The Living Bird: A Foreword by Barbara Kingsolver

In partnership with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Mountaineers Books has published The Living Bird: 100 Years of Listening to Nature. Here's an excerpt written by best-selling author Barbara Kingsolver.
Doug Canfield Doug Canfield
November 08, 2015
The Living Bird: A Foreword by Barbara Kingsolver
The Living Bird: 100 Years of Listening to Nature

Excerpted from The Living Bird


By Barbara Kingsolver

I have tried to look away from the birds. I know it’s possible. People can manage their whole lives birdless, or the next thing to it, hearing them only as background music to more important human events. In art and film they are regularly used as interchangeable decorations. When I glance around the movie theater nobody else seems bothered by the European Jackdaw that flits across what is supposed to be North Carolina, for example, or the circling movie eagle that screams with the unmistakable voice of a Red-tailed Hawk.

In my life I’ve aspired to a comfortable indifference to particulars like these. Our history is complicated, the birds’ and mine. It could even be called star-crossed. They came into my life at the worst of times, introduced by exactly the wrong person: adolescence; my father.

For most of my life until then I had absorbed my parents’ passions without judgment, as an embryo drinks nutrients from the natal soup. In their rare free time together my parents always went to the woods and I followed, memorizing the wildflowers and trees as my father named them, training my ear to the language of botany. I cultivated a wildflower garden of my own and spent most of sixth grade on an ambitious science-fair project that involved mapping the wildflower taxa in our county. A few teachers might have been impressed but my peers were not remotely. I date the end of childhood from that science fair: I stood among the minimalist rows of beans in Dixie cups clutching my surplus of maps and specimens, confronted with a full-frontal gaze at the nerdiness of my résumé. By the time I entered high school I had fully reinvented my vocabulary and professed interests, training my high beams on popular music and boys.

And so I didn’t notice exactly when my father lifted his gaze from the forest floor to the trees and bought binoculars. I was jolted to attention when he announced we were going to spend a family weekend at a statewide gathering of birders. Over the next few years I was conscripted into many tours of duty among avid bird hobbyists. I went sour on the birds in equal and opposite proportion to my parents’ enthusiasm. Through the interminable evening slide shows--the challenging empidonax flycatchers may be distinguished by these subtle field marks--I defiantly read novels, or attempted to, in pure darkness. I howled against the early morning bird walks and always skulked at the back of the group, the sole teenager in attendance, keeping my distance from the binox-eyed tribe in khaki vests and terrible hats, determined never to know my widgeons from my mergansers. No one could make me.

Soon I left for college, confident I had freed myself from any further association with life lists and bird counts. From the safe distance of another state, my antibird credo softened over time to bird agnosticism. I was a biology major, after all. I could notice a cardinal if it flung itself against the library window. From there I ventured west to Arizona, a landscape utterly different from the woodlands of my childhood. I found it culturally fascinating, and biologically hostile. The botanical names that still rang faintly in the back of my head found no purchase here, in a desert where prickly opuntias crowded out all softer makes and models. I struggled with a terrible dislocation. To my surprise, it was the birds that came to my rescue, both the familiar and their next of kin. Cardinals were still cardinals here in feather and voice, and along with them came the almost-cardinal that is the pyrrhuloxia. I recognized creatures whose habits and bobbing tails betrayed their wren-ness, despite their being supersized and having a fondness for nesting in cacti. And the hummingbird, heretofore known only as “the Ruby-throat,” proliferated into marvels of variety poking at my flowerbeds. The Black-chinned gave itself away with a peculiar metallic wing-buzz like a tiny outboard motor. A sleek green Broad-billed arrived the first week of April, year after year, always coming back to build her teacup of a nest in the same myrtle tree outside my kitchen window.

And I couldn’t help being mesmerized when a roadrunner flung up her stick platform in a shrub near my back door and reared her family on a flabbergasting supply of lizards. I mean to say, she reemerged from the neighboring desert every fifteen minutes with yet another vanquished lizard dangling from her beak, all day long, for the weeks it took to fledge her young, which looked like little pterodactyls. I could not have guessed so many lizards existed in the near vicinity of my back door. Step by step, the birds of Arizona drew me into an understanding with my new biological home.

Still more tests lay ahead for my life plan of bird disaffection, as I eventually fell in love with and married an ornithologist. He had so many other irresistible qualities, I tried but failed to hold against him his publication record on White-eyed Vireos. When I took him home to meet my folks, their approval was a given. My fiancé did get nervous when my father requested to sit down with him to ask a serious question. This was it: “In the Christmas count for your area I noticed you had House Wrens. Is that usual?”

It was probably as good a question as any in the arena of prospective mate choice. We can never quite know what we’re in for. My marriage has involved compromise like any other. He promised to stop interrupting me in conversation to point out a bird--unless the bird is outside of its normal recorded range, or a life-bird. In turn, I’ve agreed to take vacations in places that are rich in exotic bird life. I’ve learned to stand still and be transfixed by a toucan guarding her nest, or a hoatzin sunning himself in a swamp, or a manakin stirred to such ecstatic ardor that he moonwalks on his branch like Michael Jackson. I’ve also learned that our familiars can earn our deepest affections. On many sleepless nights I’ve taken comfort from the sweet pillow talk of courting screech-owl pairs. Wrens reliably make me smile. I never once forced my children to take a bird hike, and for this favor they’ve rewarded me richly. Like me, they sort of like the birds.

I’ve more than forgiven my parents for trying to pull me into their cult. Given the people they were, devoted to improving the world around them, it’s no surprise that their dedication to avian life took on the same dimensions as their other work. After their children left home they went full-throttle into birding trips and study, but I was becoming a busy working mother and didn’t give these ventures a lot of thought. I knew vaguely about Christmas Bird Counts, a tradition whose roots go back to 1900, when it began as a sort of clubbish holiday bird-shoot, later to be retooled without the guns as a carefully organized bird census. When my husband eventually invited me to join one of these counts in southwestern Virginia, where we now live, I was impressed. The CBC, as it’s called, is now the largest and longest-lived citizen-science initiative on the planet, involving more than two thousand individual regional counts in the United States and Canada, putting some sixty thousand observers in the field on the assigned winter day. In 1966, the US Geological Survey decided to harness the birding workforce more effectively by creating the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Each year during May and June, the peak of breeding season, the BBS enlists volunteers to collect data by driving proscribed survey routes, always starting half an hour before sunrise, stopping every half mile to spend exactly three minutes looking and listening, recording every bird species present over the length of the 24.5-mile route. Surveyors drive their routes twice, at least four weeks apart, early and late in the breeding season. The combined data pools they’ve produced are immense, and useful.

In retrospect, I’m proud that my parents enlisted as foot soldiers in this bird-watcher army. While I was avoiding birds so assiduously, they were learning the skills they needed for the census, and in 1971 they signed on to two of the continent’s forty-one hundred survey routes. For the next four decades they organized their schedule around this charge and did it together, rising in darkness, packing clipboard, binoculars, and a thermos of coffee into the car, and setting off on what they called their “bird runs.” They flipped a coin to see who would be the observer, who the recorder. When my father grew hard of hearing and couldn’t reliably hear all the birds, he ceded the observer role to his able partner. He has told me how much they looked forward to it: “Being outside at sunrise in beautiful rural country, with the air filled with birdsong every June, was a high point of our year.” As the decades passed, their mobility declined but their dedication did not flag. From their trusty old Toyota they ran their Breeding Bird Survey until the last year of my mother’s life.

I can tell Dad is wistful about the end of his run, and I can only imagine how he misses the Grasshopper Sparrow songs he can never hear again. When he lost his bird-watching partner of half a century, I worried about what might be left to keep him engaged with life. Fortunately, he has found plenty to live for, but in the first days after my mother’s death I made an impulsive promise to take Dad on a trip, wherever his heart desired. He lit up and answered immediately: Panama. All his life it had beckoned to him as a crossroads of this great world, for ships, yes, but more to the point, for bird life. Where northern and southern biomes meet, on an isthmus where the maritime populations of two oceans are within shouting distance: imagine the birds we could see. So we made our plan. With sound mind and freedom of will, I organized a birding trip with my father. My husband and I also invited our daughter Lily, to celebrate her high-school graduation and impending college enrollment as an environmental science major. The rain forest sounded like her idea of heaven.

And so it was, for all three generations of us. We slowed our steps to an elder-friendly pace, pooling our knowledge, our eyes, and our ears, and tracked the birds into the deep glades of Panama. We paused also for sloths, monkeys, all manner of gigantic insects, and especially frogs, which are Lily’s special passion. But the birds were the leaders we followed, and mercy, what birds. If we each undertook this trip with our own griefs and losses to bear--loved ones, species, the stability of a planet--what we found in the rain forest was a tent revival for the church of biodiversity. It’s hard to lose faith in nature while one is so mobbed with trogons, parrots, and antpittas that a quorum can’t agree on which way to aim their binoculars. The birds sang us back to life, back to belief in seeds and forests, mating and profligacy, and surely some kind of green, full-throated future.

We came home with full memory cards of every kind, but my favorite hour might have been the afternoon of the Rufous Motmot. It’s a long-tailed, crow-sized bird with a color scheme embracing red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. (Wait, isn’t that all of them?) Its tail takes the form of an absurdly long-handled tennis racket, and when perched the motmot ticks that tail back and forth like the pendulum of a clock. Mr. Darwin wrote many chapters on how we got around to birds like this. The first of our party to spy the motmot was Lily, who tried to describe the unlikely creature she’d seen: it was like something a little kid would draw with a whole box of crayons. My husband suspected motmot, and soon his infallible ear caught out its plaintive hoot. Then we all traipsed after the wondrous bird, seeing and not seeing as it disappeared in the branches of a huge ficus tree, then suddenly reappeared with its mate. The two of them languidly jumped around in the branches, conducting their connubial life with no regard for their own flamboyance. One of them abruptly dropped to the ground near us, snapped up a big black scorpion, flogged it a few times, and gulped it down. Dad lowered his binoculars, rubbed his eyes, and looked at me with an expression of rapture. Thanks for this, I whispered to him. For birds. It’s possible we’ve never been happier as father and daughter than we were right then, with the motmot.

I think maybe everyone needs birds, at least a little. For a quotidian measure of wonder and a glimpse of how life goes on completing itself, whether we’re watching or not. It’s a useful enterprise to size up a day’s work against the fastidious care of a hummingbird nest, or a family with an insatiable appetite for lizards. The birds should be introduced to others gently, as a gift rather than a duty. But when all is said and done, they are serious business, not just background music to a more important human agenda. They are the whistling breath of the place where we live, a thing that itself is alive, and when that voice goes quiet, merciful heavens, we ought to worry. When it sings, that is something to notice. It could sing us awake.