For the Birds Radio Program: Cemetery Birds

Original Air Date: Sept. 5, 1997

This is about cemeteries and the birds who are found in them. (4:05) Date verified.

Audio missing


A couple of weeks ago, I was in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, looking at the hundreds of graves of soldiers who died in one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. To me, the term “civil war” has always been depressingly ironic because internal wars somehow being even less civilized than wars against other countries. And the three-day battle at Gettysburg was terrible and fierce, so there was plenty of incivility, leading to the necessity of building a huge cemetery. Many of the graves are marked by impressive gravestones and monuments, but just outside the wrought iron fence is a large area filled with neat rows of graves, each marked by nothing more than a brick bearing a number. This was for the many dead soldiers who couldn’t be identified, and whose families probably never received a definite answer about what had happened to them.

Gettysburg was dedicated by President Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address, and so is unique, but in many ways it’s like other cemeteries. Graveyard habitat tends to be well-manicured lawn with plenty of large shade trees, inhabited by the same birds found in cemeteries throughout the country. Woodpeckers and flickers are attracted to the large trees, drilling holes they’ll nest or roost in for one year before renting out to flying squirrels, little owls, and other cavity nesters. I saw plenty of flickers at Gettysburg, both in trees and feeding on ants on the cemetery lawns. And in one part of the cemetery, a noisy little American Kestrel called out his killy-killy-killy call like a rebel yell. These tiniest of falcons appropriate flicker holes once the flickers abandon them. This one was utterly beautiful, vividly red and blue against the summer sky.

I heard kestrels and flickers at another cemetery earlier this year. My uncle died in April, and at his funeral in Chicago there were many other birds singing as well. Hearing them called to mind being in that same cemetery after my cousin died almost exactly 20 years before, also in April. The exact same species were singing this time: flickers, kestrels, Brown Thrashers, robins, Song and Chipping Sparrows, and Mourning Doves. The sad dove call was especially appropriate at a funeral.

Cemeteries are also a good place to observe spring migration. Warblers are drawn to budding-out trees right when tiny insects are emerging. In forests, the trees are so dense and the spring ground so wet that the tiny birds aren’t always easy to see, where in cemeteries trees are spaced perfectly for an observer to step back and see all the branches, usually from a sidewalk or grassy, rather than muddy, vantage point. Also, by their very nature, cemeteries are quiet places with few people hanging around to scare off the birds.

The coolest cemetery I ever visited was at the San Xavier Mission in Tucson, Arizona. We were there at the end of the day after an early evening rain, and when we arrived, dozens of some kind of little rodents were running in and out of the graves. And at least ten Burrowing Owls sat atop white crosses marking the graves, and dozens more stood on the ground or ran in and out of holes. I saw more Burrowing Owls in that little cemetery in a couple of hours than I’ve seen in the rest of my 23 years of birding. Many cultures consider owls to be harbingers of death, but nobody seemed in any danger of dying here at the cemetery. Everyone was already dead or seemed pretty healthy. Cemeteries are cool places to bird, but I’m not exactly dying to go to one.