The Birds Reap

Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.  

Matthew 6:25-34

I saw my first scarlet tanager when I was about 10.  I can vividly remember everything about seeing it. It was in the very top of a walnut tree that hadn’t really leafed out yet, right at the edge of the woodlot my uncle owned on Bloody Ridge Road. Red as a cardinal but with jet-black wings, and singing like crazy. As a city kid (at least by Kentucky standards – my hometown had about 15,000 at the time), that was about when I discovered I really liked the woods and lots of cool critters lived there that I had never even known existed. I really don’t know when my uncle became a birder, but starting that spring I would go out to his property just about every Saturday and we would sit by the pond for a few hours, listening and watching for whatever was flying around. I was never any good at finding birds in binoculars. 

“It’s sitting in that big tree about halfway up, in that limb that’s hanging down to the left.”

“Which tree?”

“The one over there, next to the cedar.”

“Which cedar? The big lopsided one?

”No, in front of that one; the little scraggly one behind the dogwood.”

“Okay, I see the cedar, which big tree is it – the one on the right or the left.”

“The left, about halfway up and…never mind, it just flew away.”

That exchange happened when I was 10 but it could’ve happened yesterday. After thirty years I still stink at finding birds in binoculars. Even as a field biologist I usually don’t even bother carrying them, partly because I’ve gotten solidly mediocre at identifying our resident birds by their songs. Even though I hear tanagers all the time, I don’t see them very often because they generally hang out in the very tops of trees in mature forests. But on that particular day, that particular tanager sat right in plain sight, and even I could see his bright red plumage from 100 feet away. I have no idea why it made such an impression on me, but it did. It was something I never knew existed, and it lived right there in those woods I went to every week. I knew from then on that I wanted to grow up and work outside doing something-or-other. I eventually did get a zoology degree and have worked outside doing something-or-other ever since, including working with songbirds a little.

Banding Birds

One of the best parts of my job has been managing a bird-banding station. Ten days each summer, every couple of weeks from late May until early August, I set up stationary nets to catch birds in the woods. We net in the summer because we are targeting birds that breed here, after many of them spent their winters in Central or South America, and not those who may still be passing through, although we occasionally catch one who is a little late. The station is part of the Institute for Bird Population’s “Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship” program, aka “MAPS”, a national protocol followed by hundreds of stations, all of whom must possess Federal permits from the US Geological Survey’s Bird Banding Laboratory. This station has allowed me to hold hundreds of birds in my hand that I would have probably never even been able to see otherwise. Hooded warblers, red-eyed vireos, wood thrushes, Carolina wrens, Swainson’s warblers. I’ve even held a female scarlet tanager; males have proven a little more elusive even though I’ve heard them almost every day in the woods. The point of all this is to place uniquely numbered bands on the birds in the hope that they are recaptured in future years to see if they’ve safely migrated and made it through the winter. And many of them do make it. Just last year Kentucky’s PBS station won a regional EMMY for a TV program on our MAPS station; they were fortunate enough to film us recapturing a hooded warbler whose band number proved that we had first banded him two years earlier. That means this little critter, not a whole lot bigger than a hummingbird, had flown from the same creek in Eastern Kentucky all the way to Costa Rica or thereabouts and back again at least twice. Since their lifespan is up to 9 years, it might have done it more times than that. That kind of stuff still just amazes me. Banding is a pretty remarkable way to spend a day; when you hold one of these birds in your hand you kind of feel like you know them a little. You aren’t just an observer in the woods, you’re somehow a part of it. You can feel how small and fragile they are, and the idea that they can fly at all, much less thousands of miles a year, is just mind-boggling. And millions of birds do it each year.

The Decline of North American Songbirds

Of course, these hundreds of banding stations aren’t run for personal amazement. They exist because a lot of folks are worried about our songbirds and want to learn as much as possible about them while they are still around to study. Like many other species, songbird numbers are crashing. Since the 1960s many North American species have declined by up to 80%, and not just the ones we already consider rare but even once common birds like the meadowlark. There are several reasons for this decline— domestic cats are purported to kill hundreds of millions of birds each year, and collisions with cell towers and wind turbines a few hundred million more— but personally I put most of the blame to the same thing I blame for just about all of our ecological problems. Habitat loss. While that hooded warbler we banded may always find a summer home at that state park in Kentucky and maybe a winter home in a Costa Rican nature preserve, he has a lot of cousins who find last winter’s rain forest has been clear-cut or last summer’s woodlot is now a gas station. I hope that the scarlet tanager I saw as a kid lived a long life, but each winter he was flying to South America in the 1980’s deforestation was rampant.   And his summertime woods that I thought were way out in the country, where I used to explore thinking it was as remote as the Amazon, are now two minutes from a four-lane and strip mall. 

What to Do?

In every column I suggest that folks support their local land trust to preserve habitat in their area, and our birds would certainly appreciate it if you did. As far as their winter grounds go, most folks green enough to read The EcoTheo Review are probably aware of the benefits of shade grown coffee in habitat protection as well, so you probably don’t need to hear about that here. So instead of nagging you about helping out our feathered friends, I’m going to encourage you to get to know them better.  You don’t have to know a whole lot about birds to participate in one of Cornell University’s “citizen science” projects, like Project Feederwatch or the Great Backyard Bird Count. You’ll learn a lot from just signing up and following their instructions. Or you could go on a field trip with your local bird club—they’ll probably know more than you thought possible. There may be a dozen species in your neighborhood that you see and hear every day yet don’t realize it. But if you really feel inspired to see some songbirds up close, nothing beats finding a nature center to help out with their bird feeding station or even a MAPS station near you and volunteering. Not all of them are open to the public, but it is sure worth a try. Seeing one of these remarkable little fellers up close—and really thinking about how they live and what they go through each year (or each day) to survive—can really change your perspective on the natural world and your place in it.  The actions you take every day really do affect them and countless other species, right down to which coffee you drink.  We sow a lot of parking lots and plastic bags; the birds may not be gathering them into barns, but they sure are reaping. Your heavenly Father provided plenty for them to eat—the least we can do is leave them a little. 

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