For the Birds Radio Program: Passport

Original Air Date: Sept. 10, 2000 (estimated date) Rerun Dates: Oct. 2, 2008; July 9, 2004; Aug. 14, 2002

Laura just got a passport that will allow her to explore the entire world, or at least go to Costa Rica.

Duration: 4′25″


I’m holding in my hand an official passport from the United States of America . It arrived in the mail today, and I’m so excited I could pop. A lot of my friends have passports, and they don’t seem to think it’s a big deal-after all, almost anyone can get one by filling out an application and bringing it, along with $60 and two photographs, to just about any post office. But I’ve never had a passport before. When I was a little girl growing up in a blue collar suburb of Chicago, I didn’t know anyone who had one.

This passport is a lovely document. It has a dark blue cover embossed with a gold seal of the United States of America, and the pages are printed on paper that’s as beautiful as it is official­ looking. On the inside cover, a transparent coating over the photo and personal information glistens with a hologram of an eagle, appropriate for a document that will carry me to lovely birds. Just above the photo is a warning, “Not valid until signed,” in capital letters, so I immediately got a pen and signed it in my neatest handwriting. Then I read the rules and regulations in front, and penciled in the personal data and emergency contact information exactly where it directed me to.

This passport is as optimistic and friendly as an official government document gets. It says right on it, “The Secretary of State of the United States of America hereby requests all whom it may concern to permit the citizen of the United States named herein to pass without delay or hindrance and in case of need to give all lawful aid and protection.”

Birds don’t get this kind of assistance from Madeline Albright. But migrating birds can’t carry a passport anyway. Mine, without a single stamp in it yet, weighs 23 grams more than eight Ruby-throated Hummingbirds or two Blackburnian Warblers, and almost as much as one Scarlet Tanager. Fortunately, birds have a self-reliance that not even Ralph Waldo Emerson could have imagined. They strike out over the ocean or across political borders without worry or fear or luggage, and never ask for or accept official protection from anything.

The reason I got my passport is that my aunt is sending me to Costa Rica in January. I’m going to take a two-week birding tour, and then I’m flying my 16-year-old daughter in to join me for a third week. I’m allowed to check bags weighing up to seventy pounds each, so technically I could pack a total of 22,400 hummingbirds in my two suitcases if l could find enough volunteers, though every hummer I’ve ever known prefers to make the flight on its own power. Me, I’ll need an airplane and this passport to finally fly to the land of my dreams, where I can see wild toucans, macaws, euphonias, oropendolas, and, if l’m very lucky, a resplendent quetzal, which I’ve longed to see ever since I saw its picture in an encyclopedia when I was four years old.

A little while ago as I held my passport in my hand, a late hummingbird peeked at me from my window feeder, and somehow I felt a kinship I’d never felt before, knowing I was going to be making pretty much the same journey that he was on, seeing many of the same sights and maybe even interacting with some of the same birds, even if I’ll be doing a lot less flapping en route.

Holding this passport and imagining all the places I can go, and birds I can see, I feel like the whole wide wonderful world is suddenly mine. The US government may mess up and do a lot of stupid things, but they sure do make a fine passport.