From the balcony where I do much of my writing, I spotted a rainbow of birds – vibrant blue jays, vivid goldfinches, tiger-orange Baltimore oriels. I saw a red-tailed hawk swoop within a dozen feet of my armchair and spread its snow-and-rust flight feathers to decelerate before landing on a nearby ash tree and a bald eagle cruise a few hundred feet overhead on its way to the Hudson River.
I got into the lives of the birds. A flock of common grackles would congregate on the lawn, the sunlight catching the iridescent gloss of their crown plumage as they tossed the grass for insects. A pair of red-winged blackbirds would chase crows away from their pond, coordinating dive-bombs on the larger bird until it flapped out of sight. A cedar waxwing couple perched every day on a dead elm tree for weeks, settling their mohawked heads down into shining gold breasts to observe the neighborhood’s daily activity.
Last month, a major paper published in the journal Science* revealed there were 2.9 billion less birds in North America in 2018 than in 1970. This is a 29 percent drop. Put another way, I would be seeing 41 percent more birds off my balcony bird-watching less than 50 years ago.
I wrote a couple weeks ago about students in New Paltz public schools taking part of the school day off (with parental permission) to march down Main Street as part of the world-wide Climate Strike, organized to pressure political leaders to more rapidly address climate change.
Though almost all the people who reacted to the article on Facebook were positive towards the marchers (“loves,” instead of angry faces), the people who actually took the time to write comments were not. There were 21 comments below the original Facebook post, and all but a couple derisively trashed the kids: the children whose futures are clouded with black dust, obscuring what could be an adulthood thick with destruction and grief.
Of the many catastrophic shifts to the planet caused by our abuse, climate change is not my biggest fear. An extinction cascade and the catastrophic collapse of the food web through the elimination of a non-redundant species would be worse. As would the die-off of our agricultural staples, limited now to a handful of homogeneous, human-created crops.
Can you hear/
the desert wind a-coming?
A gray catbird kvetches at me from the first-floor roof adjacent to my balcony, hopping in circles and jutting his head sideways to peer at me disapprovingly.
My binoculars are metal and glass; they will last a long time. I hope there will be birds to peer at in 50 years. I hope there will people to peer at them.
But the desert winds are no longer distant, and you would need to stick your head very deep in the sand not to hear their howl.
Correction: An earlier version of this article mid-stated the number of birds lost since 1970. It is 2.9 billion birds, not 2.9 million.
*The paper is copyrighted and costs $30 to purchase. It was worth it just for the wake-up call.