Thoreau on Birds

I would like to bring your attention to a book, which along with all the various field guides and other historical bird books is indispensable for anyone living in the interior Northeast.

The title is called Thoreau on Birds which was published by Beacon Press, Boston 1993. (e-mail me for the ISBN if you are really interested).  This book takes all the bird references in Thoreau’s New England journal and organizes them by species.  He not only took great field notes, he made great observations of the bird world.  He was not always correct and certainly things have changed.  But I think the most important part of the book is that it gives us a great idea of what birds were living in the interior Northeast 150 years ago.  Keep in mind Thoreau never saw a Tufted Titmouse, Northern Cardinal or Turkey Vulture, birds pretty common these days.  The Passenger Pigeon was a common woodland bird and I’m sure he couldn’t fathom the idea of its extinction.  Some birds have changed in how common they are, you can find passages referring to many Whip-poor-will’s calling every night and how they are part of the night chorus, where now in most areas in the Northeast, the woods are quiet in summer.  Common Nighthawks could be commonly seen flying over the farm ponds and fields every night in the summer.  Neither of these species are this common anymore.

Here is an example of a passage:  From Chapter 21, Thrushes, Wood Thrush

June 22, 1851 I hear around me, but never in sight, the many wood thrushes whetting their steel-like notes.  Such keen singers!  It takes a fiery heat, many dry pine leaves added to the furnace of the sun, to temper their strains!  Always they are either rising or falling to a new strain.  After what a moderate pause they deliver themselves again! saying ever a new thing, avoiding repetition, methinks answering one another.  While most other birds take their siesta, the wood thrush discharges his song.  It is delivered like a bolas, or a piece of jingling steel.

I first read this book in 1994, when I was 13 years old, Thoreau not only became my hero, but it encouraged my observations of birds in a natural world.  This book does not have much of his philosophical ideas in it, in only a few cases does he expand upon his observations.  But he had a the ability to capture his feelings and make the reader actually think they can hear the Wood Thrush singing in the woods.

To become great bird watchers we need to be able to take in information from many different sources.  Obviously our field guides are a great source and the Internet these days has revolutionized the flow of sightings and information all over the globe.  Thoreau’s book is different, I think it makes us slow down and observe even the most common of birds and not simply ‘check them off’.  It is when we slow down and really take the time to observe the world around us, that we truly gain an appreciation of the natural world.  I remember thinking about Thoreau and this book on my hike up Wakely Mountain recently.  Finding a spot with Blackpoll and Magnolia Warblers, Yellow-bellied Flycatchers and other birds, I took the time to observe them in a near perfect natural environment.  I think it was at that moment that I fully understood how Thoreau felt when he saw a bird and his writings now speak to me in a new way, and for that I am grateful.


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