For the Birds Radio Program: Leaves

Original Air Date: Oct. 25, 2002 Rerun Dates: Nov. 26, 2021; Oct. 15, 2004

How many leaves are on a single maple tree?

Duration: 5′05″


Autumn is the season of leaves and leavings, when foliage is decked out in splendid colors in a last ditch effort at immortality before being shed by trees whose only interest in their leaves turned out to be for photosynthesis.

We thrill at their colors even as we mourn their passing and rake their spent bodies into piles for children to jump into, an ironically playful way to observe the weeks around All Souls’ Day. We look up from the fallen leaves to see geese winging over, leaving us, too, as hummingbirds and kingbirds did weeks ago, as the final warblers are doing now, too, as the last white-throated sparrows will do within the next couple of weeks.

As arctic air descends upon us, migrant saw-whet owls sometimes take a day’s rest in our yards, though they wisely roost in spruce and pines whose branches provide shelter, not in the naked deciduous trees who shake their poor, forked fists at the elements, defying the universe, these arboreal Lears on the heath who didn’t know a good thing when they had it.

Hawks are passing over, too, and out of habit I count them. Seven red-tails together with two eagles. A rough-leg and a goshawk. The counts of October are smaller than those of September, now that the broad-winged hawks are gone. On the biggest day ever at Hawk Ridge, September 18, 1993, when Frank Nicoletti tallied 49,615 hawks, fully 47,922 of them were broad-wings. Now the daily numbers are smaller, but the species are tougher, more tenacious, somehow more thrilling. Two more bald eagles and a golden eagle. Another group of six red-tails. The biggest red-tail count in a day was 3,991 on October 24, 1994. Another two fly over right now, bringing our total to 15. So many numbers.

And as we rake, we start wondering about the numbers of leaves at our feet. As compulsive a counter as I am, I somehow could never bring myself to count every one. But my good friend Val Cunningham found herself wondering the same thing, and suddenly thought of a book she’d bought at a second-hand store a while back, The Secret Life of the Forest, by Richard M. Ketchum. Val told me this book is a goldmine of information about trees, with very clear explanations of all the various processes, and great drawings.

Mr. Ketchum’s book did include information about leaf counts, though unfortunately he provided just the ballpark figure of several hundred thousand leaves on a mature maple. Val wanted something more precise. So she went out and picked up a small branchlet that had just fallen from a big, 80-year-old silver maple.

The branchlet had 350 leaves on it, but was missing a number of smaller twigs on one side. So Val used 400 as the base number. She found that 20 small branchlets made up one larger branch, and that there were 10 of these branches on a big, main limb, making up one quarter of the tree. Multiplying by 4, she got 320,000, so Mr. Ketchum’s estimate of several hundred thousand was not an exaggeration.

Val acknowledges that she could be off by 100,000 or so. But whatever the precise number, there are plenty of these tired leaves on the ground for fox sparrows to scratch at, squirrels and blue jays to hide acorns under, and us to rake and count as our minds meander about in contemplation of the changing seasons and the movements of birds.

Rachel Carson wrote, “There is symbolic as well as actual beauty in the migration of the birds… There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature-the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after the winter.” The leaves lie huddled and still on the ground, but we rake them up with the assurance that come spring countless new leaves will emerge, and the rejuvenated maples will once again open their arms to embrace the sky and welcome birds back to their sheltering branches.