While walking into the local Stop & Shop, I noticed the motionless body of a bird lying on the sidewalk in front of the plate glass window advertising Memorial Day sales. Another window strike, I thought, checking to be sure the bird was dead and not just stunned.
It was dead, but its brown back, buffy eyebrow stripe, striped yellowish underparts and striped throat told me it was a male Northern Waterthrush, a warbler that prefers swamps and wet woods, and whose song adorns spring’s dawn chorus with its “sweet sweet sweet chew chew chew” notes. I contemplated this bird’s recent migration route from the mangroves of Central and South America, braving wind and weather, pesticides and predators, just to smash its brains in on a grocery store window.
I found myself wanting to trade off the life of the Waterthrush for another, more ubiquitous and undesirable bird, say, a House Sparrow, an invasive species you never see crumpled in front of a window but chirping madly while feeding another batch of fledglings in the arborvitae. Guilt sets in as I realize I am placing greater value on one life than another, simply because there are more of them. Lots more. We denigrate what we have many of and place a higher value on the few. But you don’t have to think past the Passenger Pigeon, whose numbers once darkened the skies with the passing of their flocks, and for that reason, humans took for granted there would always be Passenger Pigeons and shot them for fun, killed them for the pleasure of seeing them rain down from the sky, never dreaming a day would come when there would be none left.
We eschew House Sparrows, Starlings, Canada Geese, Cowbirds. We call them air rats and waste birds. But when you think about it, they have developed strategies that have enabled them to thrive despite our endless meddling. And since the number of birds worldwide is plummeting with no end in sight, there might well be a day when the only birdsong we hear will be the honking of Canada geese as they land on the golf course, and we will be grateful for the last of the House Sparrows trembling in the arborvitae.