Forty Years From Now

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I’m baking bread and looking out my kitchen window at the first migratory visitors to my bird feeder. There’s a White-crowned Sparrow. Resident birds are partaking of the goodies too as the leaves turn, the weather gets cooler and the insects less abundant. Titmice, doves, towhees, jays, and the occasional Cooper’s Hawk come by to see what  is offered. The telegraph system works well in the local bird community.

White-crowned Sparrow

Through the winter, more birds and more species will arrive as the weather moves them along. Spring through fall I watch birds scrambling through bushes and trees and listen to their songs. Fall through spring I watch but hear fewer sounds.

The trees turn yellow, orange, and red and begin to blanket the ground with color. Towhees scratch through the leaves to uncover insects and worms and kinglets and warblers flit through the brush in search of various morsels. It looks like the birds are having fun but it’s really a serious, constant quest for survival. (My book, Beaks, Bones, and Birdsongs, makes clear that whatever birds do is not enjoyable but a struggle to stay alive.)

As the days shorten, more birds arrive. Weather affects the speed at which birds move, but it’s the truncating of daylight that cues their migration. The White-crowned Sparrow, nesting in Canada and Alaska, arrives at my place in California, not only to escape the harsh winter up north and the greater food supply here but the increased time to forage. A sparrow trying to winter in Barrow, Alaska in January would not only have to deal with frigid temperatures but would have only about 4 hours of daylight to seek food, probably snow-covered as well. So the bird moves south and seeks out my yard with its abundant food supply, and the 12 hours of daylight in which to partake of it.

Glancing out my living room window, I often see our local Black Phoebe making use of our bird bath. The phoebe, or more likely his/her extended family, has built a mud nest on our house for over a decade, raising several broods of young. Distracted from the book I am currently reading (The Man Who Ate The Zoo), I notice an Anna’s Hummingbird feeding on the lavender flowers, as he/she does every day this time of year.

Anna’s Hummingbird

Dinnertime, just outside the dining room window, I catch a glimpse of Scrub Jays either burying or retrieving acorns from the lawn and quail eating grass seed. My TV news viewing is distgracted by the robins, Cedar Waxwings, and towhees picking at the fruit of the crabapple tree next to the house. Later, while ensconced behind my computer on the second floor, I turn around to see both Mourning Doves and Eurasian Collared Doves, perched on various redbud tree branches, constantly jockeying for position in order to take their turn at the bird feeder below.

Without going outside, every day I am treated to the marvels of the bird world taking place mere feet from me. Thinking about the billions of birds that have disappeared in recent years saddens me. We have experienced a 30 percent decline in bird numbers in 40 years; what will 40 years from now bring? What if I looked out the windows and saw nothing? 

2 thoughts on “Forty Years From Now”

  1. Somewhere I read ‘evolution doesn’t want us comfortable, or need us happy’. It was about humans and the crazy stuff we do. It seems obvious in retrospect, but, I started looking at all my backyard visitors in that light. We tell ourselves, for example, ‘oh the deer get used to the cold’. No, they don’t. Or getting rained on, or all the other awful stuff they have to deal with. Or, take the robins – that first year has a lethality rate of 85%. You may be familiar with the concept of the ‘LD50’ – this is a characteristic of toxic substances. The LD50 is the dose that will kill 50% of those its administered to: now consider the survivors – they’ve taken enough of this toxic substance to kill 50% of people. They survive, but barely. They’re sick as hell. So, what is the experience like for the 15% of robins that survive from one year to the next? They’ve survived something that kills 85% of them. A truly, horribly, awful experience. But evolution doesn’t care. Evolution just needs survival – it’s OK if it’s awful.

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