June 8, 2015
THE TOUGH LIVES OF BIRDS
MONTPELIER – Who of us can forget that wonderful moment each year in early June when, after usually only a half-day in school, we were dismissed for the summer and walked out into the warm sunshine free as birds? Birds’ perks are also mentioned in this bit from the Gospel of Matthew in which we’re urged to trust in the benevolence of our Creator: “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.”
Whoever originated those bits of familiar rhetoric were more lyrical than realistic, and certainly not much into the lives of birds, which are better typified by the swan gliding across a pond: smooth as silk above, but paddling like hell down below. Their heavenly father may appear to be taking care of their every need, but they’re contributing a significant amount of the effort.
In the last few years, thanks to grants from a charitable foundation concerned about natural habitat destruction, resource depletion, and disappearing species, I’ve had the opportunity to accompany the New Hampshire Public Television film crew (not exactly a Hollywood throng; there are usually only three of us) to locations from Ecuador to Ontario, and from Montana to Cuba, to document the problems facing migratory birds and the efforts of many people to save them from extinction. We’ve met Costa Rican coffee growers, wildlife biologists, Nicaraguan elementary school teachers, and Mexican cattlemen, each with his own business to attend to, but with an awareness of the challenges facing many species from the thoughtlessness of humans.
I’ve heard a lot of exciting and inspiring stories from these folks, but over them all hangs the overwhelming impression that, even without all the difficulties posed by human activities, the life of a bird is not the lyrical piece of cake suggested by Saint Matthew. When you add the effects of development, climate change, pollution, and commercial hunting, it’s a wonder many survive.
Some dramatic migrators, like the Arctic tern (44,000 miles annually) get all the attention; but during the spring and fall migration seasons our eastern skies are filled with millions of tiny birds, often flying at night to avoid rough weather. Hundreds of thousands of them – in some cases, over 50 percent – are killed by rotating wind charger blades or by flying into brightly lit buildings. Others land in their traditional feeding locations and find them bulldozed for housing or industrial development. They need to arrive at the Gulf of Mexico with reserves of fat in order to make the sea crossing, but often on the southbound journey they don’t.
The ones who make it back here in the spring can’t rest once they get here. There are territory to establish, food sources to identify (try the Langes’ second-deck feeder), nests to build, and kids to raise. It’s hard for me to believe the quantity of seeds and suet the birds around our place consume in each 24-hour period, until I reflect that each is feeding several other hungry mouths back in the nest.
Nature being the unfeeling system it is, even the job of raising children is made more difficult for the feathered parents by the threat of predation. Squirrels, minks – and I’ve even seen a clutch of young fishers – are always on the prowl for eggs or helpless chicks. In past years we’ve had a broad-tailed hawk hanging around, driving all the nesters crazy. I can tell when he’s here; the robins raise a racket when they spot him (and they always do). No hawk this year, though. The robins are busy on the lawn pulling up treats for the kids just starting to pop their heads above the edge of the nest over the back porch ramp. You’d think that after one clutch of chicks fledged, they’d retire for the rest of the summer; but as soon as one bunch is gone and yakking from the spruces, they’re at it again. Some years, three times, and then they’re off for their arduous trip south for the winter. The phrase, free as a bird, somehow, doesn’t fit their operation.
One night in the Arctic, a few years ago, we paddled downriver all one late July night to beat the wind. About one in the morning we saw a flapping and heard a squawking at the top of the bank on our right. A big snowy owl – probably feeding a bunch of kids himself – was attacking a clutch of about six Canada goslings. The parents were going nuts, running in circles and shrieking at the owl, and trying to chase him away with their wing beats. It was their only defense; there wasn’t a scrap of greenery taller than three inches for miles, and nowhere to hide. Nothing to do but try to keep the kids together and hope the owl eventually got tired of hovering. Being human, we yearned to intervene, but to what end? We left them all to their fate.
Another time, we spotted a birds’ nest on a ledge about ten feet up a granite cliff on an island off the north shore of Canada, in the Northwest Passage. Climbing up, we found a sad sight: several still-featherless robin chicks dead in the nest. A story with only imagined details.
The good news for birds is that birding (the current term for what has long been called bird-watching) is one of the fastest-growing recreational pastimes in America. More adults than ever are taking to the outdoors with binoculars and bird books in hand. From their increased interest will inevitably flow public pressure to preserve the hundreds of species still with us and the habitats they depend on – from the Bicknell’s thrush’s “sky islands” left behind by the glaciers in New England, to the cold, pristine, fish-filled lakes and solitude favored by the common loon. Saint Matthew may be right about God taking care of the birds of the air – I don’t know – but in the case of our own native species he needs all the help he can get from us, just to protect them from us. He might send me a little extra cash to help feed this crowd here.