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Winged wonders: Why birds have the power to lift us up

winged wonders
White Ibises fly to their evening roost at sunset in Florida’s Everglades. In 2018, the species produced more than 100,000 nests in South Florida. Photo by Daniel Friend/Shutterstock

Editor’s note: Contributing Editor Kenn Kaufman wrote this article, the cover story of our July/August 2020 issue, in late April — just a month or so into the pandemic crisis that continues to rage. A few facts are now out of date, such as the pandemic’s death toll in the U.S. and the number of people who were left unemployed. And the essay does not address the racial justice movement in the U.S. and around the world that has taken hold since late May. If Kenn were to write this essay now, he would have different things to say. We are presenting the essay unchanged because it not only reflects a mood from the early weeks of the pandemic, but also because it presents universal truths about birds and their ability to remind us of the enduring cycles of nature.

As a child, I regarded wild birds as the ultimate symbols of freedom. I wasn’t allowed to cross the street, but these feathered free spirits could pick up and fly to anywhere on Earth; they could fly to heaven and back, it seemed, soaring with the angels. Chafing against restrictions, I dreamed of the absolute liberty of flying away like a wild bird, never to return.

Once I grew up and started reading ornithology texts, I learned that that complete freedom was an illusion. Every bird species was bound by instincts, tied into predictable patterns of occurrence. In theory, this chickadee could leave its flock, that cardinal could leave its territory and just start flying in a new direction. In practice, they almost certainly would do nothing of the kind. Powerful instincts held every bird in place.

Later, traveling around the world to observe nature, I came to a startling realization: Free as a bird? We humans are freer than birds. We’re not so tied to instinct; we can decide to go wherever we choose.

The irony of that claim struck me this spring. As the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 swept the planet, many governments had asked or ordered their citizens to stay home to slow the spread of the virus. For the first time in modern history, more than one-third of the world’s human population was under some kind of lockdown. Any sense of unlimited freedom was suddenly gone.

As I write this in late April, working from home, I’ve hardly left my yard in five weeks. But I do have a yard, at least. Some of my friends are less fortunate, living in city apartments where it’s more of a challenge to get outdoors. All of us, though, are watching whatever outdoors space we have — a small yard, a park, even a view through a window — to see what birds the season will bring.

The transformation of our lives occurred with stunning speed. As recently as late February, not one death from the coronavirus had been reported in the U.S., and nothing about daily life had changed. That was just two months ago. Now the virus is known to have killed 55,000 people in this country, more than 26 million are newly unemployed, and huge swaths of the nation are essentially shut down.

How much more will things have changed by the time this magazine reaches you, two months from now? It’s unnerving even to speculate. But some impacts on birdwatching are apparent already.

A Pectoral Sandpiper walks along a wetland in Ontario. The bird makes epic migrations from breeding areas in Siberia, Alaska, and northern Canada to South America and, in smaller numbers, the South Pacific. Photo by FotoRequest/Shutterstock

Events canceled, science curtailed

Mandates against gatherings of people utterly changed the landscape of late spring and early summer birding. Practically every bird festival was canceled, from local celebrations to massive events like the Biggest Week in American Birding. Also canceled were thousands of bird club meetings and field trips, during what normally would be the busiest season. The World Series of Birding was set to continue in May but with drastic changes: Instead of coming to New Jersey, participants all over the eastern states would go birding within 10 miles of their homes. Looking farther out, decisions on some summer events were still pending, with others canceled already. The popular Festival of the Cranes in New Mexico, scheduled for November, was canceled in early April, as organizers took a clear-eyed look at how this fall season is likely to unfold.

Scientific research on wild birds has also taken a hit. Although some field projects can continue, a surprising number of these involve teams of people working in close quarters. Others present obstacles that aren’t immediately obvious. One Canadian biologist told me he had canceled his whole summer field season in the Arctic because of the chance that he might unwittingly carry the coronavirus to remote villages. One big event for sharing of science, too, is off the table. The North American Ornithological Conference, held once every four years, had been scheduled for this August in Puerto Rico. It has been shifted into an online event.

Birding tourism has come to almost a complete standstill, at least temporarily. This is a disappointment for people having to miss highly anticipated trips, but it’s a serious problem for professional guides who rely on income from tours. It’s especially dire for local guides living in developing countries. The current lack of travel also could cause long-term damage to parks and nature reserves in tropical nations, places that are sometimes given protection mainly because they bring in tourism dollars to local governments. If birders are absent for too long, the land might be turned to other uses.

The specific impacts to birding, ornithology, and bird conservation in the current pandemic might seem small compared to the larger issues affecting humans all over the globe. But for those of us who care deeply about the natural world, they add to the sense of calamity. When the stress of this time starts to feel overwhelming, I go to the window or go outdoors and try to focus my mind by watching birds.

What will be happening two months from now? In the human world, in terms of impacts on our health, economy, and national character, I have no idea. But I know what will be happening in the world of birds.

A male Purple Martin perches on a martin house in a Toronto park. The species relies almost entirely on human-made nest houses in eastern North America. Photo by Paul Reeves Photography/Shutterstock

Welcoming new broods

In late June and early July, across most of North America, the breeding season for most birds will be a little past peak. The dawn chorus of birdsong will be a little less robust than the joyous jumble of early June, but plenty of voices will still greet the sunrise. Many songbirds will be at the point of having raised a brood; as those youngsters leave their nests and start following their parents around, their insistent begging calls will be a constant background sound.

Recently independent young birds — of all kinds, from hawks to herons to hummingbirds — will be wandering, trying to figure things out. Colonies of Purple Martins will vibrate with even more bustle and sound as young ones begin to fledge and test their wings around the colony site. Gawky young robins, splay-legged and hesitant, will hop across lawns or peer in windows, looking perpetually lost.

Meanwhile, some hard-working pairs of adult birds will be well along in raising their second broods or starting over after a failed first attempt. They’ll be carrying twigs or grass into thickets or tree cavities or birdhouses, or settling in to incubate, or gathering grubs to stuff into gaping mouths of nestlings. Some typically late-nesting species, like Cedar Waxwing or American Goldfinch, may just be getting started on their first broods. In desert grasslands of southern Arizona, some species, like Varied Bunting and Botteri’s Sparrow, will be waiting for summer rains to begin; their nesting season may not peak until August.

In the midst of all this activity, other birds already will be in early stages of fall migration. Some western hummingbirds will be southbound before the end of June. So will some tundra-breeding shorebirds: In the brief, intense summer of the high Arctic, one member of a sandpiper pair often departs soon after the eggs hatch, migrating south and leaving its mate to tend the fast-growing young. Before the middle of July, throngs of adult shorebirds from the Arctic will trot across tidal flats and pond edges in the lower 48 states. Juveniles will follow a few weeks later.

Most birds don’t migrate so early, but many will change their behavior. They may wander into different habitats. Forest birds, for example, may show up in overgrown fields or backyards. Some swallows will begin to gather in large flocks and roam the countryside. Male ducks, having abdicated all responsibility for tending to eggs and young, will start to become more secretive, moving to secluded marshes and starting to molt into drab “eclipse” plumage.

And all these doings in the avian world will be proceeding just as they should, just as they always do. I can say that with absolute confidence. Extremes of weather might shift schedules by a few days, but beyond that, the birds will faithfully follow nature’s calendar, as they do every year. Somehow, just knowing that gives me an anchor in reality that is tremendously reassuring.

What will be happening in the human world? That is far less certain. Maybe we’ll be cautiously resuming many elements of normal life. Maybe extreme lockdowns will still be in place. More likely we’ll see a patchwork of local approaches, as we stumble toward solutions.

But wherever we are, birds will still have the power to lift us up. Even if we’re just peering out the window at a patch of sky, we’ll be listening for that burst of song, watching for that flash of color. Those winged wonders are still out there, living their lives as they should, giving hope that each of us, once again, can be as free as a bird after all.

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Kenn Kaufman

Kenn Kaufman

Kenn Kaufman is an expert birder and naturalist, a talented artist and photographer, a world traveler, and the author of many books about birds and other wildlife. His column “ID Tips” appears in every issue of BirdWatching. Kenn is also a field editor for Audubon Magazine and a contributor to Birds and Blooms. His work first appeared in Birder’s World (now BirdWatching) in April 1988. Visit his website, Kaufman Field Guides.

Kenn Kaufman on social media