It’s quiet outside: in the suburbs, in the city, in the mountains, and near the sea.
But this morning, I finally realized that it is too quiet. Weirdly quiet. The kind of quiet that, in movies, signals something terrible is about to happen. When the background music disappears and the sound of a lone cricket underscores an unnatural silence, the bloodletting is about to begin.
I used to wake up to the sound of chirping and chittering, and very loud cawing. In fact, the raucous air-splitting laughter of crows – a whole murder of them in the nearby trees – used to jolt me out of a sound sleep on summer mornings. I would put a pillow over my head and curse the damn birds that robbed me of my rightful rest.
Of course, I had no right to those hours. Time owes me nothing, and now that it’s clear that time is of the essence, there are far too few birds to sound the alarm.
A wide-ranging study of avian life in North America has shown that nearly three billion birds have gone missing since 1970. There have been losses in 529 species of birds, not only among the rare or endangered. Our taken-for-granted backyard favorites are on the list, too. Sparrows, blackbirds, and finches are dying off due to the loss of habitats, the disappearance of food sources, and, to a lesser extent, the lethal nature of cats, who are estimated to be responsible for somewhere between 30 and 80 million deaths.
The cat thing his riled many animal lovers who have challenged the science. Wayne Pacelle, former president of the Humane Society of the United States says, “The numbers are informed guesswork.” And yet he also concedes, “We don’t quarrel with the conclusion that the impact is big.”
“The impact is big,” may be one of the great understatements of last week.
The silence of the birds is frightening for many reasons. Birds pollinate plants, birds eat mosquitoes and keep other noxious insects in check, and birds are food for other animals – including many of us featherless bipeds.
Birds are at the heart of human culture, from ancient cave drawings to the eagle, awa hili, which is sacred to the Cherokee, to “The Birds,” by Aristophanes,
Percy Shelley wrote “To a Skylark.” Maya Angelou told us, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”
Stravinsky composed “The Firebird,” Prince gave us “When Doves Cry,” Leonard Cohen said love was “Like a Bird on a Wire,” and Nellie Furtado warbled, “I’m like a bird.”
Birds foretell death, symbolize everlasting life, and give wing to the promise of love.
Without birds, we will have to stop teaching babies to cluck, crow, and cheep.
It hasn’t come to that yet. And although things look grim, a silent sky may not be inevitable.
In the same 50 years we lost nearly one third of the bird population, the bald eagle and several migrating species made impressive comebacks because the pesticide DDT was banned and endangered species legislation was passed in Canada and the U.S.
We need more of that, which requires us all to follow the children and enlist as climate warriors. We should also support environmental initiatives and organizations, and vote for people who believe in science and support the conservation of bird habitats and the protection of endangered species. We can keep our cats indoors.
And while there’s still time, we must tune our ears to birdsong and regain a sense of wonder at the sight of them soaring above, gliding on lakes, diving into the sea.
I, for one, am going to stop cursing the wild turkeys and Canadian geese that have invaded our backyards and ponds. Well, I’m going to try.
Posted on Cognoscenti September 25, 2019