Every Bird in the Mountains: Wisdom for this Climate Moment by Tallessyn Zawn Grenfell-Lee

I found a bird’s nest the other day. A perfect, round little nest, with five pale blue speckled eggs. I’ve been working for several years to figure out how to support the birds who share our yard, with bird feeders, leaf litter and better soil for caterpillars and worms to feed the baby birds, yellow LED outdoor lights, and native plantings to attract more insects and pollinators. I knew that songbird populations are struggling, but lately I’ve learned even more about their truly worrying decline, and how we can all create ‘homegrown natural parks’ to help. It’s been a deep source of joy and hope, through the long pandemic, to see the tufted titmice, dapper chickadees, and bright red cardinals at our feeders, and the soft gray juncos hopping about on the ground. When we moved here a few years ago, a bird’s nest appeared right above the floodlight on our deck, and we got to see and hear the wee fledglings that spring, as if they were welcoming us to our common home. We loved those baby birds, and I’ve often wondered whether they are now among the visitors that seem drawn to the window feeder whenever we start to play music.

Birds embody the daily challenge of Climate Hope for me. Here, in my area, they seem… fine. Despite the lethal challenges of suburban neighborhoods – outdoor lights, pesticides and herbicides on the lawns, domestic cats – we see tons of birds and hear abundant birdsong every day. In the nearby woods a few weeks ago, my daughter and I saw a ‘kettle’ of seven majestic hawks circling. (Hawks take advantage of bowl-shaped thermal air currents to conserve flight energy, so their flock behavior looks like steam rising from a teakettle or cauldron!) Really – if I didn’t know better – it would be hard to tell that these bird populations balance on a knife’s edge.

As with the climate in general, ecologists have tried for so long to sound the alarm about birds – their massive importance for all life, and their urgent need for help. They truly are the canary in our precarious ecological coal mine. And, like climate activism, more people are helping the birds every year – individuals, groups, towns, cities, businesses, nations – to try to keep this cornerstone of our ecosystems – of our human life support systems – from crumbling out from under us.

If we pull together, we can do it, too. After all, we brought back the bald eagle, from just a few hundred in the 70s to over a hundred thousand now. And, just as women are finally being lifted up as key – The Key – to the climate crisis, female bird-lovers are also transforming bird knowledge, research, conservation, and activism. My feminist colleagues will not be shocked to learn that male naturalists from Darwin to Audubon assumed sexist reasons for bird behavior and appearance, or that the male-dominated hobby of birding tends toward competitive listings of bird sightings and gaslighting or outright exclusion of women the world over. But now that more and more women are researching bird behavior, almost every assumption has been turned on its head – and the long-ignored female birds are now considered ‘the key to the entire system.’ Women are also reclaiming their history: a woman authored the first known Bird Field Guide; and back since the 1800s, when men insisted on shooting birds in order to study them up close, women preferred observational, collaborative, nature connected birding. Nowadays, all-women and women-led birding groups are sprouting up all over the world, including in Uganda, where paid women guides can now leave abusive relationships; and in Kenya, where women are emerging as the new research and conservation experts.

Will it be enough? Only time will tell. I feel heartbroken for the precious birds; humanity has really mucked things up. As the prophet Jeremiah says, even the stork in the heavens knows her appointed seasons, and the turtledove, swallow, and crane observe the time of their migration; but my people do not know the requirements of Holiness.

Help us, Spirit of Wisdom, to learn such humble obedience to the requirements of Holiness. As the psalmist says, You alone know every bird in the mountains. Not by human wisdom, says the author of Job, does the eagle soar and build her nest on high; the high rock of Your Eternal Voice is her stronghold. Look to the soil, the animals, the sea – the birds – for they will tell you whose Mighty Hand makes the planets spin and the seasons turn. These ancients knew: the more we pay attention to the sacred rhythms of Life and Death around us, the more we understand our place within them.

I found that beautiful nest because I finally brought our Christmas wreath inside, from the hook on the garage. The animals tried to tell me it was in there. Birds had been swooping about whenever I walked past; and once inside, my dog inexplicably kept wandering over to sniff it. But I was not wise enough, yet, to heed them. If I had noticed within a week, I could have returned the wreath to its hook and, perhaps, the eggs to their parents’ care. But by the time I finally looked down, at just the right angle, and saw those exquisite eggs nestled so carefully within their haven… I put the wreath back outside, just in case; but I also spent a long time weeping for the baby birds that would not be.

Yes, birds embody this Climate Moment for me. Full of beauty and wonder; full of heartbreak and painful lessons. I will keep learning and trying. That is what our kindred creatures and our global village need, from each of us. When we accidentally harm, with our cars, our feet, our distraction – our minds tantalize us with ‘if only’ – if only I had… If only we had… But we can’t go back; only forward. Jesus asks, can any one of you, by worrying, add a single hour to your life? Consider the birds of the air…

(Photo credit: Adi Kavazovic)

So I do consider them. I will offer the nest of precious eggs a place of honor on our ancestor altar. I will do my small part, each day. And I will continue to hope in the Eternal One, to renew our strength… that we may run, and not be weary; walk, and not faint; soar on wings, like eagles


Tallessyn Zawn Grenfell-Lee, PhD is an ecological ethicist and the founder of Climate Resilience Chaplaincy. She studies intersections of ecofeminism, permaculture ethics, grief, and nature connection. She previously did graduate research on Alzheimer’s Disease and preventive research on Ovarian Cancer. She received a B.Sc. in biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an M.A. in Molecular Biology from Harvard University, and an M.Div. from the Boston University School of Theology. She lives in metrowest Massachusetts with her husband and two daughters, and enjoys gardening, canoeing, learning about medicinal and edible wild plants, and rewriting old hymns to make them more inclusive.



Categories: animals, Climate Change, General, Nature, Women's Spirituality, Women's Voices

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23 replies

  1. As you may know, I devoted much of fifteen years to birdwatching and to working to protect the wetlands of Lesbos where i was watching them, writing scores of complaints about the degradation of protected wetlands in Lesbos and finally drafting a massive Complaint to the European Commission, which we won. Under the Syriza government we were almost there — to full protection. But under the new center right New Democracy government, everything was rolled back. it is so discouraging, not only for me, but moreso for the birdies.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you for this wonderful and important work; I’m so sorry for the discouraging status of it. Even when it doesn’t bear the fruit we are hoping for, when we are hoping for it, I pray that it plants seeds of awareness and momentum that will build wider resilience over time.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. A beautiful and deeply important post! It reminds me of the effort to save the piping plovers in the Great Lakes region, where I grew up and still visit often. There is a massive effort to save these tiny birds whose nesting ground on shorelines is in danger due to people building, or even just walking, on the shores. I visited one station where there are fenced in nesting areas and a whole building that serves as a nursery where abandoned eggs are carefully hatched and the chicks taken care of till they can be released to safe places. Many people at this station, all or almost all women that I could see, including one woman who has dedicated years and years to this one endangered bird, do nothing during the breeding season but take care of these little birds. It is amazing and heartwarming to see!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you for sharing this, Carolyn; how wonderful and inspiring! In the past, many people didn’t realize that helping plovers helps everyone else, too – all justpeace issues are connected. Blessings!

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  3. We have lost 3 billion birds…. a BILLION – I noticed a sharp decline in birds during the 4 winters I spent in New Mexico… here in Maine I note the decline seems less severe but there is definitely a decline. I have been a bird advocate my entire life…. at 76 I remember when Rachel Carson wrote “Silent Spring” warning about the use of pesticides/herbicides and officially beginning the environmental movement… (we stopped using DDT but today we continue to sell this product to other countries – meanwhile we develop more lethal pesticides)… 60 years later we continue to ignore her warnings and now it is too late… Living with what is is all that is left – that and grief and taking the long view by supporting rewilding efforts like that of the Northeast Wilderness Trust of New England (newildernesstrust.org) whose goal is to acquire lands that will be left forever wild – allowing nature to heal herself – giving nature back the control. No matter where we live we all need to support organizations like this one – and so far I find that Northeast’s vision is unique – we can’t go back now – its too late but we can support nature as s/he adapts to climate change….thank you for this timely post.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you so much for all you do, Sara. I like the work of Doug Tallamy, encouraging every home, school, spiritual community, and business to have a ‘homegrown natural park’ approach to our surrounding areas. I hope the movement catches on and spreads. <3

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      • I’ve heard Doug Tallamy speak twice about climate change and his latest book. As a result I’m currently reading his latest book. We already have a “natural park” in our yard – but reading his book, it just seems like it’s not enough to save the birds and the planet. The destruction is coming faster and faster. Thanks for your post!

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  4. I like your prayer to the Spirit of Wisdom to protect the birds. We don’t have many varieties of birds in my neighborhood in Long Beach, but just this morning I heard a dawn chorus. I don’t know what birds were singing, but they sure were loud. Yes, let’s protect all birds, even–especially–the ones that sing loud enough for all the people around to hear them. Thanks to you and Carol and Carolyn and Sara–and everyone else–for your work. Bright blessings to you all and to our winged cousins.

    Liked by 5 people

    • Listening to birds always calms me – takes me out of myself especially on dark days… I even record some of their voices on a little tape to use as a meditation…Gosh I’d love to know about your birds – what they are – singing from those palms… you are going to have to be my eyes – give me a description and I’ll try looking them up!

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    • Thank you, Barbara, for your loving support. I do indeed pray for our feathered kindred, and also that we would ‘learn the requirements of Holiness’ the way they do – of seasons, of trust, of kinship, and limits. Blessings, friend.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you for this powerful, poignant, inspiring post. I sometimes feel undeserving of my luck to live where I do. It is good to remember that this habitat I share with so much life is a sanctuary. We’ve let much lawn go back to meadow. We have seed-bearing grasses, flowers, wild and cultivated, that welcome birds and pollinators, My husband keeps bees. We’re surrounded by woods and wetland. It is good to remember that helping to tend and protect a place is something we can offer, that this place is literally for the birds.

    Liked by 5 people

    • Yes, it’s important that we remember that we are doing what we can to support our birds especially now….

      Liked by 1 person

    • Elizabeth, that’s wonderful. Have you come across Doug Tallamy’s work on the Homegrown Natural Park movement? If you get the chance, you might enjoy a YouTube video, or his book, Nature’s Best Hope. I am cultivating a non-attached peacefulness in order to find the energy and focus to keep on keeping on, one day at a time. Blessings, friend.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you for letting me know about Doug Tallamy’s work on the Homegrown Natural Park Movement. Will look him up! Blessings to you and your work!

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  6. I’ve lived in my neighborhood (Berkeley, CA) for twenty-six years, and I’ve witnessed the decline, in spite of my efforts at installing a bird bath, avoiding pesticides, installing beneficial plants, etc., I haven’t seen a robin, so long a taken-for-granted staple, for years. Gone also are the mockingbirds, almost all of the gold finches, and California thrashers (at least from my immediate neighborhood). But the worst thing of all, which you mention, has been the practice of male bird collectors shooting birds as a way of “preserving” them. In the last century, the collector Henry Palmer shot the last known greater koa finch, Allson Bryan shot the last three specimens of black mamos, and two separate birders (over a period of two days) shot the last two surviving Bachman’s warblers, known for their unusual and beautiful song and known to be endangered.

    Thank you for your article. We need to keep in mind the enormous extinction that our species is causing, if we are ever going to stop it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Barbara, I’m so sorry for the heartbreaking decline and for how it directly links to all the injustices and burdens of climate destabilization, which weigh most heavily on women and communities that represent the global south. I was heartened to read about the feminist wave in both bird research and conservation and in climate response. Women, because we must, have been able to see the larger picture and draw the connections in very helpful ways. <3

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  7. Men shooting birds need to be jailed – that simple – in this age of extinction hunting doesn’t fit.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is heartbreaking that it took so long to move away from that model, probably mostly because women were so sidelined from the beginning (and still are).

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  8. What a heartrending post. A nest of bird eggs seems like such a symbol of hope and joy, and I can tell you were utterly devastated by this tragic accident that turned it into an experience of horrible pain and loss. Traumatic to have that happen. I hope that you find ways to process the trauma as well as the grief. I think this has been a very traumatizing time, and experiences like that can really overload our coping skills. I’m so sorry that happened, I hope that writing about it in the context of these scriptural and theological and environmental thoughts and frames helped the experience be more bearable. It reminds me so much of hearing Dad’s story of thinking he was killing an attacking snake, but it turned out to be a mother duck on a nest, and then when he tried to save the eggs, he overheated them. Just shocking. I guess sometimes things just are a lot worse than they seem, and stories like these bring that reality into sharp focus. I really hope it convinces some people to take steps – big and small – to stop the terrifying decline of birds, which as you say is much worse than it looks from my backyard. I used to wonder why Mom filled her home with those Bradley Jackson bird paintings. Now I adore them, I love them more every year. I am filled with grief from your story, and I hope it makes a difference and gets people to pay more attention to this nightmare. <3 <3

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your loving and compassionate comments, Trelawney. Yes, I cried a long time. Just as I also cry about the climate and its many painful and traumatic realities, the ways we all contribute, even unwittingly. It is a heartbreaking time; and like you, I pray that our hearts break wide open, in order to let Love move and grow and flourish. <3

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  9. We have a wonderful program here in Portland, Oregon called the Backyard Habitat, sponsored by the Audubon Society. They advise us about native plants and encourage us to replace grass with plants and rain gardens. I’ve replaced all of the grass in my front and back yards with flowers and shrubs. The birds and bees love it!

    Liked by 1 person

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