For the Birds Radio Program: Aurora

Original Air Date: Nov. 8, 2004 Rerun Dates: Oct. 10, 2018; Oct. 28, 2008; Oct. 29, 2007

Laura witnessed some extraordinary northern lights and started wondering about how birds perceive them.

Duration: 5′15″


I’m writing this the night of Sunday, November 7. This afternoon I had to drive home from Wausau, Wisconsin, after doing a program at the extraordinary Woodson Art Museum. It was quite dark as I turned north on Highway 53 in Chippewa Falls—at least, the earth was dark. The sky was lit up by the most brilliant and wondrous northern lights I’ve ever seen. Streams of white, flickering and flowing, sometimes in thin rays like sunlight from behind a cloud, sometimes in whole sheets of light rippling like bedsheets on a clothesline on a windy day. Sometimes a sheet of light spanning the horizon would fade to gray and then suddenly a single beam would pierce the darkness, brighten, and slowly widen. Strange shapes of luminescence formed, like the sky had suddenly become a universal lava lamp.

Needless to say, this was distracting, especially when it’s so important to watch for deer along Highway 53. And a few times, lasting for several minutes each, the lights became almost blindingly bright. I pulled off the highway at a Dairy Queen sign. There were quite a few people in the restaurant, and as I waited in line, I told everyone about the aurora, but none of them had noticed it at all. One guy did say he’d drive out to a dark area to look.

This has been rather a difficult week for me, being the wacko environmentalist liberal that I am, but suddenly the air was alive with magic, filling me with hope as I realized that this phenomenon was most brilliant in the blue states, a cosmic consolation. But as cars with differing bumper stickers drove along the highway with me, I wondered if they were seeing this same vision as a cosmic affirmation. That’s the trick with religion or morality or philosophy—someone else may have an entirely opposite take, and who’s to say which is the right one?

As I drove along, silhouettes of naked forest in stark relief against the glowing, flowing skies, I started thinking of how birds experience an aurora. I wondered if owls stopped to stare, or if they simply took advantage of the extra light for easier hunting. A flock of Canada Geese flew overhead, which I probably only noticed because of the lighted sky, and I opened my window to the frigid air just to hear them. They were honking as they went, but I didn’t know if they were discussing the skies or arguing about whose bright idea it was to turn right at Cadott, and next time they should not head out so late in the day anyway. There were roundish bulges in some of the aspen and spruce trees, and I wondered if any were grouse munching on buds, perhaps wondering at the strangely lit sky, maybe affirming their own religious convictions about how God favored Ruffed Grouse, Sharp-tails, or Spruce Grouse—whichever they happened to be, of course.

Most birds were sound asleep. As I drove past a boggy marsh, I could imagine the ducks down there in the cold water, heads resting on their backs, their beaks tucked with tiny tendrils of steam coming from their nostrils, soft ripples of water rocking them as they slept. In the brushy fields, sparrows and juncos were hunkered down in the tangles, tucked in, too. Migrating songbirds are known to wake up periodically and look at the sky—it’s how they memorize the star patterns that will help them navigate. I wondered at their thoughts if they drowsily opened their eyes to such splendor. Chickadees, bluebirds, nuthatches, and woodpeckers were sleeping deep inside cavities, with no lights streaming inside. I pictured a giant crow roost, the birds rooted to their branches, most sound asleep. I could imagine one crow in the bunch, her black feathers gleaming in the undulating light, her sparkling brown eyes open, gazing at the sky. Of course, it had never even occurred to her that the earth might have stopped rotating on Tuesday, but I could picture her filled with inchoate wonder at this beautiful universe we share, the energy from a distant solar flare and geomagnetic storm filling her heart with quiet joy and a sense of her infinitesimal smallness in the overall scheme of the universe, and yet her value and purpose. There in the darkness, she felt a surge of deep pleasure at being right here on earth, perched in a spruce tree in northern Wisconsin not far from highway 53 on a quiet November evening. As Robert Frost said, “Earth’s the right place for love. I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.”