That Bird You Just Saw Is a Prophet of Our World’s Future

Reading between the lines.
Sept. 6 2013 10:00 AM

I’ll Tell You Why I Love Birds

And Their Fate Is Our Fate tells you why we should listen to them.

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Illustration by Dalton Rose

One thing’s for sure: It has nothing to do with “the magic of flight.” A lot of people ask me how I became a birder—what it is about these creatures that drives my obsession to study them and think about them and search all over for them. Then they speculate on the answer themselves. “They’re so magical,” they’ll say, blowing the steam off a mug of chai tea clutched between two hands, “the freedom of the sky!” No. It has nothing to do with magic or freedom. It has nothing to do with the miracle of flight. I don’t hang-glide or fly planes. It has nothing to do with birds being beautiful, or cute, or impressive or fierce. I wasn’t attacked by a bird as a kid.

It has nothing to do with birds at all, really. It has everything to do with the natural world being too damn big.

Growing up in Maine, nature was everywhere. We lived near the coast, and I spent summer days searching for crabs on the beach and cracking open mussels to find pearls. My dad and grandfather are lifelong sportsmen—they still publish this newspaper—and they took me to woods and mountains and streams and lakes all over the state. This was back when nature channels actually showed nature programs, and my living room was filled with Marty Stouffer showing me the wilds of America, or David Attenborough teaching me about life everywhere else.

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It was an interest that, as I matured, became unsustainable. I found I had less time to scour the beach for hermit crabs once watching The Simpsons, listening to Weezer, and talking to girls also became priorities. Nature seemed monolithic and impatient—there was so much to learn and see and find that maintaining an interest felt like an all-or-nothing proposition. For years, I chose “nothing.” 

Discovering birding changed all that. I found myself one day during my senior year of college in a used-book store looking at an old edition of the Peterson Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America. Next to each illustrated species, the book’s previous owner (an old lady in Florida, I later surmised) had written the date she had first seen that species and where. That’s all it took. I had found a way back in.

I love birds because they provide the perfect point of entry to the natural world. They’re ambassadors to places and concepts that I would otherwise be too daunted to tackle or too busy to get into. Since I’ve started following birds, I’ve been to just about every type of habitat this country offers: from Southern bayous to the California desert; from the Illinois prairie into the rolling waves of the Atlantic, Pacific, and the Gulf of Mexico. I’ve learned that “nature” doesn’t begin and end at national park boundaries—the rarest bird I’ve ever discovered came into my view after I took a wrong turn in a housing development—but rather it’s a much more integral part of our lives. Instead of trying to block time to enjoy the natural world, birders learn to tune in to the natural world that’s always around them. I’m birding whenever I am outside or, failing that, wherever there’s a window.    

Peter Doherty, a Nobel Prize-winning immunologist and author of Their Fate Is Our Fate: How Birds Foretell Threats to Our Health and Our World, also recognizes the value of birds as representatives of the wider natural world. Rather than as ambassadors, though, Doherty views birds as prophets of a sort, as “sentinels, sampling the health of the air, seas, forests and grasslands that we share with them.” He presents tales of complicated, messy interactions between birds and humans, often culled from his experience in the world of medicine but also detailing some of the oft-overlooked ways in which subtle human actions can greatly impact birds. To be reminded of this dynamic, Doherty suggests, is to take responsibility for the health of birds, humans and the Earth.

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Of primary relevance for Doherty (as for most birders) is that birds are accessible. As the human footprint grows, more terrestrial animals—from bison to lions to kangaroos—are restricted to parks and reserves, as far from human contact as we can get them. Other creatures, like rats and insects, live among us, but they’re too small (and unpleasant, frankly) to earn a widespread following. Birds are it. They live close to us, but travel far and wide. In the sense that humans and birds are both warmblooded vertebrates, we share a physiology, which can be useful because birds can give us clues as to how humans might be affected by outside phenomena.

Doherty thinks we’d be smart to pay attention. He starts with stories from the medical world, illustrating the surprisingly numerous examples of diseases transferred between humans and birds. Naturally, it’s the diseases that birds can transfer to humans that get most of the press. Bird flu (H1N1 and H5N1), West Nile virus, and another disease called psittacosis, or “parrot disease,” which killed at least 33 people between 1929 and 1930, are explained from their feathered origins to their human outbreaks. Lesser known are the plagues humans have wrought upon birds. I hadn’t heard the story of a tick-borne disease brought by sheep-herding monks to Scotland in the 1600s that decimated wild grouse populations, or of the human introduction of malaria and avipox to Hawaii, which have contributed the extinction of about half of the 140 bird species endemic to the islands.

Birds can teach us about more than just communicable diseases, of course. They can teach us about the health of the planet. Take the saga of a shorebird called the red knot, which Doherty uses to illustrate the fragility of natural systems. Over just a few years, a small uptick in the mid-Atlantic catch of horseshoe crabs led to an unfathomable 70 percent decline in the worldwide population of red knots, which depend on horseshoe crab eggs during a crucial time in the birds’ migration. The impacts from climate change and human expansion are becoming easier to see, Doherty explains, thanks to valuable data gathered by birders acting as citizen scientists through Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count and the eBird programs.

Author Peter Doherty.
Author Peter Doherty

Photo courtesy of Peter Doherty

Many of us, even birders, can trick ourselves into thinking that there are neat divisions between the natural and the human worlds. Americans have pioneered the idea of the national park—and thank goodness for it—but those parks lead many to think that what exists or occurs outside park borders doesn’t count. The birds in Doherty’s book serve as a valuable reminder that the natural world doesn’t exist in isolation. Wings permit birds to be the last wild intrusions on our lives, their stubborn physiology forcing us to remember that we’re connected to a much larger world. It’s an uninvited reminder but a valuable one, and it’s brought to us by—and I really can’t believe I’m saying this—the magic of flight.

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Nicholas Lund lives and birds in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Birdist. Follow him on Twitter.

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