This morning at dawn, I heard a Kentucky warbler. The bird sang exuberantly, full-throated, the entire song repeated over and over again in a voice as rich and lustrous as on the first day of spring. Last week a warbling vireo claimed a single dawn with a similar display of song, and a few days before that it was a common yellowthroat that greeted sunrise with his voice. The summer bird chorus has been over for a while now: for a month before this all I'd heard had been a few slurred, muttered notes that seemed almost apologetic in tone.
Most ornithologists link bird song to breeding behavior, specifically used in establishing territory and attracting a mate. Once the summer's nestlings have fledged and dispersed, songbirds shift their focus toward preparing for the fall migration. Since territorial boundaries are now unimportant -- the birds will soon be leaving the area -- song becomes a waste of valuable energy. When a creature weighs less that a sheet of writing paper, the handful of calories lost in song might prove the difference between finding safe haven in the tropics and death from exhaustion in the unforgiving miles that stretch between here and there.
And yet these birds find the strength to grace one last morning with their song, a farewell perhaps to this land and all that it has gifted to them: this year's mate, the brood of young raised and now gone off on their own, the summer's abundance of food, long days of warmth and sunshine. The warbler sings in the only voice he knows, sings to his territory perhaps hoping that the trees will remember the individually unique tone and rhythm that he brings to his species song, that his specific notes will be imprinted on the rocks, the water, even the very soil of the earth. And when he returns next year -- the warbler does not question that with the first balmy breeze in April he'll be here again -- the trees, the rocks, the water, the soil: they will all remember him, they will echo the notes that he deposited here on this September morning, a memory to welcome him back to his summer's home.
Unlike spring, the fall migration of songbirds isn't spectacular or anticipated: subtraction is never as compelling as addition. The southward exodus is indefinite: more of a mood than an event. We know it's taking place from a barely registered scent of smoke in the air, the need for a sweatshirt to ward off the morning's chill, the rustle of leaves underfoot. Robins can sometimes be observed flocking up the in the fall, but for the most part the southward passage of thousands of songbirds is unmarked and unnoticed. The fog-laced dawn becomes eerily silent save for the occasional startle of a roosting raven, black wings awkward in the tangle of hemlock branches, or the gaudy strings of Canada geese with their stentorian honks in rhythm with the muscular "whup!" of their wing beats, coasting high enough to clear the fog, to intercept the glow of the rising sun so that their breasts are branded with the gold of the dawn.
In Panama once, in a remote area of the Darien, I listened to two birding guides -- seasoned, professional tropical birders -- puzzle over an individual that neither could identify. Expecting to encounter something strange and exotic, I focused my binoculars and immediately recognized the bird.
"That's a wood thrush!" I pointed out the eye ring, the distinctive spotting on the breast, the brownish head. "But the best way to identify a wood thrush is by his song. They have one of the most beautiful songs that you could ever imagine."
"Song? These North American migrants never sing. I've never heard a thrush sing in my life."
Tomorrow, that Kentucky warbler who sang so enthusiastically this morning will probably be on his way south. Mute with determination, unresting and sleepless, the warbler's wings will beat a steady tattoo day and night as he flies across hundreds or perhaps thousands of miles. For six months he will remain mute, silent. The land he has left will also be silent, the memory of song muffled by fallen leaves and snow. The warbler -- or another Kentucky warbler so like him as to be indistinguishable -- will return again in April and for the first time since this September morning, the land and the bird will be reunited in song. And the hearts of all who hear that unity of land and life will rise to the sky with each note of the Kentucky warbler's song. Because hope, as we all know, is a thing with feathers.
Causes Louise Young Supports
articulation of indigenous rights (organization: Cultural Survival)
sustainable, renewable, and independent energy sources