For the Birds Radio Program: Migratory Restlessness

Original Air Date: Aug. 18, 2003 Rerun Dates: Aug. 25, 2004

Laura’s daughter and two friends are riding bikes around Lake Superior right now, showing a kind of migratory restlessness just like the birds coursing above. (Date confirmed)

Audio missing


In mid-August, there’s a restlessness in the air. Hummingbirds are on the move, visiting north country bird feeders in big numbers, bulking and stoking up before their journey south. Swallows are already headed out, as are nighthawks—sometimes snacking on swarms of midges or gnats in gracefully disorganized flocks. Warblers are leaving their familiar summer territories. They do most of their serious travel by night, pretty much on their own, but during daytime in unfamiliar places, they find security in numbers, joining up with other warblers, vireos, and chickadees. Whenever I notice chickadees at my feeder, I feel a sudden surge in my own restlessness as I grab binoculars to scan through my backyard trees for any warblers that might be associating with them. I’m thinking about friendly chickadees more often these days, as my daughter, showing some migratory restlessness of her own before heading back to college, is on a long-distance bicycle trip with two friends, attempting to circle Lake Superior. Like warblers at the end of summer, these kids are suddenly finding themselves in unfamiliar areas on their own. And, like warblers, when they’re not on the go they gravitate to friendly, helpful people—apparently chickadees abound in northern Wisconsin and Michigan. They even met a group of Australians wandering about on their own adventure.

Like migratory birds, these kids trust in a benevolent world—the kind of place where a third-of-an-ounce creature or a kid on a bike with a minimum of supplies can take off with reasonable certainty of finding food and shelter and adventure just up ahead. I wonder how the years wear down our sense of possibility. As we get older, we usually try harder and harder to make our lives more structured and constrained, so that the adventures we do have are ever more planned. With kids, the unexpected is desirable—that’s precisely where their sense of possibility arises. But little by little our vague human desire to be safe seems to get contorted into a more desperate need to make our lives predictable and planned, squeezing out that sense of adventure.

So now when warblers appear in my backyard, I find myself watching them more closely. They’re so caught up in the adventure of their own lives that they don’t panic when they find themselves without a AAA card, and they never check the weather channel to see what lies ahead. Just as my daughter trusts that she’ll be reasonably sheltered in her little tent or will figure out an alternative, so these little warblers trust in thick foliage when a storm blows in. When it’s nice—well, why think about rain when there’s blue sky to enjoy? They certainly get wet, but fortunately neither birds nor kids are related to the Wicked Witch of the West, so a little water won’t hurt them.

People ask me how I could let my own child do something like this—it’s just not safe. But warblers are not safe. Chickadees are not safe. The tenth-of-an-ounce hummingbirds that strike out over the Gulf of Mexico during hurricane season are not safe. Being safe is not the point—the point is being alive. These kids pedaling eighty miles a day, these hummingbirds flapping millions of wingbeats a day, warblers flying a hundred or more miles each night—they’re fully alive, feeling the power and strength in their bodies, the possibilities in the universe, the joy in setting out on a big adventure just because they can. They may make it all the way around the lake. Their bikes or their knees may give out and they’ll head home early. But whatever happens, it will be an adventure.

At nighttime right now they’re all of them sleeping or flying under the big open sky, with Mars, glowing red, closer to earth each night than it ever was or will be again during our lifetimes. Some people see anger in that fierce red glow—me, I think Mars, like children and birds, is restless too this season, taking a little trip off its usual run of the mill orbit simply to enjoy its own adventure in the sky, a bit redder than usual from exertion and joy. Perhaps as we look up at it, it’s looking right back at us, hoping to reawaken that sense of possibility and joy in all of us. After all, it’s the season of restlessness and adventure.