Six North American Birds

Beyond them, farther south yet, lie the lands of the thick black line.

PURPLE MARTIN (Progne subis)

In the lawn by the meadow, there’s a patch of clover where the nesting boxes still stand. I set them up myself, not long after I moved to the island — cheerful, white-painted multistorey condominiums perched atop their high wooden poles.

Any birder will tell you that Purple Martins are picky dwellers. They favour Woodpecker holes in saguaro cactuses out west. Here, in the east, they rely on humans for help. Even centuries before Columbus, they say Native Americans hung hollowed-out gourds for them. Later, we upgraded.

Those nesting boxes still do a thriving business in Starlings and Sparrows, but the paint peels and the wood shows wear. What has it been now? Five years, I think. Five years since the Purple Martins left in a great whirling flock for South America and never came back.

One of these days, I’ll chop those poles down. Starlings and Sparrows can find another place to live.

RUBY-THROATED HUMMINGBIRD (Archilochus colubris)

There was only ever one species of Hummingbird east of the Rocky Mountains. To the west, there were a dozen or more — and some, perhaps, still thrive. But here, from the Great Plains to the Atlantic Coast, there was only the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird.

Was it their solitary, aggressive nature that kept competitors out? Did their territorial patrols drive other nectar drinkers from their flowers and trees? Or was it simply their ability (scarcely credible in a three-gram bird) to cross five hundred miles of ocean without pausing to eat or rest during their migration to Mexico?

Who can say now? Who will ever know?

It was four years ago when the cracking and breaking of the ice on Lake Erie was no longer followed by the return of the Hummingbird. We’ve passed every summer since then without any at all, and the trumpet creepers in my garden have withered unpollinated on the vine.

Don’t be so selfish, I tell myself. It means the Mexican wetlands are saved, and the Hummingbird along with them. It means we’ll never see them again.

TREE SWALLOW (Tachycineta bicolor)

The russet-breasted Barn Swallows disappeared with the Hummingbirds, but the white-fronted Tree Swallows came back for another year. They flitted through the treetops, diving arrows and soaring chevrons, catching their thousands of invisible insects on the wing.

They loved the meadow of bobbing goldenrod, near the clover lawn where the Purple Martins once nested. They loved to perch in the branches of the crabapple tree, and make sorties above the coneflowers and the Queen Anne’s lace. I’d find them even on the beach, resting on the disintegrating slats of old snow fences that nobody had taken down in years.

Now, I stand on that same beach and look out over the lake. A few Ring-Billed Gulls hanging lazily on the wind — the ones that spend their winter on the Atlantic Coast, I suppose. But the Tree Swallows are gone three years now, and that must mean that we saved Florida too.

GREAT EGRET (Ardea alba)

The next island over was once a sanctuary for wading birds — Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets, primarily. There were days when I could stand on the top of the beach dunes and pick out a dozen or more egrets with my field glasses, the white S-shapes of their necks hanging like little curled caterpillars among the green leaves of the trees.

In winter, when the leaves had fallen, I’d see their nests spanning the top branches of the oaks. Great bowls of branches spun like gossamer from point to point, fifty or sixty feet above the ground.

Now half the nests have fallen in, clattered down in ruin. More than half, for the Great Blue Herons aren’t as numerous as they used to be either. There are only so many unfrozen brooks and beaver ponds for over-wintering in the north.

Those that once went south never came back. That year, I drew a thick black line on my map across the top of Georgia to show where they had disappeared. Yes, everything was going according to plan. Everything was perfectly on schedule.

EASTERN BLUEBIRD (Sialia sialis)

For a few years, at least, the Bluebirds took over the houses left empty by the Purple Martins. But then the Sparrows invaded, and the Starlings pecked at the holes until they were big enough for them. The Bluebirds fled.

Until last year, I’d see one now and then, warbling softly from the branches of the crabapple trees. They were good friends to me, still a sign of summer. Not like the Robins and Cardinals, made scruffy and hardy by the harsh lake winters.

But then, this summer, I moved the thick black line on my map again, snaking its way through the Ohio River Valley. There were no Bluebirds in the nesting boxes, and none in the crabapple tree. Here on Lake Erie, I thought I’d escape that marching line for a while longer, but each year I can see what I set in motion moving ever closer.

SNOWY OWL (Bubo scandiacus)

Even now, after more than five years here, the sight of a Snowy Owl can still make me gasp. There it sits, tucked under the eaves of the boathouse, yellow saucer eyes scanning the snowbound meadow for movement.

It’s winter dark and cold, a clear and deep night. The lake is frozen all the way across to Ontario and the clouds have blown away. The stars reel above, and the horizon glows softly with the hazy lights of Cleveland and Toledo, those great cities hidden somewhere over the rim of the earth.

Beyond them, farther south yet, lie the lands of the thick black line. The remnants of the wetlands and marshes and forests, where the Purple Martins, the Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds, the Tree Swallows and the others used to go.

Not dead — not gone. Just fragmented, then saved and sealed. Tied up, neat as a package, and preserved from the rest of the world in great plastic biospheres fitted with seawater levies, air filters, climate controls, and all manner of monitors and gauges. What a wonderful design, everybody says, what an elegant solution. There’ll surely be a Nobel Prize in it for me someday.

The Snowy Owl turns its head lazily and mews quietly in the night. Perhaps I ought to have moved to her summer home, much farther north, up on the tundra of the Arctic. I’d be hunkered down now for a deeper and colder winter. But my map, I know, would still have those thick black lines. I’d still be counting the migratory species that have left and never come back.

This winter, in fact, the line will rise exactly this far. Six years ago, I myself put this island on the list. And soon drones will drop heavy plastic sheaths around the beaches and cliffs, hardening in the wind like a cocoon. Soon, the air will change and the pollutants will be blown out. Soon, the place will be preserved and this Snowy Owl will be saved, another box checked off the conservation list.

And I’ll have to go, of course. They won’t make me (not me!), but it would set a bad example to stay. Wherever I go now, the Snowy Owl will remain — and though I search for her next summer, I’ll see her no more.

M. Bennardo’s short stories have recently appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Lightspeed, and others.

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