It was a buggy, humid morning over the fields of Conte National Wildlife Refuge in the summer of 2021, and the Barn Swallows were loving it.
Fanning and tilting their forked tails, the birds feinted left and right to catch insects. Their two long outer tail feathers trailed behind them as they steered towards prey.
Looking closely, a careful observer might have noticed a third filament dangling behind more than a dozen of the birds— the antenna of a tiny radio transmitter, attached noninvasively to the birds’ rumps and destined to fall off by the end of the summer.
Mass Audubon’s Bird Conservation department had been at work tagging these swallows with transmitters all morning. Along with state biologists and refuge staff, the Mass Audubon team caught swallows as they entered their colony—a wooden building used to store the refuge’s boats— fitted the birds with transmitters and released them in a matter of minutes.
Where are Swallows Finding Food?
When the tagging effort wrapped up, the work of following the birds’ feeding patterns began— part of an ongoing study of what these birds need to survive and raise young successfully. Jon Atwood, Director of Bird Conservation, and Marie Rhodes, a student at Unity College in Maine, tracked the birds on foot with handheld receivers over the course of the summer, keeping tabs on how many birds fed over farm fields and native grasslands.
Swallows are open-country aerialists that pay little attention to what kind of shrubs or grasses cover the ground where they feed, at least as long as they can find insect prey above it. One possible reason swallows are declining is agricultural intensification— that is, growing more food on the same amount of land with heavier pesticide use and monocultures, which makes it harder for them to find food, both in farm fields and in nearby patches of native grassland.
So far, Jon and Marie’s work bore out the expectation that swallows find food more successfully over native grassland than more human-impacted open habitats (whether agriculture or development). They also foraged most frequently within a home range of just 2/3 of a mile— perhaps surprisingly close to the colony for a bird that covers hundreds of miles a day on migration. This reinforces the importance of preserving native grassland immediately adjacent to swallow colonies (in addition to accounting for other factors like grasslands’ size, habitat quality, and exposure to disturbance).
Next steps: Understanding the Diet-Habitat Connection
In the coming year, graduate researchers working with Mass Audubon will analyze DNA fragments in swallows’ excrement to identify what kinds of insects they’re eating across different habitats.
Hopefully, this will point to where swallows are (and aren’t) getting the nutrition they need, and establish whether local declines of the largest and most protein-dense insects are contributing to Barn Swallows’ shrinking numbers across their range.
Anyone can view a list of radio-tagged migratory birds in transit over Drumlin Farm Wildlife Sanctuary in Lincoln—and follow their next stops in real time.
An antenna installed at the sanctuary earlier this summer is part of an international network of receivers (the Motus project) that detect tagged birds as they pass by, helping researchers trace individual migrations across continents.
So far this fall, the antenna has picked up some interesting species that began their journeys from as far away as the northern Canadian Maritimes and ended up in Florida and South America.
Most birds that migrate long distances travel at night and feed during the day, making just a handful of stops on thousand-plus mile journeys. As expected, none of the birds stopped near Drumlin, taking just a few minutes in the middle of the night to pass through the area in which the antenna detect birds (about nine miles east-to-west—from the skies over Stow and Sudbury to Watertown and Arlington).
The Cast of Characters
Four Swainson’s Thrushes were among the birds detected, all of which came from a group of 42 tagged in New Brunswick this summer. One bird took a leisurely journey after passing near Drumlin Farm, stopping five days later at a large wildlife refuge between Baltimore and Washington DC, and island-hopping around the coast of South Carolina two weeks afterwards. While Swainson’s Thrushes are a somewhat uncommon sight for birders in the Metro– West area, they’re one of the most abundant species detected by people listening for nocturnal flight calls, suggesting that they pass overhead in larger numbers.
A Bobolink also passed by under cover of night in late September. While Bobolinks breed in the fields at Drumlin (which Mass Audubon manages specifically for them), this individual was from a radio-tagging project based in Maine. It was detected on the DelMarVa peninsula a few days later, but wasn’t picked up by any receivers further south—suggesting it may have made a beeline to South America straight over the west Atlantic, or possibly died.
One Red Knot, a species known for marathon migrations, set the most ambitious pace of any of the detected birds, passing through the Metro –West area before it was detected just two days later by antennae in Tampa and Sanibel, Florida. Tag data from earlier in the year shows this bird spent five days in May of 2021 refueling and moving around the South Carolina coast before rocketing up through Pennsylvania and Toronto over another nonstop two-day journey. Eventually, the signal was lost in central Ontario, with the bird appearing to be on its way to the species’ breeding grounds in Hudson Bay.
Visualizing Migration, Naming Threats
Following pieces of these birds’ routes is more than an interesting and fun window into their world—it provides valuable clues to why some species are declining.
Take Red Knots, for example. Researchers are already using Motus data to show how Red Knots’ reproductive success on their Canadian breeding grounds depends on how much food they can find at stopover sites in the Chesapeake Bay—where their preferred diet, horseshoe crab eggs, is dwindling due to overharvesting.
Other studies have shed light on what stopover sites are most critical for migratory birds, or examine the impact of extreme weather, the overuse of certain pesticides, or other threats.
Meanwhile, Mass Audubon and MassWildlife received a grant together in 2020 to track American Kestrels to their wintering grounds and see if mortality there might be driving their decline (although the pandemic put this work on hold until 2022). We’re also tracking local Barn Swallows—another declining open-country bird—during the summer months, to understand if they forage more successfully over native grassland than farm fields.
Applications from interested farmers have been rolling in as Bobolinks have been starting to make their way northward from South America. What better way to welcome them back than protecting habitat where they can safely raise their young? People who support The Bobolink Project do just that.
The Bobolink Project is an innovative model that was designed to connect conservation-minded donors with farmers who want to protect birds on their fields, but need a little financial help to do so.
You can save Bobolinks
The number of acres The Bobolink Project protects is directly tied to how much we can raise in donations. You can support this work and protect privately-owned habitat for grassland birds by donating to the project and spreading the word to all of your networks. This project simply wouldn’t exist without people, like you, who care deeply for birds.
The Bobolink Project saves hundreds of Bobolinks each year. Let’s make 2021 just as successful!
Interested farmers apply to The Bobolink Project with a dollar bid/acre that is low enough to be competitive but also sufficient to provide them with some financial help to offset the loss of income from the hay that would otherwise be cut. Grassland sizes must be a minimum of 20 acres to be considered. At the same time we accept donations from Bobolink-loving donors and pool them until we’re ready to make decisions in mid-April.
In order to select which farms will be included we do a uniform reverse price auction, which is described on our website in more detail. The number of acres that we can protect is determined by how much we can raise each year.
Once we determine which farms will be selected, we draw up legal contracts with those farmers and wait for the Bobolinks to arrive, start building nests, and raise their families.
Conservation success stories rest on a bedrock of strong environmental laws. Many of Massachusetts’ most notable species recoveries, from the resurgence of Peregrine Falcons in cities to Bald Eagles populations’ dramatic turnaround, are grounded in the legal provisions of the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act (MESA).
MESA provides robust protections for over 400 local, rare, and declining species. With the chaos of 2020 disappearing in the rearview mirror, this is also a time to reflect on and celebrate positive achievements from past years. To mark the 30th anniversary of MESA, passed in December of 1990, take a moment to learn about the history of this sweeping and ever-relevant legislation.
Laying the Groundwork
Conservation laws in Massachusetts date back to 1818, when the state passed the first bill to protect songbirds from sport and food hunting, and by 1855 a broader act was instituted that protected all “nongame” birds. By the end of the Civil War in 1865, the genesis of today’s Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife came about with the establishment of a two-person commission “to investigate the obstructions to the passage of fish in the Connecticut and Merrimack Rivers.” By 1886 this grassroots political conservation effort became known as the Commission on Fisheries and Game.
As this incipient conservation machinery continued to evolve, by 1908 Edward Howe Forbush was appointed as the Commonwealth’s first State Ornithologist. After Mass Audubon’s Founding Mothers spearheaded the national Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918, the state was spurred to create the Massachusetts Department of Natural Resources. Embedded within this department, the Division of Fisheries and Game was essentially charged with conserving and managing the Commonwealth’s diversity of wildlife, plants, and habitats for the benefit of Massachusetts residents.
Conservation is a Team Effort
Through the years environmental legislation gradually grew stronger, and by 1973 the federal Endangered Species Act was passed. This landmark legislation soon saw The Nature Conservancy (TNC) develop a network of natural heritage programs across the country that would eventually oversee state level stewardship for all elements of biodiversity, including plants, animals, and natural communities. In 1978 Massachusetts became the fourth state to formally establish a Natural Heritage Program, which by 1983 had morphed into today’s Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program (NHESP). By 1990, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis signed the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act into law, designating species as Endangered, Threatened, or Special Concern, and providing legal protections for each status.
Since then, Mass Audubon has played a key role in partnering with the state to protect the Commonwealth’s most imperiled (“state-listed”) animals and plants through the efforts of the NHESP. Examples include such rare species as North Atlantic Right Whale, American Bittern, Red-bellied Cooter, Marbled Salamander, Northern Redbelly Dace, Early Hairstreak, Yellow Lady’s-slipper. Massachusetts publishes a complete list of state-listed species online. In other cases the NHESP’s Habitat Management Program focuses its conservation efforts on threatened habitats (e.g., vernal pools, pine barrens, sandplain grasslands, and calcareous fens).
As we enter 2021, the conservation efforts driven by the NHESP and MESA continue apace. For more information about the history of the Massachusetts Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program and the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act, check out the November issue of Massachusetts Wildlife magazine, or visit the Fish and Wildlife Service homepage for MESA’s 30th anniversary.
Across the US, conservationists are expanding a network of radio towers that automatically record the positions of radio-tagged birds as they pass nearby.
Data from this initiative, called the Motus network, is helping scientists understand what factors influence bird declines and what it will take to stop them. In mid-2021, Mass Audubon will use the Motus network to identify where threatened American Kestrels faces the most risks and mortality after leaving Massachusetts.
Here are some other examples of recent studies that have used nanotags to change how we understand bird migration—and specifically, how birds’ health during migration influences their survival and breeding success.
Pit Stops can Make or Break a Gray-cheeked Thrush’s Migration
One study used Motus stations to link how much weight Gray-cheeked Thrushes put on at stopover sites in Colombia with their migratory schedule (and, indirectly, to their breeding success).
Gray-cheeked Thrushes stop along Colombia’s coast on their journey from their wintering range further south to their breeding grounds in boreal Canada. Massachusetts birders know them as an uncommon migrant on the ground, although their flight call is fairly frequently heard from night-migrating birds overhead.
This trend lines up with the Colombian study’s first surprising finding: many of these thrushes make direct, continuous flights to Canada from stopover sites in Colombia, instead of hopscotching through the Caribbean and North America. One bird averaged 46 miles per hour as it covered the 2100 miles between Ontario and Colombia in less than two days!
But not all thrushes have enough fat reserves to power them through these marathon flights.
Researchers analyzed the amount of fat thrushes packed on at their stopover sites, as well as the amount of time spent refueling. They found that the longer birds spent feeding on the north coast of Colombia, the earlier they arrived on their Canadian breeding grounds—allowing for a longer window to breed and raise young successfully.
Most interestingly, the researchers found that most thrushes arrived in Colombia with similar levels of fat reserves—suggesting that food availability on their Amazonian wintering grounds had less of an impact on their migratory success than their ability to refuel during stopovers in Colombia. This suggests that Gray-cheeked Thrushes face a bottleneck specifically in Colombia, and that conservation efforts [JA1] on their breeding grounds or wintering grounds could be weakened if their stopover sites are degraded.
Horseshoe Crab Eggs are Critical Fuel for Red Knots
Conservationists have long been concerned about horseshoe crab harvesting along the Atlantic Coast and its effect on Red Knots, a chunky shorebird that feeds on horseshoe crab eggs during migration.
New evidence from a study of nanotagged knots validates concerns that food availability at one key stopover site influences their eventual success on the breeding grounds.
Some Red Knots were fat, healthy, and well-muscled at the time they were fitted with nanotags in Delaware Bay, which hosts more migrating knots than any other East Coast estuary. Motus receivers detected these birds leaving Delaware Bay on nights with favorable winds, which the birds rode nonstop to their breeding grounds.
Birds that failed to find as much food in the bay, however, left sooner— whether or not they had to fight the wind the whole way. These birds could be cutting their losses and giving up on feeding in the bay, the study authors speculate. Alternately, and perhaps more likely, these birds are aware that they weren’t in good enough shape to make a non-stop flight—and so leave earlier in order to arrive on time.
But that decision (whether conscious or not) came with a trade-off: by flying in poor conditions, these birds eroded their fat reserves even further. Because these birds had to fight the wind, the effect of malnourishment on the East Coast was magnified by the time they reached the Arctic.
Ultimately, the birds that showed up in poor condition to their breeding grounds also returned south before the breeding season was over—suggesting they had not been able to successfully raise young.
Motus stations can also help track how tagged birds fare on migration after they’ve been exposed to an environmental hazard.
One study used geolocators to follow White-crowned Sparrows that had been exposed to seeds contaminated with a neonicotinoid, a class of pesticide widely implicated in some bird declines.
They found that while unexposed birds moved on after less than one day, birds that ingested a non-lethal dose of neonicotinoids—less than 1/10 of the amount present in a fully-coated seed—stuck around for an average of 3.5 days.
More worryingly, the birds lost weight. Within just 6 hours of ingesting contaminated seeds, the sparrows lost an average of 6% of their body weight. The loss deepened to 17% for birds that were exposed to neonicotinoids for three days straight. While these birds wree shown to eventually recover, these losses jeopardize White-crowned Sparrows chances of arriving on the breeding grounds with enough time to hatch and raise young.
Collaboration Is Key to Raising Motus Towers
While tracking birds with radio tags is not new technology, the Motus network dramatically expands its reach. Receiving stations across the continent can now pick up birds that would have previously only been detectable locally, either by a human carrying an antenna or by a single-site, stationary receiver.
This isn’t possible without a huge range of partners on public and private land who can host Motus stations, which now number nearly 1,000 across 31 countries. Mass Audubon is proud to be offering a few sanctuaries as potential sites for towers, and to be participating in the Northeast Motus Collaborative.
Human activity has caused white-tailed deer numbers to swell beyond sustainable levels in the Northeast, which spells trouble for birds that nest in the forest understory. At certain Mass Audubon sanctuaries, staff scientists monitor deer density to keep tabs on their ecosystem impacts.
Deer eat some birds out of house and home
Deer are “ecosystem engineers,” capable of changing the physical characteristics of their habitat by eating plants that grow low to the ground (aka understory). While a few deer per square mile can help plant diversity by creating gaps in the understory, much higher densities—often caused by an absence of natural predators—can spell trouble for plants and wildlife.
It only takes eight deer per square mile begin to reduce the number wildflowers, like trilliums and lady’s slippers. With wildflowers devoured, deer shift their diet to plants with tougher leaves, like birches, blueberry, and greenbrier. As deer thin out the forest understory and eventually remove it entirely, birds that normally rely on this vegetation to cover nests and raise young, like Ovenbirds and Black-and-white Warblers, struggle to persist. Even species that nest in the mid-levels of the forest, like Indigo Buntings and Yellow-billed Cuckoos, are affected when deer reduce the number of tree saplings.
Studies of protected areas show that nearly a third of migratory forest birds are more likely to disappear from forests with overabundant deer populations. It’s not just birds: more than 20 deer per square mile are enough to have severe impacts on bird, amphibian, insect, and mammal species diversity.
Certain kinds of human disturbance help deer
Deer may never have lived as densely in Massachusetts as they do now. Wolves and mountain lions kept deer numbers in balance with their ecosystem until humans exterminated large predators from Massachusetts in the mid-1800s.
In the pre-colonial past, subsistence hunting also helped keep deer numbers in balance with the ecosystem. Sport and commercial hunting had nearly eliminated deer from Massachusetts in the mid-20th century, but their numbers began to bounce back as hunting declined—even though deer’s key predators were never allowed to return to the state.
In the meantime, suburbanization has created a nearly ideal landscape for deer in the Northeast. Suburbs mimic the patchwork of fields and forests that deer love, with open areas for nighttime feeding, sheltered woods for raising young, and landscaped backyards providing a steady supply of ornamental plants that are replaced as deer eat them.
Deer impacts endure
Even if the deer population crashes due to lack of food, disease, or a tough winter, their browsing has long-term impacts. Since deer avoid eating hay-scented fern, a plant that acidifies the soil, the fern can dominate the understory making it inhospitable to other plants. In addition, deer browse gives an advantage aggressive invasive plants with spines or thorns that deter grazing.
In the long term, over-browsed forests go into “regeneration debt,” which is when there are more mature trees than young saplings growing to replace them. Without sapling growth, the forest thins as more mature trees die. And since deer avoid eating some unpalatable saplings, especially pines and conifers, this eventually reduces diversity among mature trees as well.
How densely do deer live on Mass Audubon sanctuaries?
For the past several years, Mass Audubon scientists have employed a variety of methods to estimate deer density. Since 2018, deer monitoring has involved pellet counts and browse surveys at 16 of our sanctuaries.
Pellet counts take place in February and early March, after deer pellets have accumulated through the winter on the forest floor. Pellets decompose slowly because of the cold temperatures, and there isn’t much vegetation that can fall and accumulate on top of it. Browse surveys involve looking for deer impacts on plants, like nibbled-down twigs, to establish if deer are reducing tree regeneration or plant diversity.
Data from the 2020 season (which was interrupted by the pandemic) yielded deer densities ranging from 19 deer/mi2 at Elm Hill in Brookfield, to 31 deer/mi2 at Moose Hill in Sharon, to as many as 66 deer/mi2 at Daniel Webster in Marshfield. Some sanctuaries in Central and Western Mass, like Rutland Brook (Petersham) and Canoe Meadows (Pittsfield) have deer populations closer to the goal of 6-18 deer/mi2 suggested by state biologists.
To ensure that our properties are providing habitat for as many plant and animals as possible, Mass Audubon has implemented controlled, selective hunting programs during hunting season at sites where deer populations are growing unsustainably. After evaluating a variety of options for reducing deer density, we concluded that carefully managed hunting program is the only feasible and effective approach. We will continue to work with conservation partners and the state wildlife agency to maintain deer at appropriate densities so that our forest ecosystems continue to thrive.
Tracking migratory birds is getting much easier, thanks to the expansion of a continent-wide network of antennas that automatically receive signals from radio-tagged birds. This network, called the MOTUS network, enables scientists to use much lighter transmitters called nanotags, and study the movements of birds that are too small for older transmitter technology.
By tracking birds during migration, MOTUS data can answer a host of questions about bird biology and conservation—like where birds face the highest mortality, which habitats they rely on most during migration, and what determines whether they successfully reproduce.
These are some of the questions Mass Audubon is trying to answer for migratory American Kestrels, which weigh only 4 ounces and are too small to carry most tracking tags. Kestrels have declined steeply across the state even as habitat loss has slowed, leaving apparently good-quality habitat unoccupied. Beginning in 2021, Mass Audubon will track Massachusetts-breeding kestrels with nanotags (or similar LifeTags) to see what happens to these birds on migration.
How MOTUS Nanotags Work
All nanotags give off bursts of signal on the same frequency, so any MOTUS antenna can detect any tag. To differentiate one tagged bird from another, each tag has a “signature” with different burst lengths, pauses, and spacing—almost like Morse code. When a tagged bird flies within about 9 miles of an antenna, the antenna picks up its signature and records the bird’s position on a connected computer.
Older tracking technology presented many challenges for studying small birds. Tags that transmit GPS data to a satellite are too heavy for most small birds, and there’s still no clear way to make them smaller. Plus, such satellite transmitters are very expensive. For many years, the only tags small and light enough to use on most small birds were less accurate, and required the recapture of any tagged individual in order to download stored location data.
Building a Nationwide Network of Receivers
MOTUS antennas are an improvement over older technologies, but only in areas where there are enough of them to detect birds as they pass through. Now, the focus is on creating rows, or “fencelines,” of evenly-spaced antennas to intercept birds as they pass by on migration.
One of these rows of antennae crosses Pennsylvania and parts of New York State, and soon, there’ll be additional MOTUS “fencelines” across inland areas of New England. Mass Audubon has proposed placing antennae at some of our sanctuaries, although coordinators of the New England MOTUS Collaborative will ultimately determine which sites make the most sense in terms of monitoring migrating animals.
You may have heard it or even said it. “Nature is healing” has become a common refrain during the COVID-19 crisis, perhaps as a way to look for a bright side of a tragedy.
And while some examples are simply wishful thinking, like false stories of dolphins’ return to the canals of Venice, there is real evidence that less human disturbance during the pandemic changed how Californian White-crowned Sparrows sing.
Less Noise, More Song
Researchers conducting a long-term study on White-crowned Sparrow songs saw an opportunity in the lull of a lockdown. Before the pandemic, the San Francisco-based team had studied how increases in city noise changed birds’ singing behavior. But this April, traffic noise fell to its lowest level since 1954.
In normal years, the researchers had found that White-crowned Sparrows compete with city noise by singing louder, higher-pitched, and simpler songs.
While simpler, louder songs rise above the hum of traffic, they come at a cost: males can’t sing both loudly and well. That disadvantages the fittest male White-crowned Sparrows, which advertise themselves with more complex songs. For females, which pick mates based on song quality, a city full of males shouting a limited series of notes curtails their ability to choose a good partner.
The researchers found that their calls carried twice as far as before, both because of the varied tones of the song and because of lower ambient noise. And according to the team, males fight less over territory when they can hear each other’s songs from further away.
This study shows how quickly birds can return to natural behaviors after human disturbance are removed. Of course, there are many other kinds of human pressures on ecosystems that leave long-lasting or permanent effects– just not in this case.
So, if you think you heard more birds this summer during the pandemic, you might be on to something. Regardless of whether local birds change their singing behavior, less noise pollution probably means that we hear more birdsong– a thin silver lining in itself.
We estimate that 30 – 38 pairs of Barn Swallows nested in the Fort River Boat House in 2020.
Of 98 adult swallows banded at Fort River in 2019, 27 were recaptured in 2020 (28%). This number is probably lower than the actual number present due to fewer banding days conducted this year during the pandemic. This return rate is similar to rates found in other studies of Barn Swallows. While a 28% return rate may not seem particularly high, remember that swallows banded in 2019 made two long migrations to and from South America before returning to breed in Massachusetts in 2020. And, because returning Barn Swallows don’t show perfect site fidelity, some individuals may have simply chosen to nest elsewhere in the area.
This Success Informs Future Conservation Actions
Aging barns occupied by Barn Swallows are a common feature in New England’s historical agricultural landscape, and sometimes these structures simply cannot be saved. Thanks to the help of collaborator Andy French, project leader at the Conte Refuge, we have learned important lessons about how to attract and relocate Barn Swallows into alternative structures where they can be protected in cases where occupied barns must be removed. Some of the steps that were taken included:
Collection of some nests after the breeding season to use in attracting swallows the following year to a different, more secure nesting location. A majority of nests built in 2020 were built on top of “seed” nests that had been harvested in 2019.
Placement of nesting structures, hung from the Boat House rafters, to provide nesting sites. Some of these structures also included defecation screens that prevented swallow droppings from raining down on equipment below—an important consideration for private landowners who often have to deal with bird damage to their tractors and other farm equipment.
Playback of Barn Swallow vocalizations was used in 2019 to advertise the availability of the Boat House site to pairs that were nesting in the nearby Bri Mar Stable. In 2020, we decided not to play audio recordings because Barn Swallows had already begun to move into the Boat House in 2019.
Next Steps for Aerial Insectivore Conservation
Mass Audubon also hopes to continue to contribute to a developing US Fish and Wildlife Service initiative aimed at conserving aerial insectivores (e.g., Barn Swallows, Cliff Swallows, Chimney Swifts, bats, etc.), pollinators that feed in fields and field edges, and grassland-nesting species in the Connecticut River Valley. If we are successful in securing funds, we hope to collaborate with the Conte Refuge in 2021 to deploy VHF nanotags on breeding Barn Swallows to learn more about the locations of important feeding areas with presumably healthy insect populations. This work would also include education activities, working with private landowners to maximize the conservation benefits associated with their farms, as well as conducting inventories of declining birds and other taxa. We’ll post more information about these efforts in future blogs.
I lived a good life and was reborn a sparrow. Towhee-like I scratched meals on the ground with both feet but mostly I flew, threading a needle through dense thickets, wheeling in legions above power lines. My breast was streaked white and brown, my bones an invention of light. Crossing low alone in clearings I felt I soared: then a pane of glass in what had seemed a clearing. So the reality I meant only to pass through contracted to an instant and killed me.
God had mercy and remade me as a blackbird. In the marsh it was sweet: I built my nest, wove a wet cup about the cattails. The walls were bur-reed and rush the bed inside grass dry and soft. And oh I loved the brood with eyes tight shut. For my baby seed of the field, damselflies for my baby. But you do not grow fat– I paired again, my mate distinguished by song: a choking, scraping noise made with much apparent effort.
Expiring without legacy I begged to still be winged An ivory gull A plover A thrush And mercy was endless As a guillemot I returned starving slick in my own color as murre in Alaska I starved as one penguin of 40,000 Then God blessed me at last I was a sea bird in Australia I floated in the water I ate everything the world gave me And then I was full O Heaven Then I realized my need could not be met
There is an emotional toll, for birders and nature-lovers, in reading so frequently about the scale of bird declines. Summaries of recent scientific papers, updates on population trends, and calls to action can fail to address the sadness and loss readers feel at more bad news. These reactions are just as real as the ecological damage that provokes them, and scholars increasingly recognize them as “ecological grief.” For all the successes of conservation movements, the declines of many species continues unabated, and each feels like a defeat.
Kolding approaches these defeats from a bird’s perspective— in fact, from the perspective of several birds. She treats an indefinite number of birds killed by human activity as reincarnations of one consciousness, condensing a wide and complex range of conservation threats into a linear, tragic story. In so doing, Kolding’s poem resists the treatment of bird deaths as statistics.
While this poem takes ample (and poetically necessary) liberties in ascribing feelings to birds, its poignance is grounded by accurate natural history details and descriptions of real threats. The last passage (“I ate everything the world gave me/ And then I was full… Then I realized/ my need could not be met”) both describes a complex emotion— the dread of living in an unsurvivable world, or of asking in vain for what you need— while also reflecting the reality of how some seabirds die. Plastic pollution kills seabirds because they eat indigestible plastic debris, which accumulates inside them until they starve with a full stomach. (Plastic in the ocean smells like food to seabirds because it grows the same algae as decomposing fish).
In each of Kolding’s vignettes, she frames a scientist’s perspective on birds with a poet’s sensitivity and imagination. The result is a both refreshing and profoundly sad approach to thinking about conservation losses.