For the Birds Radio Program: Migration Madness

Original Air Date: Oct. 16, 1989

(3:54) Date confirmed.

Audio missing


Something about an autumn high pressure weather system draws me outdoors like a vulture to a carcass. Friday, September 22, cold northwest winds followed a week of southeasters. The winds had shifted overnight, and before I even opened my curtains that morning I could feel the change. I pulled the curtains back to an endless stream of robins coursing over my house, and at least 50 of them pigging out in my mountain ash tree. The big day had arrived.

I have often wished that I could wave a wand and my responsibilities would vanish, at least for a time, but children need mothers no matter which way the wind is blowing. Somehow you can’t tell a three-year-old to go fix his own breakfast because mommy’s busy looking at birds. And once they eat, kids just don’t disappear into the woodwork for the day. Tommy needs to do watercolor painting and Katie needs to sing songs at least as urgently as I need to watch migration. On the one hand, the ephemeral nature of a good migration day seems like a legitimate excuse to plant them both in front of the TV for the morning, but on the other hand, the ephemeral nature of childhood itself seems like a better reason not to. On top of everything, I had to finish writing an already overdue magazine article, and feed and bathe the injured birds in my care.

All morning I rushed about madly, but as soon as I started one thing I’d spot a vulture or a kettle of hawks out the corner of my eye and charge outside with my binoculars. Swarm after swarm of broadwings flew by, punctuated by swooping flickers and swirling siskins. Turkey Vultures sailed over the house, a Merlin chased down a warbler over my neighbor’s, and ever and again the robins pressed onward. It seemed like the air itself was alive.

When it came time to walk Katie to kindergarten, I had already counted more than three thousand hawks over my house, in spite of running in and out all morning and never getting to count for longer than 10 minutes at a stretch, and now the midday peak flight was underway. As we started down Peabody Street, Katie and Tommy were mightily impressed with the broad-wing-filled sky. Their eyes danced with wonder that so many hawks could live on one small planet without them ever having noticed any of them before, but by the time we had gone two blocks, they fully accepted the flight and were starting to collect sticks and search for the first falling leaves. In much the same way, they were mightily impressed with the lunar eclipse this past August, but could hardly be expected to watch that for four hours straight, either.

I glanced through a flock of robins down my block and my eyes just about popped out when I saw a Townsend’s Solitaire among them, though Katie and Tommy weren’t at all impressed–they both thought robins were a lot prettier. A Belted Kingfisher alighted on a telephone wire running across 47th Avenue East, a mile from the nearest stream. And the hawks kept coming.

While Katie was at school, I gawked at the flight over Hawk Ridge with poor Tommy indulgently sitting it out with his toy dinosaurs in the car. After school we had piano lessons. I stayed at the window the whole hour, watching hawks cruising above the Lake Superior shoreline. Then we had to run errands downtown, and though I wanted to stay outside watching the flight above Superior Street, I was outvoted by shivering children who preferred the skywalk. All day I felt like a brittle wishbone, being pulled in two directions at once. No matter how rich I am in children and in birds, it seems I’m always hungry for more.