And (No) Birds Sing:
Reflections and Readings
Soraya Roberts || June/July 2021
Right now it’s extremely quiet in my house. But it’s also extremely loud. Okay, my fridge isn’t that quiet, but the only other sound in here is my fingers typing. My windows are open, though. My windows are always open in the summer. I have allergies and I get heat stroke easily, but having the windows open — not quite being outside, but “taking in the air” like I’m some sickly Thomas Mann protagonist — mitigates the allergies, the heat. Having the windows open means breezes, but more than that it means birds. Extremely loud birds.
I don’t know what kind, but the ones talking right now make a repetitive ripped-bullet type sound. What an unevocative description, but then I don’t know much about birds. I just hear them all the time. They comfort me. They make me feel like I live in nature. Like there is some nature left to live in in this city. In a world full of cities like this.
The state of publishing is for the birds.
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At the beginning of the pandemic the birds meant everything. We could barely go out. When we did go out it was only briefly. And even then, leaving the house was full of fear. But the birds remained unchanged; they were loud, they were populous. They were flying above it all, unaffected. And hearing them in my house was like being with them. It was calming. Their presence provides a climate of stability. As though they will always be there.
This is actually a contradictory feeling in a city, if you think about it. I can’t remember when it was, but there was a point in time when I started noticing anti-pigeon spikes popping up on doorways and ledges everywhere around Toronto. They made me think of those anti-skateboarding bits of wall in the Financial District, the little protrusions they add to the big slabs of granite in order to dissuade, you know, life. Or the anti-sleeping benches divided by “arm rests” that are really anti-rest. That stuff always makes me wonder who the people building cities are making them for. The people in suits aren’t hanging around outside. Do the people in charge just want the suits to be able to walk through a completely soulless landscape unmolested in order to… what, keep their minds optimally conducive to analyzing stock prices? I mean, yes, I guess, is the answer. The same people who are so concerned with keeping the surroundings of their offices antiseptic are also the ones who can afford to escape them to nature. As though they themselves aren’t the reason they have to escape in the first place.
And yet these people can’t buy birds. Well, they can, but they can’t buy the kind of birds that just float in and out of our lives with the wind. When it comes to birds, there is a strange kind of absence of hierarchy. No matter where you live, a bird or two or three or even a family can usually make their way there, or within the vicinity anyway. They level things out. Even when you perhaps cannot afford a house, even when you perhaps cannot afford rent, birds will visit you. They do not have a preferred address. Their comfort is indiscriminate.
* * *
I didn’t realize Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, which opens with dying birds (pesticides) and sparked renewed interest in the environmental movement in the sixties, was named after a poem by John Keats. “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” written in 1819, is, obviously, about a dying knight (Keats, who himself only lived to 25, wrote a lot about death). It opens: “O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,/Alone and palely loitering?/The sedge has withered from the lake,/And no birds sing!” That last line was going to be the title of Carson’s chapter on the loss of birdsong. It then became the title of the book itself, a metaphor for the loss of nature as a whole. “It was a spring without voices,” Carson writes. “On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, wrens, and scores of other bird voices there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh.”
The loss of birdsong always seems to foreshadow doom. How many movies have you seen in which, ahead of a cataclysmic disaster, the trees suddenly go quiet? (Having looked up movies in which this happens, apparently not that many — The Day After Tomorrow has birds fleeing New York, and there a lot of birds dropping dead in The Core, Midnight Sky, and The Seventh Sign — but for some reason, maybe because of Carson, this moment of quiet in the greenery is ubiquitous in apocalyptic narratives in my mind). This isn’t dramatic license. Storms that produce tornadoes, for instance, also produce far-reaching infrasound, sound at a frequency that is too low for us to hear but perfectly audible to some birds. That’s how you get a scenario eight years ago in Tennessee in which huge flocks of songbirds fled south two days ahead of a storm that produced 84 tornadoes in 17 states, killing 35 people. The storm was hundreds of miles away, but the birds knew.
* * *
At the beginning of every spring, or maybe it’s every summer — at the beginning of every something, I find a dead hatchling by my side door. If you’ve ever seen a bird that young, you will know they look like they should still be inside an egg. They are very pink and very membranous and their eyes are black shadowy spots, the promise of eyes. The first time it happened, I called an ornithology lab at the university to ask what I should do. The ornithologist said there was nothing I could do, that I could get a mattress to break the hatchlings’ fall but that they were being thrown out of the nests off my roof for a reason, and I should let them be. So at the beginning of every spring or summer or something, I see this rejected hatchling by my side door and I give it a little thought and I leave it to be handled by the circle of life. Its little body is usually gone within a day.
I don’t know if more people are finding these hatchlings than usual (I Googled and found nothing). What I do know is that birds aren’t doing so well. Last month that there was that story about birds losing their song. Because of their dwindling numbers, because of climate change, some birds can’t find mentors to show them how to sing, so they can’t sing, which means they can’t find mates, which means their populations dwindle further. Who among us — the metaphor couldn’t be more clear. Just like birds, just like all animals: so many of us don’t have the people we need, the places we need, anything we need, to prosper the way we should. “Birds lose their song”: the headline itself sounds like a sad fairytale. And it is, like Ariel having her voice stolen by Ursula in exchange for what turned out to be nothing. But the birds didn’t just lose their song, just like we didn’t just lose our ability to flourish; we just kept making choices that caused them to, that caused us to. The cruelty is no accident.
“Birds taught a lot of men how to become caring men, because you had to learn how to care for an animal,” says of one the pigeon breeders Shanna Tiayon talked to. “If you took care of a bird you’re more apt to be more successful in taking care of your children. If birds taught you to love them then you could learn to love those that have done you wrong.” It’s funny that we have to be taught. Even without a scientific study, I could have told you that more birds make us happier. I couldn’t have told you specifically that seeing 10% more bird species in your neighborhood produces the satisfaction equivalent to a 10% raise at your job. But I could have told you that all that money, the way it makes you feel? You could have gotten that for free. We didn’t have to kill for it.
I wonder if that discovery, were it more widely known, would change anything. Would it make us more inclined to save the world and the birds within it? If nothing else, would our own satisfaction be enough to preserve the world’s? For now I’ll try to let the noise of the birds outside my window drown out the answer I don’t want to hear.
A Reading List for the Birds
Sparrow Envy: Field Guide to Birds and Lesser Beasts (J. Drew Lanham, 2021): All things bird, in poetry and prose, plus the question: can birding be an escape if the birder isn’t safe?
The Thirty Names of Night (Zeyn Joukhadar, 2020): Three generations of Syrian Americans linked by a mysterious bird species.
Songbird Journeys: Four Seasons In the Lives of Migratory Birds (Miyoko Chu, 2007): The ebb and flow of migration, the cycle of seasons, and the interconnectedness between distant places.
Ravensong (Lee Maracle, 1993): An urban Native community devastated by an influenza epidemic.
Silent Spring (Rachel Carson, 1962): The outcry that followed its publication forced the banning of DDT and spurred revolutionary changes in environmental law.
The Happy Prince and Other Tales (Oscar Wilde, 1888): In the opening story, a little sparrow abandoned by his flock befriends the gilded statue of a prince.