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Backyard Birder: Look outside — winter’s here and so are birds

  • Male junco Courtesy photo—


Wednesday, December 13, 2017 5:26PM

I write as snow swirls outside the window. And birds at the feeders. At last.

Yesterday’s phone call from Sarge Thibodeau was one of many similar queries: “Hey kid, where are the birds?” Sarge makes (and sells) bluebird nestboxes and donates a lot of them for town conservation land placement.

I said winter conditions should drive them in to feeders. But not one, as yet, to his.

It’s a concern, declining birds. Most of the birds out my window are junco males. Some winters they hang around; others they depart. They scatter up along roadsides, flaring their white “skirts” against slate-colored backsides.

With the solstice a week off, this is the darkest time of year. Literally dark, and dark in other ways these days. A feeling that’s shared.

Our California cousins, third-generation avocado ranchers, have been evacuated while the state’s largest fire ever swirls around them.

Such memories of breakfasts in their small farmhouse nestled in an avocado grove, dense avocado wood burning in the corner fireplace.

Other cousins live in Houston. During their 51 inches of rain last August, they sent photos of what that rainfall means—the state’s greatest rainfall ever.

Record fires; record floods.

As Washington is about to vote for the largest tax break ever, for the richest families ever, I wonder how our country is going to pay for fire and flood recovery.

I wonder where California water is coming from to fight the fires, given persistent drought conditions; or what chemical fire retardants dumped by helicopters do to the land.

I could go on. About birds. Insects. Soils washing into waterways along with toxins.

With one sweep of a presidential pen, vast wildlands are being opened up to coal, gas and oil extraction that leaves heavy footprints on wild land, wild water, wild inhabitants.

I don’t remember using quotes in this column, ever, but another one comes to mind. I saw it on local writer Katrina Lewers’s website+blog.

“Activism is the rent I pay for living on the planet.” Alice Walker.

Katrina is active with the Pack Monadnock Road Alliance. Recently formed, we lobby the state and Eversource to find an alternative to their proposed 18 utility poles mounted along the upper Pack Monadnock summit road at Miller State Park. With wide swaths of canopy trees cut, poles, wires and cables would cross the road multiple times.

State and utility didn’t know the roadway is a trail with use second only to a few of Mount Monadnock’s trails.

Alternatives appear to be under serious consideration.

Another quote comes from a conversation I had with a favorite cousin during our traditional family Thanksgiving on the Maine Coast, pretty far downeast.

In our catch-up chat, she said “I’m working to save the world.”

I knew exactly what she meant.

Her father, my grumpy Uncle George, was at home on his boat and not many other places. He and my mom took off as kids, navigating Eggemoggin Reach’s challenging tides, fog, winds and rocky, lurking ledges.

Cousin Annie didn’t catch the sailing bug, but her life now is dedicated to saving the ocean world.

She’s a writer, but says she doesn’t write books anymore. She’s too active with the Buzzards Bay Coalition, attending conferences, spreading the “Straws Suck” word about plastic straws as a pointless source of plastics pollution, land and sea. Especially sea.

She helped start the New Bedford Science Café, part of a worldwide Science Café movement, “a monthly meet-up between one or two scientists and the public,” she says, free other than any café fare purchased.

Soil science was a recent New Bedford topic, as was managing fisheries—“Thinking beyond the fish.” An upcoming topic: pain drugs that are resistant to addiction.

Up with science in this anti-science, anti-critical-thinking era.

I loved when Annie said “I’m saving the world.”

I told her I’ve used exactly the same words.

From the start, I’ve written about birds to save the world that we share, birds and humans. We take care of the familiar, what we know, what we can name, the intimacies of the natural world observed—if we know to look.

It’s what happened with me: an environmental steward because I fell in love with birds.

Annie was surprised when I said I don’t “do” birds much any more. She remembers a bone-chilling Thanksgiving scouting the Reach for ducks.

I explained it’s native bees more than birds these days. Without what’s called their “pollinator services,” life on earth is in trouble.

I told Sarge Thibodeau that birds are in trouble because insects are in trouble. That’s what birds feed their young: insects in all their diversity, egg through adult stages.

A recent study from Germany gave grim news: a 75% decline in insects over 30 years. I suspect a lot of the world’s Science Cafés are discussing that study.

Pesticides are the main culprit, from backyards to industrial agriculture’s expanses of corn, soy, or almond groves.

One final quote. Researching “straws suck” and efforts in general to reduce plastics, I noted the Washington Post’s Internet masthead:

The Washington Post

Democracy Dies in Darkness

Full circle, back to these dark days. The slogan is a new one for a newspaper working hard to bring light where it’s needed.

May we all join in activism, focusing light and energy where it’s needed.

Backyard Birder by Francie Von Mertens appears every other week in the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript.