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…
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.