Tuesday, October 14, 2008


“We should all know the birds of our backyards,” the veteran bird bander told me one misty morning long ago. “We should know everything about them, study them, learn their habits and their ways, know where they live, what they like to eat, what they need to survive.”

She had steel blue eyes and wore and old man’s flannel shirt, and as she talked she looked out across the tree-lined ridge beyond the cornfields where we were working. The steam from her coffee thermos rose around her cheeks as she took a sip. Then she looked me in the eye. “We know nothing about the most common birds, most of us, and that is a damned shame.”

“When I was a little girl more than sixty years ago,” she continued, “Wood Thrushes were a dime a dozen. We saw and heard them everywhere. Now, they are considered one of the most threatened species in this part of the world. What the hell happened?”

Her point was not lost on me that morning. I was the inexperienced newbie, the greenhorn, and I watched her pluck songbirds and was very intimidated. Even touching a live bird would make me squirm. But to see her pluck a bird gently from the net in order to carefully weigh and band it for surveys was like watching someone unpack Christmas ornaments from a cardboard box.

Within minutes the birds would be wearing new jewelry and be off into the cold blue of October over our heads, headed off for their winter homes no worse for wear. Years later, she might discover them again in her nets, the bands still encircling their legs with numbers to identify them. This, she said, made her shiver with delight. They had returned home again, and survived to nest in the same place for another year.

Many years have passed since that autumn morning and still I find myself trying to live up to her command: learn the birds of my own backyard. And the butterflies, bees and beetles. Know what they need to survive. It is no small task. It will take a lifetime, I’m sure, just to get started.

So far my desire to learn has taken me through wooded trails and garden centers, past compost piles and rocky outcroppings along creeks, even driving down highways trying to identify wildflowers at 65 miles an hour. And here is the thing: observation never stops and is rarely boring. Once you get started it is like an addiction; you are hooked for life and you never stop wondering about the sights and sounds of nature, even when you find it in the oddest places. You start asking yourself why a creature does something, or why a plant survives in one place and languishes elsewhere, and you can’t stop wondering.

Long ago I dreamt of moving far away to someplace exotic and picturesque. Now, I realize this is where I was meant to be planted. I have to grow here, and make it possible for other things to grow and thrive here, too. Every year I work a bit more to make it beautiful, and hospitable to wildlife. In the process I have fallen in love with what lives here with me. Those cardinals out the window might be the same ones I watched at the banding nets so long ago. The thought of it makes me shiver with delight, too.

Welcome you to my new blog. In the coming posts I will work hard to write about what I observe, and provide info on all kinds of wildlife native to the backyards of the Mid-Atlantic. I hope to write about the research of scientists working in the field of ecology. I’d like to promote some good deeds done by those who care about the local environment. And I hope to inspire you to grow where you’re planted, too.
(Special thanks to Dr. David A. Rintoul for the use of his bird banding photo.)

1 comment:

Cari said...

This is such a lovely sentiment. I agree with it whole heartedly and strive to do much the same in my garden. Thanks for doing what you do.