By Kendra Langdon Juskus
We step out of the blustery openness of the main path, leaving its wide curve through the prairie and entering a quiet grove of willows. There’s a pool of water here in late spring, and a heron rookery that fills the tops of the willows with precariously perched nests and the awkward flight of gawky birds. But now it’s October, and the ground beneath our feet is dry. Thin willow leaves dart through autumnal sunlight on their way to the floor of dry grasses below.
But something besides leaves is twisting through this space, and after our eyes adjust to the dimmer light, we can see what it is: birds. Aren’t they delightful, I think, with a casual bystander’s appreciation. They flutter around the tree trunks just like the falling leaves, so that the two temporarily lose their distinction in a wild waltz. I’m content to watch this unfold and entertain me, but one of my hiking companions wants to enter the dance more fully. He focuses his eyes on several small birds perched in the bony stalks of a low bush, and brings his binoculars to his eyes.
“Eastern bluebirds,” he concludes, and checks his work in the field guide he’s brought along. Bluebirds. I didn’t even know we had bluebirds in this area.
He shows me the bluebird entry in the field guide. From where we stand, the birds in the bush look like little more than plump brown dumplings, but from the image on the page the bluebird is aptly named: summer sky-blue with a rusty breast and white belly.
I squirm a little bit as I read the notes on the bluebird’s region and feeding habits. Birding has always struck me as the consummate nerdy activity. I enjoy nature for its lyricism and sublimity: the dance of birds, the resplendence of natural light, the chorus of birdsong and breeze that is as beautiful and mysterious to me as a symphony. I don’t need to entertain myself with an activity when I’m outside, least of all an activity that obsessively stalks and catalogs birds. Birds are frustratingly elusive–moving on before the eye catches them–and (to my eyes) indistinguishable from one another against the sky. Birders wake at ungodly hours to track these creatures that don’t even have fur or whiskers or anything that makes them cute enough to merit a significant time investment.
And yet. And yet birds are our constant companions, whether we notice it or not. They sweep up what we leave of our lunches on park benches and picnic tables, waddle through our cities’ concrete acres, and burst en masse out of fields and off of telephone wires on the side of the highway. It seems wrong to take such fixtures of daily life for granted. It seems an injustice to them, and to me. I am of a race that was told to know and name the other creatures that share my space. It’s a privilege for me to know and name them still, and an honor to the birds and their Creator that they are known and named. It is through naming and knowing things that we come to cherish them. And it is in cherishing them that we are moved to protect them.
I lift the binoculars to my eyes and catch glimpses of the birds’ blue shoulders as they tilt on their branches in the sunlight. We see warblers and a downy woodpecker in the willow grove, too; sparrows, swallows, cedar waxwings, and a red-tailed hawk back out on the prairie. I begin to learn that the birds not only look different and have different calls, but inhabit different parts of the landscape (a landscape that I never realized was so varied in its dips and furrows and stands of trees) and move about in distinctive ways. Some bob up and down over currents of prairie wind. Some catch the currents and ride them. Others scuffle around in the underbrush. Some scurry up the sides of trees, chasing an ambition invisible to us.
I don’t anticipate cataloging the species I see, or clocking migration numbers any time soon. But I’ve jettisoned my hesitations about this nerdy pursuit. My bird field guide sits out on my table, ready to help me identify the first species to descend on my feeder this season. The more species I’m able to identify, the more I’m baffled by this diversity of birds, and humbled to think of how many other creatures fill the earth with their glorious variety. The earth suddenly seems overwhelmed by the creativity of God’s hand.
Kendra Langdon Juskus is the managing editor for Flourish.