For the Birds Radio Program: Autumn Ambivalence and the Death of Icarus the Crow

Original Air Date: Sept. 9, 1988

Laura reads Robert Frost’s poem, “Reluctance.”

Duration: 4′07″



(Recording of an American Crow)

Summer’s end is a time of ambivalence for me. Blue Jays are the highlight of fall migration for me, with their exuberant ways and comely plumage. Last week 20 Blue Jays all alighted on my front porch together, in search of peanuts–a delightful sight impossible in any other season. One of the jays discovered the fun of sliding down the railing–he landed on the top and slid down seven times before he got tired of the game. And Blue Jays are also starting to migrate over the Lakewood Pumping Station: Saturday I counted 88 in two hours. The sheer magnitude of migration along the north shore of Lake Superior is thrilling: on August 27 I counted over 1300 individuals of various species in two hours flying over the Pumping Station. August 14 was a major nighthawk flight evening—our nighthawk counter up the shore tallied over 6,000 of them, and I saw thousands flying above London Road.

But watching my own personal backyard birds leave at the end of summer makes me a little sad. Mr. Peepers, the grackle I was taking care of, took off with the neighborhood grackles last week, fortunately a few days before a major flight of Sharp- shinned Hawks cruised through. My baby robins lit out for the territory a couple of weeks ago. And even birds I don’t personally know can trigger maternal worries. Flocks of kingbirds head for tropical homes that may have been chopped down over the summer, and many of the ovenbirds lurking in the woods by day will crash into radio and television tower lights at night before they even have a chance to see the south. So there’s a lot to worry about.

This fall is sadder than usual, because last Wednesday Icarus the crow died. Icarus had been a real presence in our home since last summer, when he arrived with a shattered wing and a broken foot, the victim of a shotgun attack. His body mended, and although he couldn’t fly anymore he adjusted well to civilization. He loved to watch my kids play, and spent a lot of time with Katie’s Mr. Potato Head set, Joey’s legos, and Tommy’s magnetic ABC’s. He also avidly listened to stories–his favorites were “Goodnight Moon,” and the Max stories by Rosemary Wells. For the past couple of weeks he listened attentively to each chapter of the Tower Treasure Hardy Boys mystery, craning his neck to see the pictures. He molted this summer, and his new feathers were perfect–shiny black and sleek. But when a yellow jacket came into the living room last Monday, he swallowed it, and the wasp apparently stung him in the throat in a final act of revenge. It’s ironic that this bird gunned down from the wild ended up being killed indoors by another wild creature.

So there’s an emptiness for me this autumn, an emptiness that calls to mind Robert Frost’s poem, “Reluctance.”

Out through the fields and the woods
And over the walls I have wended;
I have climbed the hills of view
And looked at the world, and descended; I have come by the highway home,
And lo, it is ended.
The leaves are all dead on the ground,
Save those that the oak is keeping
To ravel them one by one
And let them go scraping and creeping
Out over the crusted snow,
When others are sleeping.
And the dead leaves lie huddled and still,
No longer blown hither and thither;
The last lone aster is gone;
The flowers of the witch hazel wither;
The heart is still aching to seek,
But the feet question “Whither?”
Ah, when to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season?

(Recording of a American Crow)

That was Robert Frost, this is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”