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Reflections on a Warbler

Tuesday December 30, 2003

Children, the earth is tilted, and that explains so much. Now in December, the days are short and the sun is low. Most living creatures have biological clocks that adjust to these changes, and I don’t think the seasons would bother us if they didn’t carry the holidays with them. 

I’ve been reading a book called Living on the Wind about migrating birds and it is these seasonal changes in light that prompt birds to migrate, whether that means traveling down a mountainside or flying all the way from the Arctic to Tierra del Fuego. There isn’t a square mile of this hemisphere that isn’t traversed by migrating birds, and yet we don’t often see them because many travel at night. 

I know they don’t have much choice in the matter, but I can’t help admiring these birds, especially the small ones that could easily be mailed with one postage stamp. Anna’s hummingbird, a permanent resident of California, doesn’t migrate, but there is an eastern hummingbird that flies all the way to the Yucatan, and a small yellow bird, the Prothonotary Warbler, that leaves its nest in Ohio and flies to Central America. This warbler, which weighs half an ounce, gains four or five grams of weight to fuel its 600-mile flight over the Gulf of Mexico. 

Flapping its wings many times a second, it can make a nonstop flight in 15 hours, but should it meet a squall or a headwind, it may either fall into the sea or land along the coast to refuel. If all goes well, the warbler returns in April even to the same hole in a tree it left at the end of August. 

In this, birds are more fortunate than Monarch butterflies who don’t get to complete their long migration in person. When birders who net birds and bind their legs to follow their progress find they are catching the same bird at their refuge on the coast of Alabama, they know it is probably an older bird that has made the round trip several times and now no longer has the strength to make it home. 

If only we could be as indifferent as birds are to national boundaries. Storks are familiar in Europe, where they roost on the chimneys of Yugoslavian farmhouses or hang out summer nights on the back streets of Amsterdam, yet the majority of their days are spent in Africa. What we call the Kentucky Oriole spends all but four months in Central America. In the Yucatan, the author saw a tropical Bribri tree filled with Baltimore Orioles. 

When our barn swallow arrives in Argentina, its called La Golondrina Tijerita, or little scissor-tailed swallow. But many birds do make their nests here, and thus we worry about them as we do our own children, who only spend the first part of their lives with us. 

And we need to worry about migrating birds. Their nesting grounds in this country are threatened by development and their winter homes are sometimes cut down or poisoned. The author tells of hawks dying in great numbers when farmers in Argentina sprayed their sunflower seeds with pesticide to keep off grasshoppers. If the farmer had just a little patience, the hawks would have eaten the grasshoppers and lived to eat them another year. 

Patience might also keep farmers in Central America from cutting down the forest to plant coffee fields. Coffee will grow under a forest canopy, and I realized after reading this book that we should drink shade-grown coffee not because it tastes any different but because it accommodates the birds. 

Luckily, there are a lot of people who are concerned about birds. Every winter birders volunteer for the annual count. Even if you aren’t a counter, it’s a good time to go outside and look around. Just when our houses are becoming crowded with people and things, the woods are becoming more spare. The mushrooms are up and if you lie on the ground you can see the forest of stems underneath the colonies. Most leaves are gone and it’s a good time for viewing stems and berries and the small birds that are either visiting or here all year round. I suggest that you take a walk and enjoy the tilt of the earth as the birds do without burdening the overworked postal service. 


EDITOR’S NOTE: The Teacher is the pseudonym of an educator with considerable experience in the public school system.