For the Birds Radio Program: Collections

Original Air Date: April 30, 1997

Today’s program is about the human and avian need to collect things. (4:22) Date confirmed.

Audio missing


One of the habits I’ve gotten into as an adult is to keep a rock in my pocket. When I’m stressed out, I can hold onto it and it somehow calms me—almost literally grounds me. When I go for a walk along a beach, I often pick up stones and small rocks and usually end up bringing one of two home with me. Whenever I see a new bird—a lifer—or find a particularly luscious woods or have a magical experience outdoors, I commemorate the occasion by collecting a nearby rock.

I have one particular favorite that stays in my pocket. It was chosen with great deliberation, and is exactly the right size and shape to fit comfortably in my hand, with a wide concave dip near one end just right for my thumb to rest in. The rock is ordinary brown and black, but the black mineral in it has tiny crystal facets that sparkle in low light like new-fallen snow. In the same way that a hummingbird’s black throat feathers are transformed into rubies by the angle of light falling upon them, my rock is transformed by even a soft nightlight into dancing crystals. Holding it, I can imagine myself deep within the small woods from which it came.

Collecting things, from rocks to stamps to furniture, is a very human characteristic. Some of the objects we seek are whimsical, some practical, and some serve as symbols of other things altogether. A few stamp collectors I know amass huge collections because of the monetary value of each one. Others collect stamps from specific countries or of specific images because they conjure images of exotic far away places or lovely creatures. Filling gaps in an incomplete collection brings a feeling of satisfaction and even joy to many of us, perhaps fulfilling our need for order and completeness.

Even bird lists are collections. When I finally added Northern Pygmy-Owl to my life list, completing the owl section, the sight of a continuous line of checkmarks on my list was almost as pleasing as the owl itself.

Like humans, many birds collect things. This time of year, they gather nesting materials. I like watching crows in my neighborhood search for sticks. They stride purposefully under my spruce trees, studying each stick, sometimes picking one up and seeming to weigh or measure it or test its feel. I don’t know what qualities make a stick exactly right for a crow. Perhaps they want sticks of a particular length and thickness, but the way they scrutinize them before finally choosing one, I think maybe the sticks have more subtle attractions, like my little rock.

Tree Swallows collect white feathers to line their nests with, to insulate the eggs and babies against excessive cold and heat. Great Crested Flycatchers line their nests with snakeskins, hummingbirds find spider silk with which to weave lichens together—yes, most birds collect things in spring. Some male birds also collect items to present to females in courtship rituals.

But some birds, especially those in the crow family, collect for the sheer sake of collecting. Magpies, ravens, crows, and even jays carry off shiny objects, including stones and pieces of metal or glass. Once a raven picked up and flew off with my wristwatch when I dropped it on a dirt road in Port Wing, Wisconsin. Ravens have a good enough inborn clock that they hardly need a watch, and their wrists are way too skinny to wear one anyway, but these most human of birds share acquisitiveness with us. Collections, be they of bird sightings, stamps, sticks, shiny watches, or small brown and black rocks, provide us with soul-satisfying treasures that remind us of the abundant riches to be found on this little planet.