When I was in third grade my teacher assigned our class an essay. The assignment was to write a story about bird migration. She asked us to imagine what it would be like to fly south to Florida for the winter or perhaps cross the Caribbean Sea to the Yucatán Peninsula. Our imaginations might even take us to Brazil or as far south as Argentina. To bring life to our stories we made birds out of scraps of paper and colored them in with crayons. We hung them from the ceiling and they fluttered in the autumn breeze as we read our stories aloud to the class. I didn’t know at the time that I’d grow up to study birds for a living. I didn’t know they had so much to teach me about my own life.
A flock of pelicans soars overhead. One wild wing after another converge as they bank in unison to the right then left. They are riding a thermal to gain altitude. With the completion of each circle they will have risen a bit higher in the sky until they nearly disappear from view. Then they will glide south to the next thermal and onward until they reach their destination along the California coast. Their movements are slow and methodical like the autumn sun rising lower in the southern sky as the season deepens.
The drive to migrate is guided by changes in the length of daylight. There is a time of day when birds are particularly sensitive to light and the amount of overlap between this photosensitive period and sunlight cues either the urge to breed in summer or the urge to migrate in autumn. The sun gives rhythm to their life.
I wonder if I have my own photosensitive period that makes me want to eat mashed potatoes and sip red wine as soon as cottonwood leaves begin turning gold. In our increasingly indoor life it is easy to miss these cues. To instead mistake the glowing screens of our devices for actual sunlight. Our brains can’t tell the difference, but I think our spirits can. From birds I am learning that there is a rhythm in life worth paying attention to.
Every summer for the last three years I have awoken to the burbling song of a house wren who sings from the juniper growing outside my bedroom window. A few weeks ago he stopped singing and began preparing for migration. Soon he will be on his way south to Mexico and, hopefully, he will return next spring. I don’t know for sure if it’s the same house wren I hear each summer, but there is a good chance it is. Birds are master navigators. Individuals regularly return to not only the same area in which they bred the year before, but often the same tree, shrub, or patch of grass.
Birds navigate by using landmarks, the position of the sun in the sky during the day, and the stars by night. They use the earth’s magnetic pull and even their sense of smell to guide them to a place they may have never been before. In some species the juveniles migrate ahead of the adults. They don’t even know where they are going, but end up exactly where they are supposed be. Imagine traveling with purpose, yet not knowing your destination, and then recognizing when you have arrived. From birds I am learning to trust my own instincts. Instincts that compete with the voice of my inner critic questioning why I think anyone would want to hear my thoughts on wilderness. I don’t know if they do, but I’m going to write them down anyway.
Come November most birds will have migrated south and we’ll be left with a quiet that is both serene and mournful. But someone far to the south will welcome their arrival, noting the change in seasons from the dry months of summer to the rainy months of winter. I can think of no other group of animals that signal change like birds do. Birds serve as reminders to let go of that which we cannot hold on to.
So I let them go and instead of mourning their loss I will become intimately familiar with the residents again. About 150 species like the Clark’s nutcracker and mountain chickadee will stick out the Yellowstone winter. As the days get colder I will be struck by their ability to survive where I could not. I will think about them as I sip hot cocoa from my couch on snowy days. I will watch them foraging for seeds and cached morsels while skiing after a snowstorm. And I will wait patiently for the arrival of their migratory counterparts as winter releases its grip and one wild wing after another returns home.