An Ornithologist’s Response

I wish I could write only about birds.

view through a rainy window of pines, larches, and trees that had been burned in a forest fire.

That I could go back to how it was, when my dreams held shards of words and images of flitting sparrows, dreams of opening eyes to the wonder of the natural world through birds. Dreams of articulating connections with the earth so deep I feel the words but cannot speak them. These dreams are skies filled with murmurations of starlings, clouds of thousands of birds, so thick that all I can do is stand and watch as they swarm around me in mesmerizingly complex shapes. A cohesive flock responding as one but with no leader, sinuously pulsating and shifting, no bird touching another, close enough that I can feel the air from their wings as they pass inches from my face.

I want to write about the dipper, the water ouzel, the small dark bird the color of wet slate, a bird that lives the streams of my heart-country here in the West. The dipper pliés along the stream’s edge, barely visible against the slick-black rocks. Waiting, dancing a ballet in time to the music of the stream, bended legs and wings suddenly propel the bird into the water where it dives, plucking insects from under rocks to feed its growing young. I watch dippers when I need assurance that the world is not as harsh as it appears to be. The truths of the individuals are the truths of the species, we tell ourselves. I cannot watch all dippers to know what they do, as much as I might wish to. My sample size is only a tiny fraction of the whole. It’s accepted that what we see in these few means something about them all. As an ornithologist I accept this to be true, but as a human I sometimes refuse the evidence.

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Letter to the Editor; Orion Magazine

A shorter version of this letter to the editor was published in the Autumn 2018 issue.

As I read Benjamin Rachlin’s “Prescription for Change,” I couldn’t help but think about how the environment, these places that so many of us love dearly, could be destroying us. Destroying us as we humans have worked so diligently to destroy them. Perhaps not destroying us, but disabling us.

Though disease is not equivalent with disability, and most especially disability is not equivalent with disease, this article prompted thoughts on the effects of the environment on the experience of disability.

People with disabilities have long known how the environment affects health, and how changing the environment can have positive, or negative, effects on their lives. When our environment becomes unfavorable to healthy living, we become impaired. This is the social model of disability: that impairment is a function of external characteristics—the physical environment, societal attitudes, systemic barriers—not individual ones. Someone who uses a wheelchair isn’t disabled because they cannot walk; they are disabled because they cannot live up to societal norms, which are designed, for the most part, by those who are able-bodied. When we are in environments that allow us to be healthy and to live as we choose, we are not impaired, no matter our physical or mental diagnoses.

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The American Robin: My Least Favorite Bird

This piece was first published in In The Air, a column I wrote for Montana Woman Magazine. September 2017. 

A young American Robin held in the hand of a bird biologist.

A young robin. Don’t be fooled, it’s just waiting to poo all over.

Of all the birds I’ve handled, robins are my least favorite.

Over the years working as a field biologist, primarily capturing live songbirds for migration and breeding studies, I’ve handled many birds. To catch birds, we set up nets, called mist nets, which the birds fly into and become caught. We then untangle them and record a bunch of measurements, such as age, sex, and weight, put a uniquely-numbered metal identification band on the bird’s leg, and release them unharmed. Continue reading

“Why Read a Book?”

Two of my pleasures, in one poem: reading and looking at birds. Oh man. Not sure I’d always choose birds over books, but on these beautiful fall days, when the sun is warm and the birds are migrating (and especially when I have the chance to get outside and band them), birds definitely win out. Though I do love to lose myself in the words of others, it’s hard to ignore the amazing poetry flying overhead and all around. Continue reading