For the Birds

Raised in the piedmont region of North Carolina, I always noticed the usual suspects in our backyard — cardinals, blue jays, goldfinches — and the blue herons and ospreys of Lake Norman. But no one would confuse me for a “birder.” So, when asked to work with the Bird Watch and Wonder program at the Rachel Carson Council (RCC), I was confused. I had been aware of the beauty and sometimes the majesty of certain birds, but so very unaware of their importance to ecosystems and nature.

I had not made the connection of environmental threats over the many decades since Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and the subsequent ban on DDT. Not to mention the hundreds of times I have sung along to Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” as she implores farmers to “put away the DDT, give me spots on my apples but leave me the birds and the bees, please”.

In just my first weeks with the RCC learning about birds, I have grown exceedingly fond of their sheer beauty and hyper aware of how much human society affects them. My experience in birding may be limited to days spent on Lake Norman as a child with my grandmother while she fawned over her bird feeders and pointed out the osprey nests over the water. But she taught me about those birds that visited us and why. And maybe as punishment to my parents, she bought me a book that identifies birds with a speaker playing the sounds of each. I loved listening repeatedly to their calls. Despite her best efforts, I still never quite grasped her awe for birds, and so my birding days ended almost as soon as they began. Looking back, I wish I had appreciated her wonder and learned to love birds in the same way. I wish I had learned to garner the same appreciation of osprey nests as the rest of my family as we stopped and gazed up at them on our boat rides. But my grandmother’s love for birds and her desire to share that with me created time for us to be together. Funny how nature does that, creating time and space for people to be share special moments.

Now, as I walk through the streets of Washington, D.C., I stop and create space to pay extra attention to the birds I see and appreciate their songs. I stop in amazement when I can identify a bird and probably look crazy as I stand on the sidewalk studying a starling. Rachel Carson was one of the first people to appreciate the starling, as her fellow biologists merely saw it as an invasive and agitating species brought from Europe. She wrote “in spite of his remarkable success as a pioneer, that starling probably has fewer friends than almost any creature that wears feathers” but carries “more than 100 loads of destructive insects per day to his screaming offspring.”

Birds are so beautiful, but also are so very important to our ecosystems. I have been reflecting on how few friends birds have in our world filled with over development, pesticides, and a bevy of conditions that harm them. I think of how many more people like me there are who take the beauty of birds for granted. I have always felt a sense of wonder towards nature, but I never extended it as far as the birds, or how vital they are to maintaining the ecosystems I loved so dearly. Now as I begin to understand and appreciate how much birds add to nature, it is disheartening to learn how endangered they still are after Rachel Carson’s efforts and Silent Spring. While the use of DDT is banned, it is still found in our oceans and marine life on which birds feed. We still employ harmful farming practices that kill millions of birds each year using insecticides and disturbing bird habitats. We should all ask the same question Rachel Carson posed when she wrote “can anyone believe it is possible to lay down such a barrage of poisons on the surface of the Earth without making it unfit for all life?”

There are ways we can all play a part in bird conservation, which can be as simple as going birding and taking time to appreciate their beauty. Stopping the use of insecticides, particularly neonicotinoids, in our gardens is also crucial if you want to keep seeing birds visit your backyard. These chemicals infect the bugs and worms that are a major food source for birds, eventually poisoning the birds themselves. There are numerous ways to manage pests that keep both your plants and birds healthy. In the same way Rachel Carson began Silent Spring.

I urge everyone to consider a world where “the few birds to be seen anywhere were moribund; they trembled violently and could not fly. It was a spring without voices. In the mornings, which had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, and wrens, and scores of other bird voices, there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marshes.” We can all play a part in preventing this from becoming reality if we just stop long enough to enjoy the beauty of the birds and their songs, and then connect that time and space to some effort, no matter how small, to protect their environment.


RCC Stanback Presidential Fellow – Maggie Dees

Maggie Dees co-leads the RCC Bird Watch and Wonder program. She is a sophomore in the honors program at Virginia Tech University majoring in environmental science. She is from Salisbury, NC, and is passionate about environmental justice and conservation.