In The Company Of Birds

Tufted Titmouse

If you’ve been following along at all, you’ve discovered that I spend a lot of time with birds. I get out with them whenever I can, even if that means just sitting on the patio and seeing who’s hanging out in the yard. You can learn a lot by watching these yard birds. White-throated Sparrows and Eastern Towhees are notorious skulkers, staying at the edges and kick-feeding in the underbrush, leaving the feeders to the more adventurous Chickadees, Titmice, and Goldfinches. Of the woodpeckers, Downies are the boldest, often landing on the feeder pole and watching as I set out the morning’s repast. Red-bellieds are regular visitors, but will flush at the mere suggestion of the drop of a hat. However, if left to their own devices, they’ll aggressively defend the suet, chasing off others who might dare try for a bite. Flickers—the largest of our regular woodpecker visitors—show up sporadically, and are even more skittish: breathe in their direction and they’ll beat a hasty retreat.

You also start to notice differences between individual birds. If I should need to step into the back yard (God forbid!), most of the Chipping Sparrows will flee to the safety of the trees, but one or two will stay on the feeders and watch as I pass. The female of our Rose-breasted Grosbeak pair is similarly inclined, holding her post while the male heads for the hills; so too with the Hairy Woodpeckers, the female largely undaunted by my intrusions—putting paid to the notion of the weaker sex.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Though I love our yard birds, and have spent many hours in their company, I’ll also take any opportunity I can to visit one of my favorite local haunts—Quabbin Park’s gate five or the Fort River refuge, perhaps—or travel farther afield (New York’s Central Park, the Connecticut shore, Barnegat Lighthouse State Park, and Cape May, New Jersey are regular birding fixtures). No matter where I’m headed, though—even if it’s just out to the supermarket—I always bring two items with me: a pair of binoculars and a camera. You never know what’s out there waiting to be found, and I believe in being prepared. More often than not, it’s paid off. And more importantly, on the few instances when I’ve left one or both behind, I’ve regretted it (ask me about the Great Gray Owl sometime).

Now I’m not a professional photographer by any stretch of the imagination, and I consider myself fortunate if I come away with any good images at all. It’s far more important to me to get a good look at a bird than a photo of one. Still, I enjoy the challenge of photography and the joy in success. When you’re trying to photograph a bird, you also have to look at it differently. Light and shadow come into play a bit more, you have to pay special attention to behavior to anticipate its next move (it’s often too late to photograph a bird where you first see it), and you have to try to position yourself in just the right spot—clear of obstructions (as much as possible anyway), and a respectful distance from the bird so that you can keep your impact to an absolute minimum while still capturing a good image. This last is paramount, and any ethical photographer—professional or otherwise—will always place the needs of the bird first.

American Goldfinch

There’s something more, though. It’s not just the self-satisfaction of taking a good photograph. As someone who loves nature—and birds in particular—I feel a responsibility to share what I’ve seen, give others a window into the wonders of the world around us, and, with luck, inspire at least some of them to care. It’s the same reason I write about them—to bring people with me as I explore the lives of the birds, and to hopefully illuminate a bit of the magic that lies just outside our doors.

Over the last few years, I’ve been introduced to many wonderful photographers—some who’ve become good friends—and they all share this same desire, to open a bit more of our world to us, and inspire us with its pageantry, its mystery, and its splendor. People like Melissa Groo, Keith Carver, Joe Oliverio, Ann Pacheco, Shawn Carey, Ashleigh Scully, Mia McPherson, Eric Curtis Cummings, Christopher Ciccone, Marina Scarr, Dorian Anderson, Denise Ippolito—artists all, and far more accomplished than I—produce images of stunning beauty, capturing moments of transcendent glory, heartbreaking intimacy, deep sorrow, and profound tenderness among our non-human brethren, revealing aspects of their world that many of us may never see yet are critically important for us to understand. I am consistently awed by their work, and often moved beyond words.

Or maybe there’s a darker side to this drive. Perhaps we’re documenting a great decline, recording these creatures for history before they slide into oblivion. Perhaps, like those who kept account of the last days of the Great Auk, Giant Moa, and Passenger Pigeon, we’re bearing witness to catastrophe and chronicling these lives that they may not be lost to time and confined to the realm of myth and legend.

Perhaps.

Myself, I hold to hope, and I suspect that many of my peers would as well—the hope that my work has an impact, that it drives people to care, to take action, to not remain on the sidelines and watch the great tragedy unfold. That I, through images and words, can help others understand the vision I have for our Earth, reach others who will be moved to make a difference, and awaken in others an appreciation for the grandeur and majesty of our world, the inherent value in all life, great and small, and the urgent need to protect and nurture all creatures whose lives fall, for better or for worse, into our hands. We are the only species that regularly drives others into extinction, but we are also the only species that can keep them from it.

Chipping Sparrow

Why do I do what I do? Why do I spend so much time in the company of birds? Because I must. Because it is right and proper that I do so. Because to be human is to care for more than just the human. Because for all the ugliness and destruction in the world, I can find beauty in the simplicity and grace of a sparrow. Because I cannot envision a world empty of the birds that surround us. And because I refuse to accept that as our inevitable course.

But for that to be true, it’s up to each of us as individuals to do what we can, however we can. It’s up to me, and it’s up to you. Start in your back yard, see what’s there. Go for a walk in your neighborhood, visit a state park or national wildlife refuge. Take that first step out your door, then take the next, and the next. Who knows where you’ll end up, and who knows what you might find? There’s life there waiting to be discovered, so get out and find it. Learn about it. Care.

And then inspire others.

At the end of it all, that’s what I work for.

 

You can find links to the photographers who inspire me below:

Melissa Groo

Keith Carver

Ann Pacheco

Joe Oliverio

Ashleigh Scully

Shawn Carey

Dorian Anderson

Mia McPherson

Eric Curtis Cummings

Christopher Ciccone

Marina Scarr

Denise Ippolito

Emotion And Instinct

Sanderling, Westport, CT

Sanderling, Westport, CT

This year, I spent a lot of time in the company of shorebirds. Taken as a whole, they’re one of the most engaging families—charming, whimsical, possessed of great spirit and subtle beauty. They’re supremely adapted to a life of sandy foraging and evading waves, and though they undertake some of the most arduous and epic journeys of any of the seasonal migrants—many on the order of 10,000 miles one-way—they speak to us of lazy summer days spent lying upon sun-warmed sand and caressed by gentle ocean breezes, or leisurely strolling down a seaside boardwalk to the music of the coast. I can lose myself for hours in their antics, watching them dance along the water’s edge, skittering in and out of the surf as if playfully daring the breakers to catch them, their bills probing incessantly into the wet sand to search out a tasty morsel. Their presence is deeply comforting, a beacon of light in the dark, a regular reaffirmation of the power and vitality of life.

Piping Plover, MA

Piping Plover, MA

If you’re paying attention, shorebirds can also surprise you. During an adventure to the Connecticut shore, my son and I came upon three recently-hatched Piping Plover chicks—arguably the most adorable creatures on two legs, resembling nothing so much as a pair of cotton balls stuck together and balanced on toothpicks. They were running about helter-skelter, exploring their new world, when we heard the warning call of an adult plover—an insistent piping that is the bird’s namesake. At this signal, all three chicks headed off posthaste towards their parent and the shelter of the taller beach grass in which it was resting. Something was clearly upsetting it; a scan down the beach quickly revealed the source—a young Peregrine Falcon, cruising low over the sand and putting shorebirds up in great raucous clouds as it passed. The plover was calling its chicks to safety ahead of the approaching threat. But then the bird did something that, upon reflection, was extraordinary: Once its young were safely hidden, it took to the air, flying away from them and calling loudly as it went, diverting the falcon’s attention away from its defenseless offspring and focusing it squarely on itself.

Peregrine Falcon (juv.), Milford Point, CT

Peregrine Falcon (juv.), Milford Point, CT

Make no mistake: this was an act of extreme courage. This little plover put itself full in the sights of the fastest animal on Earth, a bird shaped by evolution into the sky’s most graceful, agile, and deadly hunter. Peregrines are fast enough to catch hummingbirds, nimble enough to take swifts, and strong enough to kill Sandhill Cranes—which outweigh the falcons by a factor of 10. In the clutches of a Peregrine Falcon, a Piping Plover would stand no chance. For a little perspective, it’s like coming between a racing cheetah and your own child—if that cheetah were 25 times your own weight. Suicide, yes? And yet no parent I know would hesitate for even a split second.

So why risk it? Why face the possibility of death in order to preserve the life of your offspring? It’s far more than bravery, I assure you. Cast from a human point of view, the answer is simple, obvious.

Love.

That’s why we, as parents, do what we do to protect our kids. We love them.

Just like the plovers. Yes, I said it: that Piping Plover was expressing love for its three chicks—so much so that it was willing to die for them. There are many who would scoff at this notion, write the plover’s response off as instinct and move on. A ridiculous thought, they might say. After all, we all know that birds don’t have emotions.

Let me give you another example. My friend Melissa Groo is an absolutely fantastic wildlife photographer. I’ve been following her for several years now, and her work never ceases to amaze me—particularly her ability to capture the essence of her subjects. In her work, we catch glimpses of great intimacy, power, warmth, and soul. Earlier this year, I had the great pleasure of meeting her, and she shared with me one of the most stunning portraits of a living being—human or otherwise—I’ve ever seen.

Melissa’s subjects range across the animal kingdom, but she has a special fondness for birds—and among her consistently spectacular images, her photos of American Avocets are some of my favorites. Perhaps it’s the subject. American Avocets are the most graceful of our shorebirds: tall, slender-necked, white below, striking black-and-white above, gorgeous head and neck feathers the color of lightly-creamed coffee, and thin, elegantly up-curved bills. In this hemisphere, at least, they look like nothing else.

American Avocets, Estero Llano Grande, TX

American Avocets, Estero Llano Grande, TX

The beauty of a single Avocet is exceeded only by that of a breeding pair’s interaction. These lithesome birds engage in an intricate, beautiful mating routine that can only be described as a dance between expert partners, both moving in perfect synchronicity, the female then dipping her head low to the water, the male moving from side to side behind her and gently splashing water over her back. Afterwards, there is one brief moment when the female arches her neck with balletic grace towards her mate and the pair touch their long, delicate bills together. It is a gesture of extreme tenderness, much as the embrace a human couple might share after making love. This is the moment Melissa captured, and her photo left me without words, and on the verge of tears.

The bond shared by those two Avocets, like the Piping Plover’s drive to protect its chicks from harm, can only be described as love. You can’t bear witness to events like these and tell me otherwise. It can’t simply be instinct.

Or if it is, there’s a larger question we have to explore. People will tell you that you can’t ascribe human emotions to animals, that it’s wrong to do so. This misses a pretty significant point: We are animals. If we can experience emotions like love, loss, fear, and joy, then they can as well. They may not feel them the way that we do, but they’re no less real for the difference. Again, many will play the instinct card and move on. For those that do, I challenge you: if you don’t believe that animals can feel emotions, prove to me that we can. We claim to, of course, we believe—we know—we do, down to our very marrow. But we have no way of proving that the emotions we feel aren’t simply electro-chemical signals designed to reinforce a biologic instinct. You protect your kids because you love them? Sure you do. But what if that love is just a false emotion built to trick you into taking action that supports the survival of our species or, in this case, your own genetic code? From a biological standpoint, life—all life—has but one purpose: to reproduce. Human beings are just a means to transport and replicate DNA, nothing more. How then can we prove the reality of our own feelings?

The answer is we can’t, anymore than we can prove the unreality of the feelings of birds. We’re left, then, with one of two possibilities: either all animals experience emotions (not just us), or all animals are simply obeying instinct—including us. There are no other options.

At the end of the day, it makes no difference. Real or not, our emotions give purpose to our lives. They drive us to be creative and to love, they allow us to more deeply and profoundly experience the world, to live completely, and to feel all that our experiences have to offer—both the joyous and the sorrowful. Do animals feel the way we do? We may never know, may never understand their full emotional capacity. But that they do feel joy and pain, that they can love, is without question.

What does it matter, though? Why is it important? Simply this: Once we recognize that animals have feelings, once we understand that they are no different, in that respect, from us, we can no longer treat them as somehow less than us, less deserving of our respect and consideration than our fellow human beings, less entitled to living out the full measure of their lives free of pain, persecution, and misery. And once we acknowledge their emotional depth, we can no longer callously destroy their homes and their lives without asking how it makes them feel, and considering how we would feel if someone did the same to us.

Avocet