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When Songbirds Fall to Earth
Amid the abuses that humans perpetrate on birds, can we be worthy of their beauty and music, their force and grace.
ON ANY GIVEN NIGHT during the next couple of weeks, millions of songbirds will be migrating toward breeding grounds across the Northern Hemisphere. Along their way a portion of the songbirds will inevitably encounter some sort of natural adversity: here in North America it might be a storm over Boston, a headwind at Lake Michigan, or fog at the Olympic Peninsula.
At which point the songbirds, exhausted and disoriented, will begin to pour from the skies like confetti, dropping by the thousands into city parks and dairy farms, into cemeteries and playgrounds, and into neighborhoods and backyards almost anywhere.
This gentle rain of birds, this disruption in migration known as a “fallout,” brings color and song from heaven to earth. Having watched wildlife for a half century, from the Arctic Circle to tropical forests, I can attest that songbird fallouts, although rare, are among nature’s most spectacular and honest expressions of life — and among its most imperiled.
One recent memorable fallout came on May 19, 2019, when thousands of migrating songbirds flew off course in dense fog off the coast of Maine. The Atlantic Ocean is no place for a songbird weighing an ounce or less; the ocean is for gulls and albatrosses and eiders. For a sparrow, robin or oriole at sea, in the event of a water landing, well, there is no water landing; there is only death.
So as the sun rose and pushed light into the fog, the exhausted songbirds, with virtually nowhere to go, made their way on tired wings to Monhegan Island, a rocky outpost 10 miles out in the Gulf of Maine. And to those of us on the island that morning, the skies delivered a most shocking fallout — manifest especially in charismatic songbirds known as warblers.
Blackburnian Warblers glowed like tiny flames burning in Monhegan’s spruces. Black-throated Green Warblers darted among stacks of crippled lobster traps and coils of variegated fishing rope. Bay-breasted Warblers displayed the most pleasing blend of chestnut, black and tan. And the breasts of Northern Parula warblers displayed for us a second sunrise.
Fatigued, hungry and grounded, the warblers began to feed on whatever they could find, including flying insects along wrack lines on beaches and on bedrock at the island’s shoreline. With a few wing flaps, a warbler would leap a foot or two from the ground, snatch an insect in its bill, and then flutter back to earth. Some wandered and fed in the unkempt lawns of the island’s village. Others stood in the path of pickups on Monhegan’s few gravel roads.
To fully grasp the surreal nature of birds on the island that morning you should know that warblers are normally fetching, elusive and for the most part arboreal, often granting us brief, satisfying looks, then slipping away and leaving us wistful for more. No self-respecting warbler has any business dancing around on a beach or bedrock or a gravel road. And no self-respecting birdwatcher can without some remorse walk away from warblers.
In total, a thousand or more warblers (perhaps many more), representing nearly two dozen species, fell out on Monhegan, which is only a mile-and-a-half long and a half-mile wide. Few of the hundred or so people on the island that morning — lobster fishermen, merchants, laborers, artists or birdwatchers like me — could have avoided the songbirds even if we had tried. Few of us will ever forget them.
And we must not forget them. Because we’re losing birds and the gifts they unwittingly carry into our lives, not the least of which are fallouts. By now the threats to birds are no mystery: industrial agriculture, invasive species, domestic cats, the climate crisis, pesticides, habitat destruction, to name but a few. I see no end to it.
Sure, we’ll still have spring migration, but a migration diminished. Plenty of people who watch birds now or in the future, expert and casual alike, will go about their lives having never experienced the unmitigated joy and poignancy of a fallout, or even more routine and wonderful encounters with lots of migrating birds. It will be spring migration, but a journey of fewer and fewer birds — almost like fireworks without a finale or baseball without walk-off home runs.
One of the oddities of extinction is that despite its finality we never see it actually happen. Nobody stands vigil in the wild for the moment an imperiled fish or bird or insect or plant blinks out forever. Those of us who’ve enjoyed or studied birds for decades have instead stood vigil over a slow burn of extinction. Not necessarily of rare birds gradually vanishing forever, but rather an extinction of abundance — fewer birds, fewer fallouts, fewer opportunities for us to enjoy this wild and honest beauty.
And with it another tragedy: our detachment from nature, an ignorance of even the common and fading species around us, what writer and lepidopterist Robert Michael Pyle, in his classic essay, calls “the extinction of experience.” We don’t need thousands of warblers falling into our laps to recognize the opportunity now flying north toward many of us in migration. The opportunity is already here.
As it turned out, the same weather system that drove warblers to Monhegan Island that day in May also brought waves of songbirds to much of the northeastern United States. Millions of people went about their business that week never noticing the warblers and other songbirds feeding and singing in their own backyards and parks — a kind of counterfactual tragedy of the commons.
Each spring around the world, birds migrate so near to us and yet so far from our recognition or understanding. Along their routes, they navigate our battered landscapes: wetlands filled for shopping malls, forests cleared for condominiums, prairies razed for corn, and mountaintops blasted away for coal. They navigate war zones: Ukraine, Yemen, Syria and far too many other crimes against humanity. And they navigate our social battlegrounds as well: opioids, racism, bigotry, gun violence, political tribalism, glowing screens and their commodification of our minds and bodies.
The birds, far fewer as a result, migrate nonetheless. Even without the adversity of headwinds or fog, the migrants routinely descend to earth to feed on seeds and fruit and insects from our battered landscapes, from their battered landscapes, so that they might the next day or night continue onward in migration, toward an uncertain future.
The noun fallout is usually reserved for something bad: what we get after nuclear war or a political scandal. Songbird fallouts can be bad for birds and yet so wonderful for birdwatchers. We rejoice in rare irony.
For millions of years, long before we humans arrived on the scene, birds have survived the challenges of migration, including fallouts. In our short time on Earth, we’ve made a mess of the place. Yet here we stand, amid our wars and other abuses, some of us with binoculars, enjoying the birds on their perilous journeys.
Of such withering joy can humanity truly ever be worthy?
Unlike songbirds, nature essays don’t grow on trees. If you haven’t done so already, please subscribe to Chasing Nature or upgrade your status to paid so that I can keep writing essays like this one. Thanks!
Robert Michael Pyle’s essay “Extinction of Experience,” probably more than anything written, guides so much of my thinking and writing here on Chasing Nature. The essay resides in Pyle’s collection The Thunder Tree: Lessons from an Urban Wildland. I’ve had the good fortune to chase butterflies with Pyle, twice here in Vermont, all the while exploring questions of human nature as well. An author of more than a dozen books, a fountain of exuberance and wisdom, Pyle remains a guiding force in my life on the long, green path.
One of the more shocking North Atlantic warbler fallouts came to tiny Machias Seal Island on May 24, 2011. It is no exaggeration (or warrantless clickbait) to tell that you must see the lighthouse keeper’s photos to fathom what happened that night.
Extra gratitude and photo credits go to Josh Lincoln and Kristen Lindquist for these images of grounded warblers on Monhegan. (I was too dumbstruck and besotted to operate my camera.)
An earlier version of this essay appeared shortly after the fallout, when I was probably too dumbstruck to produce anything but the overwrought.