In 1962, Rachel Carson called it the “silent spring,” the time when pesticides would destroy birds and other wildlife and leave humanity existing in a half-life of stunned silence. Her work was the impetus for the environmental movement and has influenced millions of people worldwide. Yet today, more than 50 years later, pesticides are still very much in use, and we are facing the slow, agonizing fulfillment of her prophecy. In September, the journal Science published the results of a comprehensive study of North American bird populations. The results: Since 1970, there are nearly 3 billion fewer birds singing their spring songs, a staggering 29% gone from the Earth. Bird experts and conservationists are calling it “a full-blown crisis” and “the loss of nature.”*
The day I read these figures, I wept. I could feel my heart breaking. The losses are so huge. Beloved warblers in all their colorful variety: 617 million gone. Two of my all-time favorite birds: Baltimore orioles, 2 in 5 gone; wood thrushes, 6 in 10 gone. It is hard to fathom. Almost unbelievable. The birds that I eagerly anticipated seeing and hearing each spring are vanishing and may one day be gone forever. What would spring be without birds? Without the robin’s cheery song and the redwing blackbird’s flashing colors and ringing call? Dead air, everywhere.
Everyone who knows me knows I am an ardent lover of birds. I grew up in rural Illinois surrounded by countless birds nesting in our yard and visiting our feeders. Birdsong was an integral part of life, like the rising and setting of the sun. As an adult, I became a more focused birdwatcher. For more than 35 years, I was blessed to live near Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where the spring bird migrations are well-known, even beyond New England. Birders there are often blessed with more than 100 species passing through. I visited Mt. Auburn at all times of the year and knew it as intimately as I knew the 5 acres where I grew up. Almost every tree and bush held a memory of a bird sighting or song. The brilliant red of scarlet tanagers and the startling orange and black of orioles. The husky song of the rose-breasted grosbeak and the ethereal trill of the wood thrush.
The wood thrush—a bird that touches my heart in the deepest possible way. Each spring I waited to hear it, not just see it. Standing quietly in the early morning silence in the Dell at Mt. Auburn, listening—and suddenly I would hear it, a piping flute-like call that gently echoed among the trees. Tears always fill my eyes at the sound of the wood thrush, a miracle of sweet music offered to the world, for free. Virtuoso performances daily by all the spring migrants. Each bird’s song unique and irreplaceable. Each one a miracle upon the Earth. A friend of mine refers to the “unreasoning cheerfulness” she feels when she sees or hears birds.
And this beauty is what humans are destroying so carelessly. Correction: big business and agribusiness are destroying it, with ruthless intentionality. Mega-corporations like Monsanto (now owned by Bayer) have spent decades laying to waste wildlife and human life throughout the world, making their products ever more lethal, from Agent Orange to Roundup. Not only birds, but butterflies, bees, and other insects essential to our ecosystems are dying in huge numbers because of herbicides and pesticides sold by these companies. Thousands of lawsuits have been brought against Monsanto by individuals who have gotten cancer from using Roundup, and at last the courts are beginning to decide in their favor.
The question is: Will it stop Monsanto and the other businesses? And if it does, will it be in time? The birds cannot bring lawsuits. They can only continue to do what they have done so beautifully since the beginning of life on Earth: sing. The planetary songlines they have created vibrate the world into being. We are the blessed recipients of their musical gifts. The very least we can do is reciprocate with gratitude and love by speaking out and taking action to save their lives: by not using poisons on our lawns and gardens, by always buying organic, and by donating to and joining advocacy groups for birds and other wildlife: https://abcbirds.org/; https://www.audubon.org/. My greatest hope is that the number of birds rebounds and that we are able to hear their songs for years and years to come.
*Other factors, such as habitat loss, air and water pollution, collisions with power lines and glass skyscrapers, also contribute to the overall losses. On a more hopeful note, a growing number of cities have passed ordinances to use bird-safe glass and lighting practices and designs. And activist groups like CELDF (https://celdf.org/) are working at community and state levels across the U.S. to protect the “rights of nature.”