Academic journal article The American Biology Teacher

Birds & Us

Academic journal article The American Biology Teacher

Birds & Us

Article excerpt

I am sitting down to write this article in early summer, and lately I've heard more than one person complain about birds waking them up in what my human friends consider the middle of the night--3:00 or 4:00 am. As often happens when I think about the living world, I'm reminded of something Aldo Leopold (1949) wrote, in this case, in an essay called "Too Early." He describes the very early morning, before first light, as the "most pleasant and least useful time" (p. 59), and "to arrive too early in the marsh is an adventure in pure listening" (p. 61). I'll admit that I am not as willing as Leopold was to put on the coffee pot and then go out with a notebook to enjoy the sounds of nature, but I don't mind lying in bed and letting the birds keep me awake for awhile. They are so passionate about their business, so seemingly earnest and industrious, to declare that their day has started and that others better respect their presence.

I live in a suburb just outside New York City, so we have grass and bushes and trees, and therefore we have birds. Nothing too exotic, but enough different species to make the sounds of the morning interesting. Yet even in Manhattan, there are a lot of birds. Yes, pigeons count in my book. I know they are a nuisance, but just spend some time observing them, and you have to appreciate their skill, industriousness, and persistence. However, because of Central Park, there are more species of birds in Manhattan than in many other urban areas. As Jonathan Rosen (2008) explains in his book on birds, Central Park is such a great bird Mecca precisely because it is in the middle of the city--birds are attracted to the only large green area in a sea of buildings. Rosen lives in Manhattan and does his bird watching in the Park, as do many others. Marie Winn (1998) has written a great book on New York City birders and their passions.

New York & Israel

Rosen emphasizes the distinction between bird watchers and birders. The latter are interested in how many different kind of birds they see and keep life lists of species they've observed, lists that some of them passionately and even fanatically attempt to extend. Rosen considers himself a bird watcher; he is less interested in the number of species he's seen than in the experience of watching the birds he happens to encounter. His book is a pleasant ramble through his musings about birds, musings with a couple of different themes. First, he is interested in American history as it relates to birds. This gives him a chance to weave Henry David Thoreau and John James Audubon into his story. He also dwells on Walt Whitman, who was brought up in Brooklyn and then spent his last years in neighboring New Jersey. One of Whitman's early poems on the mockingbird sets Rosen off on a discussion of birds and the poetic imagination.

Theodore Roosevelt, another New Yorker, also gets Rosen's attention. Even though Roosevelt hunted birds, his conservation efforts saved many as well. Like all of us, Roosevelt was a person of his time, when guns and wildlife had very different connotations than they do today. Roosevelt was a student of birds and wrote articles for the ornithological journal, The Auk. Rosen sees Roosevelt as a symbol of America's awakening to the value of its wild heritage. What poets like Whitman and Emily Dickenson were aware of in the 19th century, Roosevelt brought into the consciousness of the general public. Rosen also touches on a particularly thorny conservation case, that of the ivorybill woodpecker as a symbol of the loss of wilderness, and whether or not it still persists in Southern swamps. As Eric Stokstad (2007) notes, the euphoria over the announcement in 2005 of evidence for the bird's presence in Arkansas has subsided and many ornithologists are now skeptical of the evidence. This doubt increases as later searches have found no new signs of ivorybills.

In the second half of the book, Rosen makes a big geographical leap from New York to Israel. …

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