Monday, June 25, 2007

Putting the tomatoes in, saving (maybe) a starling

Once I read a sentence in a National Geographic article about color that said: "In New England, they call it 'the color.'" No, we don't, I thought, no idea what the article was talking about. A few months later, in October, I found myself saying to a friend, "The color isn't supposed to be very good this year-- too dry a summer." Context is everything.

Well, in New England we "put in" our tomatoes, peppers and other vegetables, and that's what I did this Saturday and Sunday-- a bit late in the season but not too late. Most of the stores had put away their seeds but I managed to find string beans and bought plants for everything else. Sunny, dry, hot, breezy: a perfect weekend to be outside.

Today as I stepped outside my office door to go home, I found a bewildered baby bird sitting on the pavement. It was not one of those thumb-sized, almost embryonic babies that you always find already dead, yet it was not fully feathered enough to be a fledgling-- needed a bit more growing. There's a starling's nest in the overhang outside my office and I've been following the parents' progress in and out and the cheeps of at least one baby for some months. Clearly that's where it came from.

Could I put it back myself? The baby opened its yellow mouth and looked at me. I went and got a chair, but I was about two feet too short.
I went back into the building to look for someone taller than myself. There was one guy, but he said,"Oh, no, you can't touch them, the parents will reject them." He was busy and didn't want to be bothered. Back in my office I called the Audubon Society in Lincoln to ask: Is this true, or a myth? A myth, the naturalist said. And if I find this bird back on my sidewalk tomorrow, what would I feed it? I can't tell you that, she said, because it's illegal to keep a wild animal. You'd have to look it up on the Internet.

No ladder in the building, but suddenly I realized that if I moved my car under the overhang, and climbed up on it, I could reach the nest. So I moved the car, and gave it a trial climb first-- yes, I could reach. Back on the ground, I picked up the bird with some trepidation-- would it struggle?-- but the baby was calmer than I was. I put it back in its nest and told it to be good and that I didn't want to see it back on the pavement tomorrow.

I know that anything can happen, but the life of a bird feels especially precious right now.

25.5 million birds are missing in this country, according to a new Audubon Society report. Some 20 species have declined by an average of 68%. "Forty years ago, there were an estimated 31 million bobwhites. Now there are 5.5 million," Verlyn Klinkenborg reports in a poignant, must read editorial in the New York Times, Millions of Missing Birds, Vanishing in Plain Sight.

While the reasons for declining bird populations are complex, I want to mention two because they are both within our control to change in the short term.

100 to 900 million birds are killed each year in this country because of collisions with glass, mostly because they are disoriented by and fly into lighted windows. Given the urgent need to reduce our energy consumption, getting buildings to turn off their lights at night only makes sense.

At least 100 million birds a year are killed by cats. In Wisconsin alone, cats killed 7 million birds last year.

I know many cat owners (and I used to be one of them) who let their cats outside and say that it's just part of the circle of life when their cats kill birds. I want to say, Please think again. With 60 million feral cats in this country, birds don't need any additional predators.

While my friend Holly encounters a bear and three cubs in her back yard (she lives in Northampton), and it scarcely seems unusual these days, little lives disappear around us and we don't notice. When was the last time you found a toad in your back yard? Or saw a butterfly other than a Monarch, although even those are in decline? And birds? An absence of movement in the air, an absence of shadows that fall on you in the garden,
a silence.

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