For the Birds Radio Program: Extraterrestrials

Original Air Date: May 7, 2001 (estimated date)

Why search for intelligent life on other planets when we have so much right here on earth?

Duration: 4′20″


This year to celebrate Mother’s Day, I spent the night in Port Wing, Wisconsin, so I could go to sleep to and wake up to birds. I picked the right weekend. Standing out in the dark Saturday night listening for woodcock, I remembered nights when I was a little girl, looking up at all the stars in the sky with my big brother Jimmy. He once asked if l thought there was anyone out there, but I didn’t know. It always seemed so romantic to imagine life on other planets, until you watched a science fiction movie and saw the strange shapes and colors that movie people imagined extraterrestrials took. With all the possibilities, it struck me that virtually no science fiction writer ever conjured up other planets or galaxies with anything that looks like birds.

Now as an adult, I still gaze into the night sky and am filled with wonder at the stars. But I no longer imagine life out there–the stars fill me with wonder about the other intelligent beings right here on earth. Birds use those distant beacons to navigate thousands of miles on migration. Standing on my mother-in-law’s gravel driveway in Port Wing as darkness descended, I could hardly look up and wonder “if’ there was life out there when I could hear warblers making little seep notes far above me in the night sky, using celestial navigation to travel from the tropics to the north woods every spring. And if I hadn’t noticed them, the lovely wavering notes of a woodcock’s wings closer overhead were announcing “Look at me! Look at me!”

First thing in the morning I walked to some of my favorite spots with my minidisk recorder and listened as a multitude of voices announced their existence to anyone who happened to be listening. A whole host of warblers had arrived on territory and were filling the world with song. A Ruffed Grouse drummed periodically, as did a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. That’s the easiest woodpecker to recognize by the drum, because it’s the only one with a lousy sense of rhythm.

Jays and crows yelled out occasionally, and chickadees kept whistling their dear “hey sweetie!” tune. A few White-throated Sparrows called for Old Sam Peabody, but the bulk of their migration was still well south of here, so I didn’t hear many.

Dogs intuitively realize that there are plenty of interesting life forms here on earth, and my little Bichon Frise Photon was scrutinizing the forest like a NASA astronaut investigating a newly­ discovered planet. Birds of the northwoods aren’t familiar with Bichon Frises, so several came down to scold her, one chickadee coming within inches of her nose. Unfortunately, I wasn’t recording right then-it would have been fun capturing some genuine chickadee swear words, but I’m not sure the FCC would have allowed me to air them anyway.

Being out on a lovely morning at the height of spring migration made me happy to be right here on this planet. In his poem “Birches,” Robert Frost wrote, “Earth’s the right place for love. I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.” It’s also the planet where you can find Resplendent Quetzals, chickadees and Blue Jays, and a rainbow of warblers and hummingbirds. When you can show me an extraterrestrial as lovely as them, I’ll take an interest. But meanwhile, I’m focusing my attentions here on this planet. What hope is there that we could possibly reach an understanding with any extraterrestrial life on Jupiter or Mars before we master living in harmony with so many sentient beings right here on earth?