When the poet Mary Oliver wrote “Instructions for living a life,” she reminded us: “Pay attention. Be asounded. Tell about it.”
This past autumn, local officials announced that a bird, a male bar-tailed godwit, flew nonstop across the Pacific Ocean 8,100 miles from Alaska to Australia in just under 10 days. Fitted with a small solar-powered satellite tag, the godwit achieved “a land bird flight record”. But of course godwits have been doing this for centuries. Come next April-May, all things well, determined godwits will make the trip in reverse, bound for Alaska to nest and raise their young.
They won’t be alone.
Northern wheatears, songbirds less than six inches long, will arrive in Alaska from sub-Saharan Africa. Arctic terns will return from Antarctica, with each bird flying the equivalent of three trips to the moon and back in a single lifetime. Bar-headed geese will fly over the Himalayas at altitudes exceeding 20,000 feet.
PT Barnum was wrong. The circus is not the greatest show on Earth. Nature is.
How diminished our world would be without birds, those dinosaurs with feathers and songsmiths with wings. Not that I was born John James Audubon. I used to ignore birds, and was poorer for it. Once, in my teens, while out with my .22 rifle, I spotted a red-tailed hawk riding a July thermal. I aimed and fired, and watched it drop from the sky. Stunned, I ran to it and found it thrashing in the dry summer grasses, dying. I walked away, fell to my knees, and threw up.
Now, decades later, I love birds – how they bring me joy and give me wings; how they enlarge my world, slow me down, make me listen. In every hawk I see a velociraptor. In every thrush I hear exquisite music. In every swallow I witness an aerial dance as they snap insects in midair. In every epic migration I find myself redefining what’s possible. And always the same question arises: can we, the human race, in all our commerce and carbon-burning, somehow save our winged cousins?
In the past half century, North America has lost more than one-fourth of its birds. Nearly everywhere, they are in decline. Massive die-offs of flycatchers, swallows, bluebirds, sparrows and warblers – described as thousands of birds “falling out of the sky” – have been recorded in recent years in New Mexico, Colorado, Texas, Arizona and Nebraska. Smoke from intense California fires forced tule geese to reroute their migration and take twice as long. Elsewhere, as birds lay their eggs earlier, due to a warming climate, more chicks die from sudden inclement weather events.
This is where we find ourselves, trapped in a diminished world of our own making. Today only 30% of all birds are wild; the other 70% are mostly poultry chickens. In essence, Earth is now a coalmine, and every wild bird is a canary – what ecologists call a “bio-indicator” – in that mine.
Their fate is ours.
Soon after news broke of the flight of the godwit, the US Fish and Wildlife Service announced the newly extinct species including the ivory-billed woodpecker and Bachman’s warbler. “When the last individual of a race of living things breathes no more,” the naturalist William Beebe once observed, “another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again.”
The author and climate crisis activist Kathleen Dean Moore writes, “Unless the world acts to stop extinctions, I will write my last nature essay on a planet that is less than half as song-graced and life-drenched as the one where I began to write.”
Of all the species that have ever existed, more than 99% are now gone, most having winked away during five major extinction events, the last caused by an asteroid that struck Earth some 66m years ago. Today, given global habitat loss (especially deforestation and prairies turned into cropland) and widespread persistent toxins, we – modern humans – are the asteroid. The sixth mass extinction is here, with about 600 species of North American birds at risk from human-caused climate change.
We must safeguard one of nature’s greatest creations: wild birds. Build a better world for them, and we’ll build one for ourselves. We must defend a livable planet by electing politicians who have empathy and an ecological conscience. Vote blue, act green. Restore native habitats and environmental health. Keep domestic cats indoors, and affix silhouetted hawk decals to windows. In the US alone, an estimated three to four billion birds die each year from cat predation and window strikes.
Put a birdfeeder out the window of a nursing home and watch the patients inside brighten. Birds bring happiness and improved health. A European study suggests that a backyard full of birds creates greater human satisfaction than a modest pay raise. Our survival and mental wellbeing are intricately tied to that of healthy lands, waters and biodiversity; nothing proves it better than wild birds.
In August 2020, as the Trump administration sought to weaken the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act, a federal judge ruled in favor of the act and novel quoted Harper Lee’s famous: “It is not only a sin to kill a mockingbird, it is also a crime.”
I celebrated the ruling.
Later, in 2021, when the Biden administration reinstated and strengthened the act, I took a walk along the ocean near my home, binoculars (not a gun) in hand, and felt a deep sense of gratitude – even hope – knowing that more than tens of thousands of people around the world would volunteer in the annual Christmas Bird Count, a century-old tradition to pay attention, be astounded, and share stories about birds. Godwits might come to mind, and Mary Oliver’s poem Wild Geese:
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
A frequent contributor to the Guardian, Kim Heacox is the author of many books, including The Only Kayak, a memoir, and Jimmy Bluefeather, a novel, both winners of the National Outdoor Book Award. He lives in Alaska. His favorite bird is whichever one he’s watching