Speaking of bird brains, how’s this for train of thought: last week’s story in the New York Times about bird migration made me think of a quote from a local pastor, which made me think of comedian Lewis C.K. Trust me, it makes sense. Really.
The Times story reported how researchers at Baylor College of Medicine have identified specific neurons in pigeons’ brains that fire in response to the direction and strength of the surrounding magnetic field. Scientists have long suspected that migrating birds use the earth’s magnetic field (somehow) to navigate long distances during their annual migrations, often traveling thousands of miles to return to the exact same nesting grounds year after year. The Baylor study strengthens this idea, filling in one piece of a complicated — and mind blowing — puzzle.
Anyone who watches songbirds return in the spring has pondered this. They’re so small, how can they fly so far? They have such tiny brains, how do they find their way? The arctic tern for example, travels almost half the world each year from its breeding grounds in the Arctic to its non-breeding habitat in the Antarctic. Neotropical migrants – the colorful warblers, tanagers and flycatchers that begin arriving in the mid-Atlantic this time of year – have traveled from Central and South America before we see them. Research slowly is revealing avian secrets, but even if we figure it all out, I doubt we’ll be any less impressed.
Which leads me to pastor Randall Tremba’s Earth Day speech. I didn’t hear the speech myself, but friend and colleague William Howard of The Downstream Project shared a copy of it with me afterward. Among many quotable quotes about the importance of reverence for earth’s web of life was this one: “if you don’t say WOW at least 20 times a day, it’s clear you are not paying attention.”
Which (oddly) leads me to comedian Lewis C.K. In a rip on the Conan O’Brian show a year or so ago, Lewis mocked our human tendency to dismiss the technological marvels all around us, even as they grow increasingly impressive. It’s as if the more awe-inspiring things become, the more demanding and dissatisfied we get. Mark Micire, who posted the piece on Vimeo, aptly captures the essence of Lewis’ rant with the title “Everything is Amazing and Nobody’s Happy.” In it, Lewis scolds those of us who complain about the minor inconveniences of modern life in general, and plane travel in particular, with a reminder: “Did you fly through the air incredibly like a bird? Did you partake in the miracle of human flight?” (I’m omitting a line with profanity here). “You’re flying! It’s amazing! Everybody on every plane should just be going oh my God. Wow. You’re sitting in a chair in the sky.” Delivery is everything so watch the video yourself for an out loud laugh and an (oddly) inspirational, if sometimes crude, reality check.
Distance and direction are natural challenges that migratory birds have faced for millennia. But those human conveniences we all take for granted are making their trip even harder. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, hundreds of millions of migrating birds die each year from collisions with communications towers and buildings. Habitat loss from development is a common threat to wildlife, but for birds that use different locations throughout the year and need regular replenishment spots to fuel their long migration, the impact is multiplied.
With the weird weather this spring our local bird migration feels a bit off. Soon after the March heat wave, my husband and I heard an Indigo bunting in the woods of nearby Harpers Ferry National Park – a bird we normally don’t find around here until late April or early May. Cold rain the past two weekends kept us mostly indoors, but we now hear the wood thrushes singing their magic flute-like song in our yard, and we know that the first big wave of migrants is in. Given the challenges these birds face, we’ll do our best in coming weeks not to take their return for granted. We’ll go out every weekend with binoculars in hand and say “wow.” We’ll marvel at their colors and their songs. And we’ll cheer the amazing fact that they’ve made it this far. It’s the least we can do.