pizza, and Chinese. But there’s land, open space. There are fields and meadows, wetlands, rivers and streams, rocky crags, lakes, and stands of forest. There are pockets of wildness in farms, home gardens, and backyards.

And in all these areas, there are birds.

Every year we’ve been here, we’ve put out feeders and dutifully spread seed beneath them for those who prefer to feast on the ground. And every year, we delight in the birds who choose to spend time with us: the indomitable Chickadees, with their spunky, devil-may-care exuberance; Juncos, whose return brightens the cold winter; feisty and boldly-marked Red-bellied Woodpeckers; Chipping Sparrows radiating pure and irresistible joie de vivre; Goldfinches, whose remarkable transformation heralds spring’s inception; Nuthatches, Thrashers, Cardinals, Warblers, Redpolls, Mourning Doves, Hummingbirds—all bring vitality and life to our home. Some are regulars, others show up here and there, still others may stop by for a day or two to fortify themselves and take brief respite from their marathon journeys. All are wonderful to behold; almost daily, I find myself enthralled by these exquisite creatures simply going about their lives. No matter the bird, each one has its own gift to bestow, and we celebrate the familiar and the rare in equal measure. However, every once in awhile, something truly extraordinary shows up, and we play host to a singular and unexpected guest.

This winter saw the arrival of a distant wanderer. It dropped into our yard on a December afternoon with little fanfare, installed itself among the Tree Sparrows and Juncos, and tucked in to eat. I noticed it immediately; it was smaller than its cousins, very distinctly capped and streaked, and much paler—almost frosty. It was a sparrow, no doubt, but I experienced a moment of cognitive dissonance as I watched it. I knew what I was looking at, but I couldn’t accept what I was seeing: as if materializing from the ether, a Clay-colored Sparrow had appeared.

About the size of a Goldfinch, the Clay-colored Sparrow is a hearty little bird of midwestern climes, summering in northern prairies and migrating through the Great Plains to winter feeding grounds south of the border. During fall migration, a few strays regularly make it to both coasts, but these account for a scant few sightings at most—about two percent annually. It is, by all accounts, a rare bird, and not one to show up in a backyard in western Mass.

And yet, there it was. I called my wife and son in, and the three of us stood rapt, watching through the kitchen slider as the sparrow foraged for seed in the evening’s fading light. Before the light disappeared completely, I hurriedly snapped a few photos as proof—for us as much as anyone else—that the bird was, in fact, there, that we didn’t mistake it for something else. We watched until it grew too dark to see, then recounted the event excitedly to each other—in a combination of disbelief and shock. Witnessing such a rarity was thrilling, and we were honored that it chose to reveal itself to us, and that we had helped, however briefly, to sustain it. We posted the news on various birding sites, and included one or two of the photos—poor though they were—so people wouldn’t think we were completely delusional. I went to bed excited, satisfied, and deeply moved.

Clay-colored SparrowThe next morning, against our expectations, the bird was back—once more in the company of Juncos and Tree Sparrows. It fed throughout the day, and I watched it as often as I could, captivated: barely more than twelve hours after its sudden appearance, the rarest bird ever to grace our yard had returned. This was truly special. It stayed through the close of the day, then left to spend the night sheltered in a thicket somewhere. By morning it would no doubt be gone. Or so I thought.

But it was in the yard again the next day, and the next, and the next after that. Days stretched into weeks, and the sparrow stayed with us. I posted regular updates and people traveled, sometimes for hours, to see it. Some we knew well, others we’d met only once before. Regardless, we opened our home to all who wanted to spend time with this wonderful bird. It was a joy to share the experience, to connect with kindred spirits on such a deep, fundamental level.

I fell fast in love with the sparrow, and looked forward to its daily visit. It became a companion of sorts—wild yet familiar. Unlike the birds that appeared in larger numbers, this was the only one of its kind, a specific individual. Every time it returned, I knew it was the same bird—not a Clay-colored Sparrow, but the Clay-colored Sparrow. For a month, we started every morning together, sharing our breakfast—the bird with its seed, and me with whatever I was inspired to concoct. I learned its habits—when it was most active, when it would hide or show, what would cause it to flush, which birds it associated with. Through countless photos and observations, I created a clear picture of this sparrow at this moment in its life, and developed an intimately personal connection to it.

And then, about a week after the turning of the year, it vanished. It left as mysteriously as it had appeared—no fanfare, no warning, here one day, gone the next. But what, really, did I expect? It’s not as if the sparrow would knock on the window, thank us for the food, and take its leave. And though of course I’ll never know, I’m fairly certain that it didn’t feel any particular bond to me. For a time, our yard provided everything it required, and when conditions changed, it sought shelter and sustenance elsewhere. And that is as it should be. It is, after all, a wild creature, driven by primal forces from whose influence we’ve gone to great lengths to insulate ourselves. Perhaps that’s not to be lauded. Though we try to forget it, we are bound by the same rules, and need the same things to survive: food, water, shelter, a healthy environment, room to thrive and grow. And, occasionally, the kindness of strangers. For a time, we helped this little sparrow survive, as others have done for us. Could it have done without the food and shelter we provided? Probably. But we did, and it found us. And in some small way, we made its life a little easier.

In the end, perhaps that’s enough. I miss it, though. I’d grown accustomed to being with the sparrow, to greeting each morning with the eager foraging of this charming, spirited character. I enjoyed caring for it, and taking part, briefly, in its life. And even though I knew its departure was inevitable, it still came as a surprise. I still wasn’t ready.

In its leaving, the sparrow bestowed one final gift. One day, my son, too, will leave this house to set off on his own great adventure. It will happen sooner than I realize, and I won’t be ready to see him go. But he’ll be ready—and I’ll be proud of him and happy, secure in the knowledge that we did our best to prepare him for what’s out there, that we gave him the love, care, and confidence he’ll need to surmount the challenges in front of him and create a life of richness, happiness, and meaning. When that day comes, I will let him go, and though it will be tinged with sadness, I will celebrate his accomplishments and encourage him down the path to his future. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy every moment with him.

And that, too, is as it should be.

Clay-colored Sparrow









White-throated Sparrow

A sparrow hit the window this morning. I was in the kitchen, photographing a Red-bellied Woodpecker that had landed below the feeders in our backyard, when I heard the sound of a feathery body striking glass. If you’ve never heard it, it’s unmistakable, the sound a small rock wrapped in soft cloth might make when thrown against your window. Though not a frequent occurrence, I recognized it instantly, and went outside to look for the bird. It would be stunned, and I wanted to get to it before a neighborhood cat or one of the hawks that patrol the area did.

I found it sitting on the grass, alert but clearly dazed—a lovely White-throated Sparrow, recently returned from its summer breeding grounds in more northerly latitudes. The bird has long been my son’s favorite sparrow, and we always delight in their reappearance each year, even though their arrival presages the cold winter months to come. This one was boldly and beautifully marked, with crisp white on its head and neck and vibrant yellow feathers in front of its eyes. I walked over and easily picked it up, holding it gently in my hand. It blinked a bit but didn’t struggle, seeming content to rest in my palm while it re-gathered its senses. Its body radiated warmth, and I felt its tiny heart hammering away through my fingertips. The sparrow weighed virtually nothing; it was exquisitely delicate.

I watched the bird as it sat there, spellbound by the perfection of form and function, every aspect supremely adapted to its lifestyle and environment. Like all birds, it needed nothing but what the world offered it—a feat of survival beyond most of us. Though we believe ourselves to be the pinnacle of evolution, superior to all others, the struggles these little birds face would confound the bulk of humanity. The sparrow was so much smaller than I, and yet its ability to survive—and thrive—unaided vastly dwarfed my own. It was both humbling and inspiring, and I stood in awe of the life force emanating from it.

After a brief respite, the sparrow recovered and flew off, and I silently thanked it as I watched it go. To know that such creatures exist, that the Earth, our home, gives succor to such extraordinary diversity, is to know wonder, to know humility, and to know joy. And to witness it, to be in its presence, is to be connected with the great energy of Life. It is to be held in the grasp of the spiritual and mystical, and to be pulled from human concern and cast into the welcoming embrace of Nature herself, wherein all things are connected, and our lives are entwined with the fate of a sparrow.

Change The World By A Yard

Cactus Ground Finch, Galapagos Islands

Cactus Ground Finch, Galápagos Islands

I do a fair bit of birding away from home. Most of the time I stick to the northeast, as there is a wondrous array of hotspots within easy reach of my western Massachusetts address. Two to three times a year, I’ll head farther south to the mid-Atlantic, usually Cape May or Delaware during spring or fall migration—still drivable, but it requires a bit more planning. If I’m lucky, maybe once a year I’ll travel farther afield—Florida, Arizona, south Texas, or somewhere on the West Coast perhaps. And once in awhile, I’ll bird some exotic place beyond our borders—most recently Costa Rica, mainland Ecuador, and the Galápagos Islands. Naturally, these are life-changing experiences. After all, how often does one get to the Andes or the Amazon rainforest, or stand in Darwin’s footsteps on the sands of the Galápagos, among the finches that inspired the greatest creative work in the history of natural science? Such places illuminate the glory and spectacle of Nature, and paint indelible marks that alter your perception of the world.

Fork-tailed Flycatcher, CT

Fork-tailed Flycatcher, CT

I don’t need to travel far to be confronted with the magnificent, though. Every place I visit has something to offer, some gift to bestow. Last year, I spent several hours with Keith Carver—a good friend and outstanding photographer—in the company of a Fork-tailed Flycatcher—a bird of foreign, tropical domains that nevertheless makes occasional appearances in the eastern US and Canada. This absolutely stunning individual emerged with little fanfare in Hadlyme, Connecticut. Its almost accidental discovery by a local photographer caused a great stir among avian aficionados, and it spent the next several weeks delighting scores of birders as it hunted sometimes mere feet above our heads, to all appearances completely unconcerned by our presence. In November of 2012, a Gyrfalcon appeared like a ghost over the farm fields of Hadley, Massachusetts—a sight so rare that it drew people from Ohio and Pennsylvania, and nearly doubled the human population of this small town well into the new year. This winter, my son and I photographed a Barnacle Goose on a farm in central Massachusetts, far out of its frozen Arctic range and feeding very contentedly with a large group of Canada Geese. And every year, the UMass campus pond—about 15 minutes from home—plays host to a variety of rare waterfowl, all similarly drawn to this tiny oasis at the heart of a thriving and kinetic university. If you’re craving an encounter with a rare goose, this is the place to go.

Evening Grosbeaks, home

Evening Grosbeaks, home

Frequently, though, the greatest surprises lie closest to home. I make new discoveries just by going out the back door—and sometimes, all it takes is a well-timed look out the window. We live on about a third of an acre, one side bordered by spruce and forsythia, a few lilac bushes on the other, and a smattering of other trees and bushes scattered about—a very pleasant yard, but not, in terms of habitat, anything out of the ordinary. And yet we’ve been graced by some truly wonderful birds. Over the years, more than a dozen species of warbler have visited us, including a pair of Nashvilles who stayed for a week; Common Redpolls and Pine Siskins feast at our feeders throughout the winter; last year, a Brown Thrasher brought her two young to glean insects and seeds from the grass; Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks make regular appearances in the yard; Ruby-throated Hummingbirds sip nectar from blue Iris and Rose of Sharon; Catbirds, Chipping Sparrows, Robins, Tree Swallows, and Mockingbirds have all nested here; for 15 minutes the day after tropical storm Sandy, a flock of Evening Grosbeaks descended upon us to decimate our feeders before continuing south; and just this year, an Indigo Bunting and eight Baltimore Orioles, as vibrant as the citrus we fed them, bedazzled us with luminance and color.

Sharp-shinned Hawk, home

Sharp-shinned Hawk, home

I could easily go on, but my point is this: There’s beauty to be found everywhere, even in your own back yard. The trick is to be present and receptive to it. Once we open ourselves up to the wonders around us, we can begin to see the magical in the everyday, and awaken in us a sense of the possible. Take that first look, see what’s out there. You may not find anything at first, but I can promise you this: Keep looking, and you will.

I can make you another promise as well: if you truly open yourself to it, the experience will change you. You’ll find something that moves you, something that inspires you to learn more. Perhaps it will be a bird, perhaps not. Regardless, you’ll start to care about it, you won’t be able to imagine a world without it. Without realizing it, you’ll have forged a connection to a part of nature, to the world outside humanity. And you’ll want to protect it. You’ll tell others, get them inspired to take their first looks and make their own connections. Get them to care, understand, and protect.

Indigo Bunting, home

Indigo Bunting, home

This, for me, is what it’s all about. For me, hell is a world without birds. I can’t imagine the seashore without the sound of gulls, a forest devoid of its songbird chorus, or an October sky without the circumnavigation of raptors. I can’t envision a lake empty of waterfowl or bear the thought of spring’s voice silenced. And sadly, I can’t create change through riches or political power. All I have are my love of birds, the words to convey it, and the hope that they make a difference.

But maybe that’s enough. Perhaps through my words, I can inspire more people to care, to love, to conserve what we have left, and to encourage others to do the same. And perhaps together, we’ll get just a little closer to changing the world. If so, then maybe there’s cause to hope after all.


It all starts with a first look.

Take it.

Baltimore Orioles, home

In Celebration Of A Sparrow

Chipping SparrowLately, the news for wildlife has not been good. It started with Galveston Bay, when 160,000 gallons of crude emptied into the Houston Ship Channel just miles from critical bird habitat and feeding grounds at Bolivar Flats. Mere days later, there was the 20,000-gallon pipeline spill into Ohio’s Glen Oak Nature Preserve, and the BP oil leak into Lake Michigan. Then there was the discovery of an apparently years-old spill at Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument—reported to the Bureau of Land Management not by the oil company responsible, but by a pair of hikers who sent photographs of oil damage to the agency’s Utah state office. And this was just one week in the US.

Like a boxer too long in the ring, our recent and repeated assaults on nature had me reeling, unbalanced and searching for some relief, something to re-root me in the positive. A grounding in the hopeful, perhaps. Yesterday morning, I found it, in the guise of a small, unassuming little bird. My son spotted it eating voraciously at our feeders, breaking its fast at the end of its long journey north. A regular visitor from spring thaw to the intimations of winter’s bite, this was the first of its kind we’d seen this year. The Chipping Sparrow had returned.

Chipping SparrowThe Chipping Sparrow is a delightful little character, whose charms grow with repeated viewing. It’s a small, spunky bird, boldy-patterned and dressed, unlike its flashier warbler cousins, in handsome tones of russet, black and white. Long one of my favorites, it seems to embody the spirit of joy, and exudes a playfulness that I find entirely captivating. Watching it at our feeder, I began to feel serene and unburdened. Simply by virtue of its existence, this little bird stood in defiance of the crushing gloom, incandescent against the darkness. It was the straw I needed—a connection to the beauty and wonder of the world, and a reminder that, even in the face of the frightening unknown, there are reasons yet to hope.