When poet Mary Oliver wrote “Instructions for Living a Life,” she reminded us, “Be careful. Be amazed. Talk it over.
Last fall, wildlife officials announced that one bird, a male band-tailed godwit, had crossed the 8,100-mile Pacific Ocean nonstop from Alaska to Australia in just under 10 days. Equipped with a small solar-powered satellite beacon, the barge achieved “a land bird flight record”. But of course barges have been doing this for centuries. Next April-May, all is well, the decided godwits will make the trip in the opposite direction, bound for Alaska to nest and raise their young.
They will not be alone.
Wheatears, songbirds less than six inches long, will arrive in Alaska from sub-Saharan Africa. Arctic terns will return from Antarctica, with each bird making the equivalent of three trips to the moon and back in a single life. Bar-headed geese will fly over the Himalayas at elevations above 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 feathered dinosaurs and those winged singers. Not that I was born John James Audubon. I used to ignore the birds and was poorer for it. Once in my teens, while I was out with my .22 rifle, I spotted a red-tailed hawk riding a July thermal. I aimed and fired, and watched it fall from the sky. Stunned, I ran to him and found him struggling in the dry summer grasses, dying. I left, fell to my knees and threw up.
Today, decades later, I love birds – how they bring me joy and give me wings; how they expand my world, slow me down, make me listen. In every falcon, I see a velociraptor. In every lily of the valley, I hear exquisite music. In each swallow, I witness an aerial dance as they smash insects in the air. In each epic migration, I find myself redefining what is possible. And always the same question arises: can we, the human race, in all our trade and carbon burning, somehow save our winged cousins?
Over the past half-century, North America has lost more than a quarter of its birds. Almost everywhere they are in decline. Massive deaths of flycatchers, swallows, bluebirds, sparrows and warblers – described as thousands of birds “falling from the sky” – have been recorded in recent years in New Mexico, Colorado, Texas , Arizona and Nebraska. Smoke from the intense fires in California forced the tule geese to deviate their migration and take twice as long. Elsewhere, as birds lay their eggs earlier, due to global warming, more chicks are dying from sudden bad weather.
This is where we find ourselves, trapped in a diminished world of our own making. Today, only 30% of all birds are wild; the remaining 70% are mainly poultry chickens. Essentially, the Earth is now a coal mine, and every wild bird is a canary — what ecologists call a “bio-indicator” — in that mine.
Their fate is ours.
Shortly after news of the godwit’s theft, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced newly extinct species, including the ivory-billed woodpecker and Bachman’s warbler. “When the last individual of a race of living beings breathes no more,” naturalist William Beebe once observed, “another heaven and another earth must pass before such can be again.”
Author and climate crisis activist Kathleen Dean Moore writes: “Unless the world acts to stop extinctions, I will be writing my last nature essay on a planet that is less than half as song-rich. and alive than the one where I started to write.”
Of all the species that have ever existed, over 99% are now extinct, with most having died out in five major extinction events, the last caused by an asteroid that hit Earth around 66 million years ago. . Today, given global habitat loss (especially deforestation and grasslands being turned into cropland) and widespread lingering toxins, we – modern humans – are the asteroid. The sixth mass extinction is here, with around 600 species of North American birds threatened by human-caused climate change.
We must safeguard one of nature’s greatest creations: wild birds. Build a better world for them, and we will 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 house cats indoors and affix hawk decals to windows. In the United States alone, an estimated three to four billion birds die each year from cat predation and collisions with windows.
Put a bird feeder by the window of a nursing home and watch the patients inside cheer up. Birds bring happiness and better health. A European study suggests that a garden full of birds creates greater human satisfaction than a modest pay rise. Our survival and mental well-being are intimately linked to the health of lands, waters and biodiversity; nothing proves it better than wild birds.
In August 2020, as the Trump administration sought to weaken the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, a federal judge ruled in favor of the law and quoted Harper Lee’s famous novel: “It’s not just a sin to kill a mockingbird is also a crime.”
I celebrated the decision.
Later, in 2021, when the Biden administration reinstated and strengthened the law, I took a walk along the ocean near my house, binoculars (not a gun) in hand, and I saw felt a deep sense of gratitude – even hope – knowing that more than tens of thousands of people around the world would volunteer to participate in the annual Christmas Bird Count, a century-old tradition of caring, wondering and sharing stories about birds. Godwits might come to mind, and the poem Wild Geese by Mary Oliver:
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely you are,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
call you like wild geese, hard and exciting –
again and again announcing your place
in the family of things.
A frequent Guardian contributor, Kim Heacox is the author of numerous 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 the one he watches