Life On The Margins

Verdin, Phoenix, AZ

A friend of mine was recently traveling through Arizona, and while waiting out a flight delay at the Tucson airport, she wandered over to a tiny park jammed in between the rental car office and pickup garage. It had picnic tables, benches, small arbors, and even a water feature—so she did what any self-respecting birder would: looked for birds. If anything, she expected those most ubiquitous of urban birds: House Sparrows (the park was, after all, surrounded by concrete and jet noise). What she found was something else entirely: two Yellow-rumped Warblers foraging in a flowering bush, and, much to her surprise, a pair of Verdins busily constructing a nest in one of this mini-park’s little trees. She spent a fair bit of time enjoying their company, amazed at their ability to find succor in this rather depleted habitat.

It’s a story I’ve heard (and experienced) many times. Different species and different locations to be sure, but the theme is always the same: birds making a living in the unlikeliest of places, on the margins between the natural and constructed worlds. Peregrine Falcons are prime examples, able to thrive in the heart of the urban jungle, substituting skyscrapers for cliff ledges and making off with whatever prey presents itself (pigeons are favorite targets, and the falcons’ preference for these birds makes them very popular with city dwellers). Red-tailed Hawks have likewise found a place among humans—in some cases, attaining celebrity status (New York City’s Pale Male being perhaps the most famous). Ducks and geese are exceptionally good at making the most of the smallest of ponds. And gulls, pigeons, House Sparrows, Crows, and Starlings have all discovered the bounty offered by the detritus of our daily lives. But there are other, less obvious stories: Yellow-breasted Chats—Cardinal-sized warblers, highly secretive—show up in postage-stamp city parks; the flowered walkways outside New York’s American Museum of Natural History hosted a Rufous Hummingbird through one winter; and I know of an Ovenbird—a shy warbler of the forest floor—that spent part of the year in and around a city convenience store’s meager lawn.

Peregrine Falcon

These are somewhat extreme examples, but they are no means the only ones. Far from natural, many places we think of as ideal for birds are islands of habitat surrounded by harsh and inhospitable terrain. Arguably the most famous of these is Central Park, 843 acres of green set in Manhattan’s concrete core. To say that the park is good for birds is a gross understatement: on a normal day, it’s fantastic; during migration, it’s extraordinary. Warblers, orioles, blackbirds, tanagers, vireos—a host of species descend upon the park to feast on its bounty and shelter in its sylvan grounds. Birding here, it’s easy to get caught up in the extravaganza without questioning why it takes place. Take a look at a map of the city, though, and the reason is obvious: it’s one of the last, best naturescapes left in this vast metropolis. To birds exhausted by the trials of migration, Central Park offers sustenance and safety, a verdant oasis in an otherwise alien land—a margin, but on a grander scale.

Sanderlings

Grandest of all margins, though, is the one that marks the boundary between earth and ocean. Here along the coast, where the land slips into the surf, are birds who push the notion of survival to the extreme. As a group, shorebirds undergo some of the longest migratory journeys—and longest non-stop flights—in the world. Most travel tens of thousands of miles each way, and sometimes stay aloft for days at a stretch—a feat that pushes endurance far beyond the reasonable; in addition to nearly doubling their weight before setting out, some birds, like Red Knots, Bar-tailed Godwits, and Sanderlings, digest muscle tissue and internal organs to carry them the distance. Those who break their journeys to rest and refuel (and some don’t) do so on beaches up and down the coast. For other birds, the beach represents migration’s end: American Oystercatchers, Least Terns, and Piping Plovers are among those who make their homes on the shore, nesting in depressions they dig out of the sand. But whether they pass through or settle down, these birds share something crucial: Beachfront property isn’t a luxury for them, it’s a necessity. And yet this narrow, vital edge is under constant siege, imperiling all who rely on it. The birds who survive here exist at a confluence of conflicts: the shifting balance between land and sea; development against conservation; political will versus ecological reality; and human want versus avian need. For now, they still persist—but they’re forced to do so on an ever-shrinking landscape, each vanishing piece taking with it another chance for the birds.

The capacity to exist on the margins, to find food and shelter on the edges of our lives, is a testament to birds’ knack for survival. But they can be pushed only so far. Every species has a breaking point past which it can no longer recover, a threshold that, once crossed, leads to a finality frightening to contemplate. Without care, sooner or later these margins may become too small to support the birds that depend on them, leading them down the path traveled by the Passenger Pigeon, Carolina Parakeet, Eskimo Curlew, Labrador Duck, and many others. Still, all is not yet lost. Birds can adapt, given adequate time to do so and enough open space to call home. But ultimately it’s up to us. Their fate is in our hands, and we must ask ourselves if we can find it in our hearts to make room for them, encourage their recovery, and champion their survival. A world rich with birds awaits us, if we only have the courage to create it and the wisdom to understand why.

Piping Plover

The Necessity Of Wild Spaces

Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Parker River NWR

Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Parker River NWR

Birds are extraordinary creatures. I find them endlessly fascinating and entirely captivating, and can easily spend hours with a single bird, never mind all those I can discover on a stroll through the woods or a day at the shore. Birding connects me directly to the heart and spirit of Nature, it calms and re-energizes me, and it reminds me that we are but a small piece of a grand puzzle, and that our concerns are not as important nor our worries as large as we make them out to be. When I’m in the company of birds, I want for nothing more—save, perhaps, the desire to share them with a kindred spirit or two.

I’ve birded in six countries, on four continents, and across two island chains. Here at home, I’ve been up and down the eastern seaboard from Florida to Maine, into the desert southwest, down the Gulf Coast and along our southern border, and out to our country’s western edge. And though I’ve found myself in a variety of settings, many of the places I return to again and again are part of this country’s incredible system of national wildlife refuges, sanctuaries, and parks. If you’ve ever spent time exploring one, it’s easy to see why: Not only are they true national treasures, marvelous in their own right, the lands contained within them provide safe haven, and sometimes a final stronghold, for a multitude of plants and animals (there are approximately 1300 species in the United States listed as endangered; around two-thirds of those exist on federal lands)—critical shelter from many of the dangers they face outside these protected areas.

Yellow-rumped Warbler, Sandy Hook Gateway National Recreation Area

Yellow-rumped Warbler, Sandy Hook Gateway National Recreation Area

The hazards that migratory birds encounter can be particularly acute. Migration itself is a perilous venture, involving vast distances that push even the strongest birds to their limits. Many species fly for hundreds or thousands of miles at a stretch, and rely on stopover sites to feed and rest, allowing them to pack on reserves of fat and energy to power them along their epic journeys. As development, conversion to industrial agriculture, and other consumptive uses chew up more and more wild lands, the birds need sources of food and shelter they can count on. Our refuges and national parks thus take on special importance; without them, many birds would quite literally die before migration’s end—and many species, already in decline, might slip over the edge and slide inexorably into extinction. Allowing the loss of our protected federal lands to happen would be tragic; actively encouraging it would be a crime.

And yet that’s exactly what this administration is planning for. Two developments over the last few weeks make this clear. On the first day in session of the 115th Congress, the U.S. House of Representatives adopted a new rule written by House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-UT) that makes it easier for Congress to cede federal control of public lands—national parks, forests, wildlife refuges and other federal areas—to states or local governments. The rule allows the 115th Congress to claim that any legislation disposing of public lands and natural resources costs the U.S. taxpayers exactly nothing, regardless of whether the Congressional Budget Office determines otherwise. In other words, Congress can give away our public lands for free, and, if necessary, charge the American people for the privilege of doing so.

Leading the resistance to this blatant attack, Democratic Congressman Raúl M. Grijalva (AZ-03) had this to say:

“The House Republican plan to give away America’s public lands for free is outrageous and absurd. This proposed rule change would make it easier to implement this plan by allowing the Congress to give away every single piece of property we own, for free, and pretend we have lost nothing of any value. Not only is this fiscally irresponsible, but it is also a flagrant attack on places and resources valued and beloved by the American people.”

Alan Rowsome, senior government relations director for The Wilderness Society, added his voice to the debate:

“Right out of the gate, Congressional Republicans are declaring open season on federal lands… This is not Theodore Roosevelt-style governing, this move paves the way for a wholesale giveaway of our American hunting, fishing and camping lands that belong to us all.”

Barred Owl, Parker River NWR

Barred Owl, Parker River NWR

At first blush, turning federal lands over to the states and/or local municipalities in which they lie might not seem like a bad idea. I’ve visited many state parks, and they’re almost universally beautiful and well-maintained areas, often teeming with wildlife. However, most state and local governments may not have the budgets or staff to maintain such large parcels of land, and so would likely be forced to sell them to the highest bidder—and the extraction industry has a lot of money. Hello, mining and drilling operations, goodbye wildlife habitat and public recreation.

The second development happened at noon on January 20. Just after Donald Trump took the oath of office, whitehouse.gov underwent a drastic transformation, including the replacement of the Obama administration’s Climate Action Plan with An America First Energy Plan, which contains language that should trouble anyone who cares about preserving our unspoiled wild spaces:

“We must take advantage of the estimated $50 trillion in untapped shale, oil, and natural gas reserves, especially those on federal lands that the American people own.”

For those unsure, or unwilling to accept, what this means, allow me to translate: the Trump administration plans to allow fossil fuel extraction from national parks, wildlife refuges, and other public lands. And it doesn’t stop at fossil fuels: federal lands containing uranium and copper deposits would also be at risk. Places like Grand Canyon National Park, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—places of unbounded beauty and immeasurable value—would be open for destruction. Desecrating such lands, upon which countless birds and animals (ourselves included) rely, to enrich the already obscenely wealthy through resource extraction is, in my mind, the most egregious insult to Nature, and the gravest form of sacrilege.

Northern Pintails, Edwin B. Forsythe NWR

If these plans come to fruition, if Congress allows fossil fuel extraction from our public lands or sets the wheels in motion for turning them over to the highest bidder, then we stand to lose something precious, a birthright of all citizens of this country. We stand to lose these wild places that nurture and revitalize us, that provide emotional and spiritual succor, that nourish our beings, down to the core. We stand to lose a vital part of our heritage, and a large piece of what makes our country special, unique, and great.

But there are those who stand to lose much more. There are those who depend upon these lands, these wild spaces, for shelter, food, for their very survival. Our national parks and wildlife refuges harbor an incredible diversity of life—plants and animals for whom these lands must remain wild and natural.

Contrary to the beliefs of some, we are not the most important species on the planet; our needs and desires do not take precedence over the needs of all others. An intricate web links all life on this planet—one that’s evolved over countless millions of years. And in just a few short centuries, we’ve disrupted it and damaged it in the name of human progress. We’ve taken it nearly to the brink, and now we stand at a precipice, staring into an abyss of our own design that threatens to swallow us all.

Dickcissel, Attwater Prairie Chicken NWR

Dickcissel, Attwater Prairie Chicken NWR

As we move forward, as our elected officials prepare to give away for pennies a heritage of incalculable value to greedy developers and extraction companies, we would do well to remember this: just as we are not the most important here, we are also not somehow magically insulated from the damage and destruction we visit upon our planet. We are as dependent on Earth’s life support systems as any other organism, and we may yet reach a point of no return that finds us riding headlong into self-made oblivion. But even if we don’t, if we somehow survive the conversion of our environment into a barren wasteland, what would it matter? At what point is living on this planet no longer worth it? We’ve lost so much already, taken so many species to the edge of extinction or beyond—and each one that vanishes takes a bit of us with it. How many more do we have to imperil before we realize that the wondrous variety and diversity of life on Earth is what makes life on Earth worth living?

All the riches in the world are nothing compared to the graceful flight of Snow Geese across the evening sky; the raucous greetings between crows coming to roost; a murmuration of starlings—a million birds moving as one; the acrobatics of hunting swallows; the awe-inspiring sight of a Peregrine in full stoop; or the heartbreaking beauty of a thrush’s song ringing out through the clear morning air. Once they’re gone, after it’s too late, only then will we realize the true value of what we’ve lost.

Snow Geese, Edwin B. Forsythe NWR

Snow Geese, Edwin B. Forsythe NWR

You can read the full text of House Resolution 5 here (page 35 has the relevant section).

And you can find an article discussing the rules change in the Guardian here

… in the Washington Post here

… in Think Progress here

… and in Daily Kos here.

A Wild Goose Chase

Geese on the UMass campus pond

Wednesday, December 7, 2:00 PM. Shoes: check. Jacket: check. Keys: check. Grab the binoculars. Grab the cameras. Go.

I flew out of the house like I’d been shot from a gun—a man on a mission: get my son from school and race 15 miles to the UMass campus pond, a half-hour trip that I planned to shave by about a third. There, with a little luck, we’d meet up with the rarest bird to ever grace the University’s lettered grounds. Out of nowhere, a Pink-footed Goose had appeared, and we were setting out to find it.

I’d been alerted to the bird the day before. The call had come in at 9:26 AM. I was in the kitchen, and my cell phone rang—an occurrence infrequent enough to be noteworthy, as I use it mostly for emergencies and eBird, and very few people have the number. One of those who does is Larry Therrien, a good friend and the most accomplished and committed birder I know. He calls the cell for only two reasons: to suggest an ice cream run or report an unusual sighting. It was Larry; I picked up. With no preamble, he launched in. “I’m looking at a Pink-footed Goose in the fields off Stockbridge Road right now.”

Half an hour later, I was on the bird. It had settled in with a group of about 600 Canada Geese, and was working the edge of a farm field, foraging here and there. I got wonderful looks, but the combination of distance and lighting didn’t lend itself to photography—and while I don’t have to photograph every bird I see, I’ve been trying to capture an image of a Pink-footed Goose for years. Also, I didn’t have my son Aidan with me, and I knew he’d want to see it as well. I’d be visiting this bird again, and I had a hunch about where to look. We’d been waiting for a Pink-footed Goose to discover the pond at the University of Massachusetts, and something told me this bird was it.

Snow Goose

Snow Goose, UMass campus pond

That evening, my suspicion was confirmed. Someone reported a large group of geese leaving the field and flying east to UMass; the Pink-footed Goose was with them. Aidan and I made our plan: after school the next day, we’d try for the bird. I prayed it would stick around for that long.

Wednesday afternoon we hit campus, not sure what we’d find. As we made our way across the horseshoe drive in front of the University’s Fine Arts Center, a lone goose flew out over the building towards us—more slender than a Canada Goose, with pointed wings and a faster, stiffer wing beat. Something told me to give it a better look, but I continued on, anxious to get to the pond where, I hoped, the Pink-footed Goose awaited. My son, however—who, at 16 is a far better birder than I (or, in fact, most birders I’ve met) and often exhibits more patience than any teenage boy reasonably should—stopped and put his binoculars on it. “Dad,” he said, “that’s it.”

We stopped and stared, watching it circle around and back towards the pond, away from us. This was not good; there was a very real chance that we’d missed it, that it had been and gone. I held my breath, watching it, hoping for a sign that we weren’t too late. A moment later, I got it. The goose headed directly over the pond, circled back, and drooped its wings, descending below the Fine Arts Center, out of sight. Its target could only be the pond. From a dead standstill, we broke into a run. We’d waited years for this moment. This was our chance, and we weren’t going to miss it.

If you’ve never visited the University of Massachusetts’ Amherst campus and seen the pond yourself, you’re probably wondering what the big deal is. After all, it’s in the middle of a bustling university, passed by thousands of students a day. How good can it be?

Gadwall

Gadwall,

Very. In fact, if you’re looking for an uncommon water bird, it’s arguably the best place in western Mass to be. At 800 feet long and around 200 feet across at its widest point (considerably narrower at most others), over the years this little pond has hosted a dizzying array: Snow and Ross’ Geese, Northern Pintails, Gadwall, Cackling Geese, Wood Ducks, American Coots, Brant, Greater White-fronted Geese, Horned and Red-necked Grebes, Hooded and Common Mergansers, Green-winged Teal… the list goes on. It’s protected from hunting, so the birds can rest and eat in safety. And it’s ideal for photography: The views are incredible; there isn’t a bad seat in the house. If I was going to break my drought of Pink-footed Goose photographs, it would happen here. But I’d have to find it first.

Cackling Goose

Cackling Goose

When searching for a rare bird on the campus pond, the typical procedure is this: take up position at one end of the pond, scan through anywhere from several hundred to perhaps a thousand Canada Geese, and try to find the one that stands out. Repeat as necessary until you locate the target bird. The amount of time this takes varies with the number of Canada Geese present and, more importantly, the identity of the bird you’re looking for. An adult Snow Goose stands out like a Cardinal in snow; pulling a Cackling Goose out from a mass of Canadas, however, brings to mind needles and haystacks. The Pink-footed falls somewhere in the middle: Smaller than the Canada Geese with a chocolate-brown head and neck, it should be fairly obvious; as long as there weren’t too many Canadas, it shouldn’t take us too long.

As we rounded the corner of the Fine Arts Center, the pond came into view, and my heart sank. Aside from a scattering of Mallards on the water and three Canada Geese along the bank, it was entirely empty. This was a very bad sign: In all my years of birding the campus pond, rare waterfowl have always been attended by healthy numbers of Canada Geese. I’ve never seen one on its own. Ever. Somehow, even though we saw the goose drop towards the water, it must’ve taken back to the air. Somehow, we missed it.

Pink-footed Goose

Pink-footed Goose

Or so I thought. Aidan, though, was undaunted, and in short order—once again displaying superior skill, patience, and attention to detail—he located the bird swimming alone on the pond. And it was beautiful.

In an area renowned for producing uncommon waterfowl, this was the rarest of the rare. Pink-footed Geese breed in the far north—Greenland, Iceland, and Svalbard (north of the European mainland)—and winter in northwest Europe and western Denmark, only appearing casually in the United States. For one to show up anywhere is an event. For one to show up at the campus pond was a miracle. Aidan and I spent the next hour watching the goose paddle about and wander along the bank, foraging and displaying its namesake feet—alternately jubilant and transfixed. We were witnessing something truly special, and we were well aware of our good fortune.

But then we were hit with the completely unexpected. The goose had returned to the water and was swimming about when a flock of 14 Canada Geese flew in, circling the pond and calling. The Pink-footed Goose made three loud honks in response and then, as the Canadas left, it took off from the water and followed them away. It seemed for all the world like the Canadas had been looking for their lost cousin and, finding the Pink-footed, came to collect it. And in joining them, the Pink-footed seemed happy. It was once again with its companions—still a stranger in a strange land, but no longer alone.

Pink-footed Goose

Pink-footed Goose

As humans, we’re constantly cautioned not to anthropomorphize, told that it’s a mistake to endow other animals with thoughts and emotions. I believe this philosophy is wrong. The real mistake, I feel, is in assuming that other animals have none. If we were speaking of human beings, the narrative of a lost individual being found by a group and then happily rejoining them wouldn’t even be questioned. It would be obvious, accepted: Of course that’s what was going on. What else could it have been? But other animals don’t do this, we think. They can’t show this level of emotion, connection. We tell ourselves this again and again, and believing it allows us to visit unspeakable horrors on them. Why care what we destroy, what we kill, if they don’t? Animals don’t feel the pain of loss when we reduce their homes to ash, don’t grieve or mourn when another of their kind dies or falls victim to mankind’s callous hand. They are, after all, only animals.

But so are we. At its root, the mistake we make is not in assuming that other animals aren’t like us, but that we are somehow fundamentally different from them—that we, with our advanced capacity for thought and emotion, are elevated above them, and that in our lofty position, we are insulated from the destruction we sow upon them and their world. The realization that we aren’t may, I fear, come too late, after we’ve carried the world beyond the breaking point and have lost the means to save ourselves from the consequences of our arrogance.

Maybe all is not lost, though. Maybe my son’s generation will get it right, will tread more gently upon the Earth than those who’ve come before, will embrace the reality that we are kin to all life on Earth, not just to those who walk on two legs. Maybe they’ll teach us all to do the same. And perhaps we’ll be wise enough to listen.

Myself, I hold fast to hope. After all, if a Pink-footed Goose can show up on this little pond, anything’s possible.

Pink-footed Goose

Pink-footed Goose

Seasons Of Flight

Chipping Sparrow, Cape Henlopen

Chipping Sparrow, Cape Henlopen

Calendars are funny things. They can tell you precisely the timing of the moon’s phases, the dates on which holidays both familiar and obscure fall (I now know when Boxing Day is, though I’m still not sure what it commemorates), and when we change from one season to the next. But for all a calendar’s precision, it can’t tell you what the crossover between seasons feels like. Case in point: apparently, fall hit about three weeks ago. I, however, missed it, not noting much of a difference between September 21 and the autumnal equinox a day later. Step outside these days, though, and the difference is readily apparent. The air has taken on the cool crispness particular to a New England October; trees are switching from summer’s wardrobe of rich green to the fiery hues of autumn, which they’ll wear for a too-brief span before walking naked into November’s chill; and in the yard, Chipping Sparrows and late season warblers are giving way to White-throated Sparrows and juncos—as clear an indication as any of fall’s ascendance.

Horned Lark

Horned Lark

For me—and for most, if not all, birders—the progress of the seasons is determined not by the measured procession of calendar days but by the arrivals and departures of birds. Here in western Massachusetts, winter is attended by Snow Buntings, Horned Larks, and, if we’re lucky, redpolls and crossbills. Spring is heralded by the opening chorus of Red-winged Blackbirds and carried on the backs of Turkey Vultures, whose upswept wings effortlessly catch the vernal zephyrs beneath them, primaries splayed like a concert pianist’s fingers. The songbirds that follow mark the height of the season with a chromatic rush; the departure of the far northern breeders and the concomitant arrival on new-minted wings of the year’s first young presage the sweltering days of summer. And I know fall by the upward circumnavigation of raptors sailing southward on rising columns of heated air, and the fleeting return visit of migrants bound for more favorable climes, taking their repast with us before continuing their migratory travels.

Broad-winged Hawks

Broad-winged Hawks

Migration. In the abstract, it’s an intellectual wonder, a story of epic proportions. But seeing it unfold is something else entirely: You feel it. Standing beneath a kettle of Broad-winged Hawks as they soar up a thermal and stream out above you in a line several hundred birds strong is utterly captivating, and you can’t help but get drawn along with them. Watching a flock of 10,000 Tree Swallows stretch to cover the horizon and then approach and surround you overwhelms the rational mind, stripping it of all ability to process the event and leaving room only for awe and emotion. And seeing a normally secretive warbler drop to the ground in front of you in pursuit of one more insect to help fuel its 3,000-mile journey opens a window on the bird’s life, and invites you to become a part of its quest to survive.

If you open yourself to them, if you begin to understand what you’re seeing, such experiences are transformative. A Magnolia Warbler who flits out in front of you to pluck a moth out of the air isn’t simply eating, it’s preparing for a journey that will push it to the limit of its endurance. Weighing less than two quarters, this little bird travels unaided some 3,000 miles to winter in Central America; that moth it nabbed just might mean the difference between life and death, transformed into vital energy to drive the bird the final distance. Appreciate that, and you will be changed. You can’t help it—you’re connected now to lives beyond your own, beyond those of friends and family, beyond human bounds, caught in the grand mystery whose common expression is the fire of life within us all. No longer simply an observer of the migratory spectacle, you’ve become part of an immense journey guided by invisible threads older than humanity itself and dictated by the most ancient impulse of all: the desire to survive.

Magnolia Warbler, Cape May

Magnolia Warbler, Cape May

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.

 

 

Encounters At Ocean’s Edge

Red Knots, Reed's Beach

Red Knots, Reed’s Beach

Cape May, New Jersey. Reed’s Beach. Morning. Under an overcast late May sky, the surf rises and falls gently with the incoming tide, drawn up the sand by an ancient, inexorable force. It carries the scent and taste of the sea and pushes before it the raucous chorus of a multitude of winged voices: the cries of gulls, the scolding of terns, and the peeps and chatters of many hundreds of shorebirds. For the second time in my life, I’ve traveled 300 miles from home to bear witness to one of North America’s great avian spectacles: the annual procession of shorebirds through Delaware Bay. Turnstones, Dunlins, Willets, Least and Semipalmated Sandpipers, all descend on the bay to feed and gather strength before making the final push to their summer homes. All are delightful, every one a thrill to see. But there’s one bird here who surpasses all others, whose arrival is as eagerly awaited as the return of a long-traveling lover, and whose reappearance on these sandy shores each year is cause for grand celebration. Spring migration has just kicked into high gear; the Red Knots have returned.

I fell in love with Red Knots two years ago, on my first pilgrimage to Reed’s Beach. It was a trip I’d been meaning to take for some time, but in a typical year I only get to Cape May once, for fall raptor migration (something for which Cape May is justifiably famous). As a group, shorebirds have long been one of my favorites, though. There’s something particularly engaging in watching them work the beach, probing the wet sand enthusiastically for a meal, skittering away from the surf and back again with each succession of waves, legs moving in double-time. They seem to truly enjoy life; only a cold heart could fail to be charmed by them. But among these wonderful birds, Red Knots are extraordinary. Cast in deep russet from face through belly, backs and wings elegantly patterned in black, white, and tan, they are exquisite. Watching hundreds of these gorgeous sandpipers move along the sand eagerly devouring horseshoe crab eggs was spellbinding, and I was captivated.

When talking about Red Knots, it’s common to speak in superlatives. This is, after all, a bird that travels from pole to pole twice a year, a round-trip distance of some 18,000 miles (one of the longest migrations in the animal kingdom)—often in non-stop stretches of 1,500 miles or more. When they hit the Delaware Bay, they’re nearly starved. But their timing is impeccable: with precision that puts a Swiss watchmaker to shame, they arrive at the peak of the spawning of horseshoe crabs—upon whose eggs the knots double their weight, ensuring that they have the reserves to finish their epic journey to breeding grounds in the high Arctic.

Red Knots, Reed's Beach

Red Knots, Reed’s Beach

As I sat watching these birds, I thought about that journey—the vast distance, the critical timing, the reliance on a singular food source. North America’s Red Knots face a litany of threats, among them overfishing of horseshoe crabs and loss of habitat through both development and the ravages of a changing climate. So much could go wrong, could push an already struggling bird over the edge. And yet here they were, still hanging on. For how much longer was anyone guess, but for the moment I could let the future be and simply enjoy my time in their company.

Though I could easily have spent the balance of the day with the knots, I eventually took my leave of them, thanking the birds for including me, however briefly, in their lives. I wished them Godspeed and we went our separate ways. With luck, we’d meet on this beach again next year.

Closer to home, on the northeast coast of Massachusetts, rests another haven that, over the course of a year, gives shelter to a great panoply of avian life: Parker River National Wildlife Refuge. Waterfowl, marsh birds, alcids, songbirds, raptors, shorebirds… wherever they come from, whatever they are, all who reach the refuge find succor and sustenance. A few months before my visit with the knots, I’d taken a trip to Parker River with a group of friends and family. It’s a favorite spot of ours, and venturing here at the uneasy junction of winter and spring has become a tradition.

Piping Plover, Milford Point

Piping Plover, Milford Point

The day had grown late and we were scanning the ocean for sea ducks when seven tiny white birds flew in low across the sand, set down on the beach and began the busy work of securing dinner. We shifted to the new arrivals, and drew in a collective breath as we brought them into focus. These were not the Sanderlings we expected, but a much rarer bird, one that engenders love at first sight, and which holds a special place in my heart. To the delight of all, the season’s first Piping Plovers had just dropped in.

Over the years, I’ve spent countless hours with these wonderful plovers, and they never fail to charm me—but as with the most rewarding relationships, their appeal lies in more than just the physical. True, they are beautiful birds, and their plump little bodies and namesake piping calls make them almost impossibly endearing. But it’s their spirit, their irrepressible joie de vivre, that moves me. Faced with threats as great as those of the Red Knot—and perhaps greater, for the Piping Plover is at once equally beloved and reviled—they steadfastly embrace life, refusing to go quietly into the dark. That they provoke such hatred is heartbreaking, but alas they live where we play, and there are those of us unwilling to set aside our wants and desires for the greater good of these imperiled birds. A sad state of affairs indeed. And yet the plovers, like the knots, are still with us, and there are many who value them and who both desire and work for their survival.

Juv. Piping Plover, Milford Point

Juv. Piping Plover, Milford Point

As the sun set behind us, we took our final looks and I bid the plovers a silent farewell. I reminded myself that this was just the beginning: several months from now, on beaches up and down the coast, the next generation of plovers will emerge and take their first steps into their new world. What they’ll find is up to us.

Red Knots and Piping Plovers are bound by shared calamity, linked by the unkindest of threads: we conducted their descent to the edge of oblivion. Through our actions—and perhaps more accurately our inactions—we are engineering their doom. Their conjoined fate is in our hands.

But perhaps that’s a good thing. If we can bring about their destruction, could we not vouchsafe their survival? We are the only species that can bring about another’s extinction, but we’re also the only ones who can pull it out of the abyss. Perhaps that is our true function, our reason for being. And perhaps I continue to seek these birds out not just out of love, but because they embody hope. As long as we can still find Red Knots and Piping Plovers, all is not lost. Seeing them each year is, for me, a renewal, another chance. It closes another year in which we did not lose these wonderful birds, and brings a new opportunity for their protection, and for a wider understanding of what those who love them already know: the loss of either the knots or the plovers would drain a little more color from the world, would cast us a little farther into shadow.

There is still time. All the Red Knots and Piping Plovers ask is that we allow them space to live. If we can find it in our hearts to make room them, then there is, perhaps, a chance—for them and for us. Our folly or our wisdom will be written in their fates. For myself, I hold fast to hope, and to a vision of future beaches alive with these marvelous, spectacular birds.

Piping Plovers, Parker River NWR

Piping Plovers, Parker River NWR

This post originally appeared in the Wader Quest newsletter. Wader Quest is a U.K.-based organization dedicated to shorebird conservation (shorebirds are known as waders in the U.K.) and public education. You can learn more about Wader Quest and the work they do (and also support their efforts) at their website here.

You can learn more about Red Knots at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Red Knot page here.

And for more info about Piping Plovers, you can check out Audubon’s page on the Piping Plovers here.

Malheur Madness

Malheur Wildlife Refuge

Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

I was in Costa Rica with friends and family when a group of armed malcontents took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. At first I laughed them off as a joke. After all, how else could one reasonably react to the occupation of an unoccupied building on a refuge in the middle of an Oregon winter? Then I dismissed it as a whiny, childish tantrum doomed to failure—a bunch of entitled, self-important blowhards waving their guns around and screaming about how unfairly they and everyone like them are being treated. Surely, I thought, this can’t possibly last.

Now, as the occupation approaches the one-month mark, I’m looking at it much differently. I won’t claim to be an expert on ranching, and I’m not going to get into the politics of the situation or the issues—real or perceived—that these ranchers have with the federal government and its apportioning of land. I don’t care about them or their complaints, and I wouldn’t shed a tear if they all froze out there at Malheur. If that seems like a callous disregard for human life, then fine. Whatever happens to them, they brought on themselves.

What I care about is this: they’re on my land, and I want it back. The national wildlife refuge system was created to set aside wild lands for preservation and public visitation. Every single refuge belongs, not to the federal government, as these occupiers would have you believe, nor to them, as they’d like, but to us, the citizens of the United States. In a very real sense, this land is ours, and we should all demand that these armed occupiers be removed and made to feel the full weight of justice’s hammer. The local community doesn’t want them there, the ranchers who they’re ostensibly fighting for have publicly distanced themselves from Bundy and his gang, and whatever minimal support the occupiers had at the beginning has all but vanished into the same insubstantiality that undergirds their cause. Return the land to the people? Please. It was already ours. This is nothing more than a glorified land grab, the transfer of a public resource into the hands of a few ranchers to do with as they please.

And who suffers the most in the end? The animals—the birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians who rely on Malheur’s bounty and protection for survival. That’s why I want the land back—not for any greedy, self-serving reason, as is the case with Bundy and the rest, but for the non-human animals who, for at least part of their lives, call Malheur home. These men aren’t just threatening the federal government or the citizens of this country, they’re threatening the lives of countless creatures for whom refuges like Malheur are critical—and the longer the occupiers are there, the more damage they do and the more they put those lives at risk.

As this travesty stretches on, my real worry is this: Malheur is a tipping point, a wedge being driven between those who want federal lands put back into the hands of the states to exploit and abuse, and those who understand the importance of preserving wild lands and appreciate that this Earth belongs to more than just us—that the non-human inhabitants have as much right to live their lives free of harm and persecution as we do. If we cave to these criminals and thugs here, if Malheur is unjustly stripped from our hands and given to those who care only for themselves, what’s next? My fear is that, far from an isolated incident, the dismantling of Malheur would be the first step in the unraveling of the entire national wildlife refuge system and the loss both of our most cherished places and all the animals who depend on them. It would end a century-long commitment to conservation, and reverse the efforts of countless people who’ve worked tirelessly to restore at least a piece of the wild spaces we once had.

These lands are our heritage, our birthright, and no band of armed bullies has the right to take them from us, or to run roughshod over them and doom countless species of birds, mammals, and a myriad of other creatures—these marvels of nature, deserving of our respect, admiration, and care—to oblivion. As always, the choice is ours, but history will not look kindly on us if we fail them.

It’s time to take a stand. It’s time to take Malheur back.

 

There are many actions we could take, but at this point the most effective means of showing your support is through a donation to the Friends of Malheur National Wildllife Refuge, which you can do here.

Avocet

Held Captive

Red-breasted Goose

Red-breasted Goose

I’ve been a birder for as long as I can remember. My ability to get out sometimes comes in fits and starts, but birding has always been an integral part of me—like my lungs or heart, an essential piece of who I am, the birds as necessary to my survival. Nothing moves me like grabbing the binoculars and getting into the field, seeing birds living wild within their natural environments. Of course, I also love aviaries and zoos, provided the birds have ample room to move—to wander, swim, fly, to live in a manner that allows them to express, at least in part, the true nature of their being. When I’ve encountered birds held in facilities designed with respect and concern for their welfare, they’ve always been active, healthy, and given the highest level of care. And captive settings can play a vital role in education and conservation: they’re the only venue for many people to see and learn about some of the world’s exotic birds, and in times of need, they can be critical resources for breeding and reintroduction programs—sometimes serving as the last line of defense for species on the edge.

But I’d always drawn a line between wild and captive birds: in my mind, seeing captives didn’t count, they weren’t real sightings. And from a certain point of view, they’re not: you can’t add captive birds to your life list (listing isn’t the only measure by any means, but that’s a discussion for another time), and so they take on second-class status, as if they’re less important and somehow less real. I never spent much time photographing them, and if I did, I didn’t often share them with others. With so many photos of wild birds, what was the point?

Baikal Teal

Baikal Teal

It sounds trite to say that I’ve grown wiser with the passing of the years, but it’s a fitting truism in this case. Viewing the world through such a narrow perspective closed me off to really appreciating the full diversity of magnificent creatures that share the planet with us. More significantly—and quite distressingly, once I recognized it—it’s utterly disrespectful, and cheapens the lives of the birds who, through no fault of their own, find themselves living outside their wild homes. The birds are no less beautiful, fascinating, or valid for being captive, and they’re equally deserving of our respect and our care. They are, after all, living, breathing creatures, wonderful to behold.

It was in this spirit that my son and I recently traveled to a small town west of Hartford to visit the birds of the Livingston Ripley Waterfowl Conservancy. Based in Litchfield, Connecticut, the Conservancy reached its current incarnation in 2007, when the Livingston Ripley Waterfowl Sanctuary changed its name to the one it bears today. Prior to that, it was known as the Kilvarock Foundation, a non-profit organization launched in 1985 and dedicated to the conservation of captive waterfowl. Kilvarock, in turn, evolved out of the private waterfowl collection of Dr. Dillon Ripley and his wife, Mary Livingston Ripley—a collection Ripley started himself in the 1920s.

Hawaiian Goose (Nene)

Hawaiian Goose (Nene)

Though the Conservancy’s changed its name over the years, it’s been steadfast and unwavering in its mission to conserve waterfowl and wetlands habitat through research, education, and direct action. Consider Hawaii’s native goose, the Nene. By the early ‘60s, the Nene was in real trouble, staring into extinction’s gaping maw. At the time, the number of North Americans raising these birds was exactly two: Dr. and Mrs. Ripley. They sent a small flock to Hawaii to join another group of birds raised in England by Peter Scott’s Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust. Both groups were released in Maui and they, along with Hawaii’s few remaining wild Nenes, began to rebuild the population. By the late 1960s, the population had increased tenfold. Reintroduction was a success—thanks in no small part to the birds raised by the Ripleys half a world away.

There is perhaps no better testament to Ripley’s founding vision, and it’s a credit to the current Board and staff that they uphold the tradition of conservation begun by Dr. Ripley and are supremely dedicated to carrying his vision forward. You don’t need to speak to anyone to realize this, all you have to do is look around. The grounds are beautiful, the aviaries and enclosures are spacious, spotless, and well maintained, and most importantly, the birds are healthy, active, and extremely well cared for.

Mandarin Duck

Mandarin Duck

And they’re captivating. Initially, I was most excited about seeing the Red-breasted Geese, absolutely beautiful and charming birds found in extreme northern Europe and Asia. They’re one of my favorite geese, but I’d only ever seen them in photos, and don’t have any travel plans that would take me anywhere near their wild homes, so this was a special treat. I quickly fell in love with them, and could easily have spent the balance of my time in their company. The Conservancy had much to offer, though, and as my son and I set about exploring the grounds, we found ourselves awed by the spectacle of waterfowl around us. Its collection is extraordinary: Mandarin Ducks from Asia, Hawaiian Nenes, the New Zealand Scaup, Alaskan Spectacled Eiders, Magpie Geese, Screamers, Cuban Whistling Ducks, Baikal and Silver Teals, Smew, Whooper Swans and more besides—an overwhelming display of avian splendor decked in their seasonal finery, a stunning array of colors and patterns laid out before us in a visual banquet, each encounter a new opportunity for love at first sight.

We spent almost four hours at the Conservancy and could easily have stayed longer, but the light was fading and it was near closing time. Reluctantly, we bid farewell to the geese, ducks, teals, and all the multitude of birds who call the Conservancy home. And we took our leave of the staff and volunteers who had been on-hand all day answering questions, leading small tours, and taking care of their charges, the marvelous birds. We’d watched them work and spoken to them on and off throughout our visit, and it was clear that they considered this far more than a job: It was a responsibility, but one they took on willingly, gladly, and joyfully. It wasn’t just that they loved their work (which, to a person, they did), it was that they truly cared for the birds, and approached them with respect, with humility, and with great love. When we’re confronted with stories of environmental destruction almost daily, being in the presence of such genuine affection and concern for the health of these birds and the wild lands in which they live was profoundly moving, and provided a much-needed glimmer of light in the darkness. Those few precious hours we spent at the LRWC left me with a renewed sense of purpose and hope. All is not yet lost, there are people doing good, important wok. There are people who care. As for the birds themselves—those spectacular, captivating birds—I will never forget the time I shared with them, the spiritual nourishment they provided, or the lesson they taught me, that sometimes the deepest connection to wildest Nature can be found in the gaze of a captive bird.

To learn more about the Livingston Ripley Waterfowl Conservancy, you can visit its website here.

Spectacled Eider

Spectacled Eider

The Cape Of Good Birds

Osprey, Cape May

Osprey, Cape May

I grew up in New York—Tarrytown, to be exact, about 30 miles north of the city, along the Hudson River—and as a New Yorker, I shared the long-held belief that New Jersey, just across the river to the south, was a dump. Outside of grave necessity, no self-respecting New Yorker would ever set foot there: It was the pits, and had nothing to offer the rest of the nation except industrial waste and a means of access to points south. This was received knowledge to all who lived in the Empire State, handed down from one generation to the next. We didn’t even question it: that was the story, and we stuck to it.

Well, we were wrong. In the years since my youth, as I’ve grown more aware and observant, New Jersey has become one of my favorite places in the world. This may sound crazy to anyone who’s only experienced the state from inside a moving vehicle on his or her way somewhere else, but get off the Turnpike or Garden State, and a different world begins to emerge. It’s here, in the salt marshes and shorelines, on the waterways and refuges, where the Garden State comes to life. When you really begin paying attention, you’ll discover that, far from an industrial wasteland, New Jersey is a treasure-trove of natural beauty, offering its rewards up to those willing to step off the road more traveled and explore. And if you happen to be a birder, the rewards are considerable.

In a state rich in birding hotspots, Cape May is New Jersey’s crown jewel. Its status among birders is legendary, regularly filling the top slot on lists of the best places to bird—and it’s easy to see why. Cape May sits squarely along the Atlantic Americas flyway—which spans the East Coast from the Arctic Circle to the southern tip of Tierra del Fuego—and every year it serves as a critical stopover for countless numbers of migrants, representing hundreds of bird species. Warblers, raptors, ducks, geese, waders, shorebirds, songbirds, swallows, all descend on the area to rest and feed—a frenzied, feathered flood. With them come the birders, flocking here by the tens of thousands to take in the splendor of the regular avian cast, and with luck encounter something rare, a vagrant carried from distant lands on the winds of a storm and dropped fortuitously, if unceremoniously, onto Cape May. Like the birders themselves, they hail from across the globe: Fulvous Whistling Ducks and Zone-tailed Hawks from the southwestern US; from Europe, a Northern Lapwing; a White-tailed Tropicbird from Bermuda and Black-capped Petrel from the Caribbean; Puffins from the icy North Atlantic; Barnacle Geese from Greenland and a South Polar Skua from Antarctica; from the western US, a Black-throated Gray Warbler; and in the span of seven months in 2014, a Eurasian Tree Sparrow (Europe), Fork-tailed Flycatcher (South America), Western Tanager and Vermillion Flycatcher (western US), and contending for the record for most far-flung visitor, a Whiskered Tern from the African coast.

Brown Booby

Brown Booby

Along with Cape May’s customary procession of bird life, magnificent in its own right, every trip holds the promise of the unexpected. And as anyone who’s been there more than once knows, the unexpected shows up in Cape May with astonishing regularity. We’ve been venturing down from western Massachusetts every year since 2009 (though I first visited some 35 years ago, during which time a Northern Wheatear dropped in out of nowhere), and every year Cape May’s held true to its reputation as a magnet for the unusual. That first year—at nine years old, my son’s inaugural excursion—we watched a quartet of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, far from their southwestern home, enjoying the bounty of the bird observatory’s duck pond. The following fall, it was a Eurasian Wigeon on the duck pond, a European Lesser Black-backed Gull on the beach, and a Brown Booby from the Caribbean cruising the bay for fish. The year after that found a highly secretive Connecticut Warbler skulking in the understory. And so on, each year offering encounters with the wondrous and rare.

But Cape May is more than just a haven for the seldom-seen. Common birds abound here as well, in numbers that often stagger the imagination. During a typical migration season, raptors and songbirds come through by the tens of thousands (this year, a single October morning saw a flight of more than 56,000 warblers). Seawatching can be even more astounding: by mid November, observers logged more than half a million birds—most of them gulls, terns, and mixed waterfowl—streaming past the Avalon seawatch site. And during our most recent visit this fall, flocks of Tree Swallows, each several thousand strong, swarmed over us in waves, a press of life unlike anything I’d yet seen, a primal avian flame fueled by a bounty of bayberry and bugs. We usually time our visits to take in the fall raptor migration—something for which Cape May is justifiably renowned—but this year we arrived at the peak movement of these incredible swallows. They’re amazing birds, the paragon of aerial agility, and we always delight in their return to our northeastern skies. But this was a sight beyond measure, the familiar in a context decidedly not so: acrobatic clouds catching dinner on the wing or descending en masse to pick meals from the bushes. We even managed to catch a few in rare moments of repose, sitting motionless on the paths before us.

Black Swan

Black Swan

Waterfowl also arrive with the turning of the leaves, and alongside the usual crew of dabblers and divers, there are always a few surprises. The late-September appearance of a Black Swan caused more than a little stir, and even though it was almost certainly not a wild bird (native to Australia, Black Swans are also staples of zoos and private waterfowl collections; this one likely escaped or was intentionally released), it was still thrilling to see this beautiful bird in a natural setting. Joining the swan was a drake Eurasian Wigeon, his striking red head standing out from the green crowns of his American cousins. Though this Old World duck has become a fall fixture in Cape May, they never show up in large numbers and are always a special treat. Somewhat more surprising was the female Redhead we encountered swimming with the Blue-winged Teals and American Black Ducks at the Meadows. Typically found along the Gulf Coast in fall and winter, this one strayed a bit and ended up in birding Mecca—to the delight of the throngs of birders who happened upon her.

But the biggest surprise for us came in the form of an unassuming little songbird from the southwest. Jacob Drucker, a good friend, recent Hampshire College grad, and CMBO volunteer, brought it to our attention as we were about to stake out space on the hawkwatch platform and scan the skies for a long-shot Golden Eagle. He didn’t even return my greeting—there was no time for that (when presented with a rarity, an excited birder’s priority is to share it with others; the usual pleasantries of friendly reconnection can come later)—he simply said, “Did you chase the Bell’s Vireo?” and then gave me directions to find it (essentially, “go here and look for the other birders”—also typical). And so we chased.

Bell's Vireo

Bell’s Vireo

Now to be fair, in the long and storied history of tracking down rare birds, this wasn’t much of a chase. The first lucky birders spotted it along the edge of a meadow not 15 minutes from where we were. We burned another five minutes walking from the car to the meadow—and directly into a knot of people festooned with binoculars and cameras, all gazing expectantly in the same direction. Short of hanging a sign that read “rare bird this way,” there was no clearer indication that something extraordinary was about. We planted ourselves in the crowd; the vireo returned less than 10 minutes later and spent the next half hour feeding in the thicket a dozen feet from where we stood. It was spellbinding, and we remarked upon it in reverent tones, careful not to disturb the bird. And then, as suddenly as it began, it was over. Obeying some signal discernable to it alone, the vireo disappeared deep into the woods. The crowd slowly dispersed and we all went our separate ways, taking with us the memory of our collective experience. I felt refreshed and inspired, my appreciation for the boundlessness of the possible restored by the serendipitous appearance of this little bird.

Cape May does that to you. It presents you with a panoply of the sublime and then dares you to not be moved by it. Trips here take on the flavor of religious pilgrimages, wanderers coming from near and far to stand in the presence of the mystical and holy. We receive spiritual renewal and salvation through the grace and beauty of these spectacular, wondrous creatures, the feathered heralds of Nature herself—and we are reminded that even humanity’s greatest accomplishments are nothing compared to the simple perfection of a tiny bird.

Get Your Buzz On For Birds

Piping Plover

Piping Plover

The birds we love are in trouble, and they need our help. Many are declining, some of them sharply: Following the 2014 State of the Birds report, about a third of the United States’ 800 or so birds—233 species—were placed on a watch list, indicating an urgent need for protection. Some, like the Whopping Crane, Piping Plover, Spotted Owl, California Condor, and Golden-cheeked Warbler, are already threatened or endangered; the rest are riding the edge. A separate list tallies another 33 common birds around the country that are also in steep decline, having lost at least half their habitat in the last 50 years. They range across a variety of habitats, from grasslands and fields to shorelines and forests, and include birds familiar to most of us—Chimney Swift, Common Grackle, Herring Gull, Eastern Meadowlark, and Snowy Owl among them. The threats they face are as varied as the birds threatened by them. You’ve heard the litany, I’m sure: habitat loss, restricted range, water and air pollution, introduction of invasive species, human recreation in nesting areas, loss of food sources, energy development, climate change… it’s a long and overwhelming list. What’s a concerned birder to do? Where do you even begin?

Herring Gulls

Herring Gulls

You can start by settling down with a good cup of coffee. That’s right: coffee. You know, the stuff that gets you moving early enough to catch a spring morning’s first light, snaps you awake after a long night of owling, or cuts the chill of the winter coast. Yes, we birders have occasion to drink a lot of coffee—and while we have different preferences for its consumption (I’ll take mine in a mug of cocoa, thank you), we share a host of reasons to reach for our favorite caffeinated decoction. But the best reason of all is one that many people don’t associate with coffee, and it’s a concern that has only recently been possible to address in this context: Saving birds.

Thanks to increased environmental awareness and sincere concern for the health of the land and the wildlife and people that depend on it, coffee has become a medium for both social and economic justice and environmental stewardship—addressing a host of issues like fair trade, habitat protection, the health of coffee growers and workers, soil and water quality, sustainability, preservation of native flora and fauna, economic equality and opportunity… and, by the way, the quality of the coffee itself. To understand why this is possible (and how a better cup of coffee can actually save the birds we cherish), we have to delve a little bit into the history of coffee.

Shadecoffee

Shade-grown coffee

Coffee originated in the forests of Ethiopia, and made it to our shores in the holds of European ships bound for the New World. Europeans grew the plants in wide-open, sunny plantations, but native Mesoamericans (the Maya, for example), discovered that coffee thrived under the same conditions as did the cacao they’d historically grown—namely, in the shade of native trees. At its most basic, this meant planting coffee shrubs under the existing canopy or, at most, replacing a small number of trees with species that produced other products like fruit and timber. For hundreds of years, this type of shade-grown coffee was the rule, and it’s incredibly compatible with wildlife.

Sun coffee

Sun coffee

In 1970, though, everything changed. That year, Brazilian coffee farmers discovered coffee leaf rust—a fungal blight that thrives in shade. It had already ravaged Asian coffee farms, so panicked farmers, fearing for their livelihoods, clear-cut plantations and began growing coffee in full sunlight, packed together in neat rows. Not only did this remove critical habitat for a variety of wildlife (including both resident and migratory birds), it also required the use of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and chemical fertilizers, which contaminated both soil and water, and exposed workers to a cocktail of toxins. This unfortunate legacy carries on today, with devastating consequences. Growing coffee in full sun wreaks havoc with every link in the ecosystem. Awash in toxic chemicals and devoid of virtually all plant and animal life, modern sun coffee plantations are essentially biological wastelands.

Scarlet Tanager

Scarlet Tanager

Not so with traditional shade-grown coffee farms. Like desert oases, such plantations are ablaze with life, containing within them a biological richness and diversity second only to undisturbed forest. At a time when more and more rainforest is razed to the ground, these outposts are proving critical to the survival of the region’s wild creatures. And among them are many of the migratory birds whose regular visits delight and inspire us: orioles and tanagers, warblers and vireos, and all those others without which our northern spring would be colorless and silent. All told, 42 species of the songbirds we know and love overwinter in heavily shaded coffee plantations—22 of which are declining significantly.

So, coffee can make a difference—but it has to be the right kind of coffee. The increased desire among coffee drinkers for a more sustainable cup has led to a dizzying array of labels all claiming different things: organic, fair trade, shade-grown, Rainforest Alliance, Bird Friendly, UTZ… identifying peeps or fall warblers is easier than deciphering this plethora of certifications, and I won’t attempt to unravel it all here (that’s what the links are for). For bird lovers, though, the choice is relatively simple.

bird-friendly-logoFirst, not all shade-grown coffee is created equal. In many cases, “shade-grown” is a feel-good buzzword. Yes, the beans are grown in the shade, but that doesn’t necessarily mean native forest canopy. Often, coffee shrubs are planted in the shade of non-native species, or in a habitat that’s only minimally diverse—neither of which does much for wintering birds. If you’re concerned about helping to preserve migratory bird habitat, the Bird Friendly certification is your best friend. Developed by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, the Bird Friendly certification is the only surefire way to know that the coffee you’re purchasing is, in fact, grown in a way that’s truly bird-friendly. It’s the strongest of certifications, the platinum standard. Bird Friendly coffee meets USDA organic and fair-trade standards, and is grown in the shade of the native forest canopy, under a diverse mix of trees and foliage. Not only does this protect critical migratory bird habitat, it results in a better tasting coffee, as beans grown under such shady conditions take longer to mature and develop more complex flavors. In addition, it preserves the health of the ecosystem and the coffee plantation’s workers, as they’re not exposed to the dangerous mix of chemicals commonly used by non-organic coffee growers. Says Bridget Stutchbury, veteran migratory bird researcher at Toronto’s York University,

“Buying Bird-Friendly coffee is one of the best ways you can do your part to preserve wintering habitat for our migratory songbirds.”

The problem is that Bird Friendly coffee can be hard to find in brick-and-mortar stores (though it’s relatively easy to order online). Compounding the issue, only about 10 percent of bird-friendly beans carry the Bird Friendly label. Bird Friendly is not as well-known a designation as some of the others, and many Bird Friendly certified retailers opt for more recognizable, yet less stringent, labels. Some growers also forego certification altogether, though they may grow their coffee in identical conditions to a certified plantation. Often, small retailers or boutique coffeehouses develop personal relationships with growers, and work very hard to ensure the coffee they buy is grown sustainably, with minimal impact to the environment—again, Bird Friendly in everything but name. Some retailers also include a few Bird Friendly coffees alongside other, non-certified coffees—requiring the buyer to carefully review all the available offerings. At this point, the only 100 percent Bird Friendly brand is Birds & Beans, though several other retailers have one or two in their line—and more, it seems, are coming.

Hooded Oriole

Hooded Oriole

But how much difference can changing your coffee really make? Consider this: in the United States alone, there are more than 46 million birders. That’s 46 million of us who exist, in part, to get out and spend time with birds—often with the assistance of a little caffeine. If every one of us committed to drinking certified Bird Friendly coffee, we could change the dynamic overnight. And if you think our voices aren’t loud enough, or don’t carry enough weight, ask the people of Cape May, NJ. The first birders to venture there made a point of letting every business, restaurant, hotel, coffee shop, gas station—in short, every place they spent money (and birders spend a lot of money)—know that they were there for the birds, and would return every year the birds came back. That city exists because of us. We changed Cape May’s economic equation—and by doing so, ensured the protection of a critical migratory flyway. There are other stories: Texas’ lower Rio Grande Valley, the Great Florida Birding Trail, and countless locations throughout Central and South America. These places all learned that birders will visit them—and spend money in their communities—as long as there are birds to see. Compared to that, changing the coffee business should be easy.

The drive for sustainability is already underway: that Bird Friendly coffee even exists is proof of that. But it’s happening on a grander scale as well. Just this year, Starbucks reached a significant milestone: 99 percent of its coffee is now sourced through the Coffee and Farmer Equity (CAFE) Practices program. Developed in partnership with Conservation International and verified by SCS Global Services (a neutral, independent third party), CAFE Practices is a set of sustainability standards that covers four main areas: quality, economic accountability, social responsibility, and environmental leadership. The goal? Ensure that farmers and workers are fairly compensated and have safe, fair, and humane working and living conditions; and ensure that growers practice measures to manage waste, protect water quality, conserve resources, reduce chemicals, and preserve biodiversity. Call me crazy, but the largest coffee retailer in the world driving towards 100 percent sustainability seems like a pretty big deal. A few million birders making some noise might just push them to adopt the Bird Friendly standard.

Yellow Warbler

Yellow Warbler

Who knows where this will all lead. The signs, to me, are positive and encouraging. This is easy, something we can all do. It’s an empowering first step, and clear evidence that in a world of seemingly insurmountable problems, each of us can make a difference. For me, amidst all the darkness and news of destruction, it’s no small thing to see hope in a cup of coffee.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website, All About Birds, has a great explanation of the various types of coffee certification here.

You can also read about how bird-friendly coffee supports winter habitat at All About Birds here

… and about Allegro’s entre into the world of Bird Friendly coffee here.

Coffee & Conservation also has an excellent analysis here….

… and a map of recommended roasters here.

Fresh Cup Magazine has an article about the most bird-friendly coffee here

… and another article about the different certifications for coffee here.

EthicalCoffee.net has a good discussion about Bird Friendly coffee here.

The Rainforest Alliance has a description of its environmental standards (set by the Sustainable Agriculture Network) here.

And you can learn about the Sustainable Agriculture Network here.

You can get more information about Starbucks’ CAFE Practices at Coffee & Conservation

Daily Coffee News

… and at Starbucks’ own site here.

There’s also info about the CAFE Practices program at Conservation International’s blog here.

And the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center has a lot of great resources related to Bird Friendly coffee here.