It turns out that the bird that’s been waking me up at dawn every morning for the past four weeks is a house wren. For a long time, I thought that one of the trees that line the street behind our house had learned to chirp; no matter how hard I looked, I couldn’t see the source of the racket. But on a sunny morning during the first week of formal lockdown, I perused a tree with binoculars and spotted it camouflaged in the branches: a softballish puff of a little brown bird, yammering away with its little brown beak. It turns out, fortunately, that cheap foam earplugs are quite effective at blocking out the high-pitched tweeting of the common house wren. It also turns out that the house wren isn’t the only species of bird visiting our yard.
Over the course of the next week, using Audubon’s free birding app and some locally oriented bird sites, I discovered that we have a couple of mountain bluebirds, a few house finches, a Rufous hummingbird or two, and a pile of lesser goldfinches the color of Spongebob Squarepants, whose show my college-aged daughter has been comfort-watching.
Now, I have never birded, or even felt comfortable using bird as a verb. Never not once. On assignment in Galapagos, I briefly sparked an interest in albatrosses, but mostly I always placed birding in the category of Not For Me. Even though I assiduously scratch pine trees for the scent of vanilla (lodgepole! no, limber! no, ponderosa!) and carry a tree identification book, birds other than raptors and owls left me…agnostic, I guess. So, it was with much surprise that in the early days of the pandemic I found myself, like so many others, turning to the most dynamic connection to nature that I could find within our ordered limits: to the birds.
We live in a Southern California beach community, a short walk from the sand. This time of year, it’s common to see migrating whales spouting. A couple years ago, on a crazy whim, I spent 18 months riding every major street and every trail in the southern half of my county, which gave me a from-the-saddle-up understanding of our topography, of the water that runs to the ocean and the soft chaparral hills that divide one course from the other. I’ve never forgotten Obi Kaufman’s message in The California Field Atlas, how there’s just the thinnest skin of human construct sitting atop of the vastly thick body of the earth. I camp here, I swim here, I ride here—it’s not like I’ve forgotten that nature exists.
But. But when I look out my window I see houses, and a street, and a wall, and a street light. Even in these lockdown days, I hear the swish of tires rolling on wet concrete, or on weekend mornings, the growl of 20-something dudes ripping open their Ducatis over on Pacific Coast Highway. I see trees, but they are planted trees. I see green, but it’s landscaping. What I don’t see, what I haven’t seen until now, is the mechanism of nature taking place all around us, despite us.
My binoculars revealed not just a talkative house wren, but a tree swarming with bees. Their buzz was too far away to catch by ear, and they were too small in relation to the leaves to show their motion by the naked eye. But with my binos, well, wow—there were scores of them, all hard at work, gathering pollen, flying back to their queen, high-fiving the wren on the way. In the next door neighbor’s yard, I watched a pecking order develop on the seed feeder, saw how the lesser goldfinches were bold and unruffled by my presence, while the cautious red house finch flew away the second I peeked over the wall. On our daily walks to the beach, through our neighborhood, across a now-deserted golf course, and along a wide greenbelt, I discovered American coots and their crazy lobed toes—I watched them squabble and fight and learned, thanks to Audubon, just how aggressive they are with one another, including with their offspring, which they may tousle by the necks. I stood baffled as hummingbirds argued over fields of flowers so rich with buds it could make them all too fat to fly, such is their territorial nature.
And the crows, so many crows. Yes, those are crows, not ravens (thank you again, Audubon)—cognitive as heck, with a language all their own. Fortuitously, I happened to be rereading Peter Heller’s The Painter two weeks ago and joyfully came across this:
“One of the things I had read about crows somewhere is that they are much smarter than their station in life. I mean, unlike other birds, it takes them about two hours every day to secure enough food to survive and the rest is play time, electives. They are so clever and they get easily bored. I had read about crows in California that ate the eyes out of baby seals and sea lions, for fun mostly. Because they could. Seemed more like something a person would do. I imagined Dugar, in the Big Sur landscape of his dreams, witnessing such a thing. So crows must spend a lot of the day wondering what they are supposed to do now, what they are here for, and that seemed like a cruel existential dilemma for anyone who didn’t have TV.”
In 2000, Zion National Park instituted a mandatory shuttle for visitors heading up Zion’s main canyon; passenger cars were eliminated (except for those from a handful of lodge guests). Rapidly, the noise level in the canyon dropped almost ten decibels, and pollution levels plummeted. What also happened was a return of birds—of species and numbers that had not been seen in the canyon in generations. I think of this often, these days, as I imagine my favorite lands in the age of a pandemic and social distancing. What are the mule deer doing on Cedar Mesa? How about that collared lizard I saw in Beef Basin? Are the Joshua trees breathing easier with less carbon monoxide in the Southern California air?
We know it’s temporary, but across the globe, many, many landscapes and the things that live there are getting a reprieve from the incessant pressure of humans. The air is cleaner, the soundscape is quieter. The oceans are settling, a bit, to their more-natural state. And that’s a big deal. As Marina Koren reported in The Atlantic, after 9/11, “Researchers working in Canada’s Bay of Fundy—already making recordings and taking samples before the terrorist attacks—eventually found that over the course of just a few days, when the noisy waters calmed, right whales in the bay experienced a drop in their stress-level hormones.” There is nothing to celebrate about the human tragedy unfolding around us, nor reason to find anything good in the painful economic shutdown, but one can, I think, appreciate what it must be like for all creatures great and small to get a respite. How many birds are roosting in Yosemite Valley with the entire park closed? Or the bears, and the big cats that run at the mere sound of the human voice?
And then there’s us. In her piece, Koren also wrote, “A quick search for the phrase birds are louder on Twitter reveals that many other people have been wondering the same thing I have lately: Are the birds chirping more fiercely these days, or am I losing my mind?” I hear you, sister—at sunup every morning. That blessed, beautiful house wren.
In the near term of the next few years, it is impossible to predict how the world of humans will change. Will we repudiate materialism and return to the “things that matter” like we promised to do during the Great Recession? Will the healing that we find from lying on the ground and looking for shapes in the clouds, like we did when we were kids, will that lesson stay with us? Will we remember, two years from now, the difference between the song of the house wren and that of the house finch? I hope so. Nature has been here all along. I don’t think that’s something you can unsee.
Photos by Steve Casimiro