For the Birds Radio Program: Migration

Original Air Date: Sept. 20, 1996

What do the Chicago Cubs and migrating birds have in common? Find out on today’s For the Birds. 4:11

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Autumn is perhaps the most beautiful of all seasons, its trees laden with richly colored leaves and migrating birds. More animals live in the northern hemisphere in late summer and early autymn than in any other season, and we smile to see this year’s second batch of baby squirrels toddling about as third broods of robins emerge from their nests barely in time to face the coming migration. Crips autumn air is bracing and heady with the fragrance of ripening fruit. Garden tomatoes satisfy the palate like nothing else, and the endless bounty of zucchinis remind us that too much of a good thing is still a good thing.

But despite its richness, autumn is marked by sad departures: leaves attain their spectacular colors only to fall to the ground. Annual plants shrivel and die, reptiles and amphibians dig into mucky soil to protect themselves from the coming winter, happy-go-lucky little children of endless summer vacations trudge off to kindergarten and elementary school, the jolly little boy who was once my baby Joey marches off to his first year of high school, my dreams of a berth in the playoffs for the Chicago Cubs are fading fast, and birds that filled warm summer days with song and color are flying far, far away. The renewing grace of a fresh school year is tinged with autumnal sadness, longing, and fears of abandonment.

Autumn is the restless season when I find myself drawn to long walks, lost in reverie. Birds are restless, too–if dawn is cool at the Lakewood Pumping Station, I count hundreds or thousands of warblers coursing through the sky, rushing south to avoid the killing frosts which will dispatch the insects that sustain them. Waxwings that gathered in August to mosey by in leisurely feeding flocks are stepping up the pace, urged on by lengthening nights, cooler temperatures, a dwindling sweet berry supply, and a feeling deep in their bones that the time is ripe for leaving.

Birds instinctively feel and obey the earth and sun’s rhythmic dance. Babies that hatched in July know to migrate just as surely as seasoned veterans of a half-dozen migrations. Bird lives take on meaning and passion as they obey these natural urges. It takes us humans longer to figure out the rhythmic nature of the year, our instincts blinded by electric lights that overwhelm the natural solar timepiece. In unnatural modern lives, it is easy to miss out on rhythms altogether. Fortunately, most of us humans are given many years to discover the rhythmic nature of a year. Only small children believe that summer vacation lasts forever, that snow will never melt, or that the Cubs actually have a chance to make the Series. As we grow and mature, we find assurance in these predictable patterns of life. Leaves do grow back, birds return, and yes, the Cubs start the season tied for first place, only to dash our hope before fall migration. This is, of course, why Cubs fans do better in school and become smarter than other people–we never waste valuable study time worrying about the playoffs or glued to World Series games.

By November and December, nature is so filled with the desperate requirements of simple survival that autumn’s intimations of mortality evaporates in the first blizzard. The Cubs migrate south for winter training and return with other spring migrants in fresh plumage, renewing ou rspring hopes and dreams just as returning birds renew the earth with song and beauty. Thus does the earth move around the sun, and the rhythm of life satisfy our need for stability and constancy in this ever-changing world.