American Birding Podcast



Birds and Poetry

When I read the following words in Leonard Nathan’s illuminating Diary of a Left-handed Birdwatcher, I was delighted:

Valmiki is the first, the father, of all poets. He is also the first known birdwatcher, and it is his birdwatching that has occasioned his invention: from shoka (grief) comes shloka (poetry).

So there you have it. The first poet was also the first birder, and the two are inextricably linked. Birds have been celebrated in poetry ever since, from the haiku masters of seventeenth century Japan to the English Romantics and their famous fondness for nightingales. And the relationship continues.

Not long ago, I agreed to review contemporary poet Ruth Schwartz’s Miraculum, a book of poetry not marketed as nature writing and which I expected to have no connection to birds. I began reading, and there they were: mockingbirds, phoebes, and sparrows, beautifully represented and relevant to a collection of poems mostly about sex and death, not birdwatching.

I was again thrilled when I browsed through the poems of Pittsburgh based poet Rick St. John in his collection The Pure Inconstancy of Grace, and discovered a poem dedicated to the first bird I ever pointed out to my fiancée, and the ABA’s Bird of the Year. This man is a brilliant poet, but he is not a birder. And yet, he wrote and published a wonderful piece entitled “Nighthawks.”

So even in the moments when I have made a small effort to read contemporary poetry, not expecting birds, I have found birds. I even enjoy that more in the way, when non-birder poets find the beauty and intrigue of birds moving enough to include in their work. It confirms a conviction I believe many of us share: that birds are an essential part of our world, and that understanding them on at least some level is an essential part of being human.

But how aware is the birding community of this deep connection between birds and poetry? Much is made of the birding world’s contributions to science, and rightly so, but I have rarely seen our poetic inclination celebrated in a similar way. On a national level, poetry struggles to remain relevant more than any other literary art, all of which are losing influence in our culture.

Yet birders read and write insatiably. To feel like I’m up to date with the latest buzz in the birdworld, I need to read four or five magazines and five to ten blogs. I need to check my state listserv and peruse various groups on Facebook. Then add the newsletters from the local birdclubs I belong to, the state ornithological journal, and any number of electronic correspondences with birdfriends.

I have never seen a single one of these venues publish poetry about birds, and yet in each one I have found poetry about birds. For example, I keep a Word document of Found Poetry with messages from the Pennsylvania Birds listserv. With permission from the authors, let me share a few:

The Alcid

By David Wilbur

After some 40 plus years of birding

you would think I would have seen it all,

at least on the East coast.

Still, yesterday, I was pulling into the parking lot

at Indian River Inlet in Delaware (below Rehoboth Beach)

when I had a Razorbill get up off the water

and fly out towards sea.

First time I’ve ever seen an alcid

while sitting in the comfort of my car.

Even in Newfoundland, Maine and northern Europe,

I had to get out and walk a little
or, in the Atlantic, off New Jersey and Delaware,

get on a boat.

You never know what you’ll see,

until you look, I guess.


Waterthrush Melody

By Bill Franz

Enjoyed seeing a Common Loon

on the small lake at Colonel Denning State Park

and two Louisiana Waterthrushes

on the fast-moving stream

that feeds into the lake.

Can there be a more beautiful melody

than from a waterthrush

after a little-too-long winter?

The only changes I made to these pieces were to add line breaks and give them denotative titles. They are field observations, of course, but to me, they also exemplify the poetic disposition many of us share.

In science, a lyric inclination is generally regarded with disdain. There’s not room for poetic flourish in an ornithological research paper, although the ornithologist Alexander Skutch had this to say:

The science of ornithology has grown so rapidly because the poetry of birds has led so many people to study them. Wholly to divorce the science from the poetry would injure the science.

The sentiment rings true to me, but as birders, each of us is afforded a luxurious freedom: we are not bound to the same standards as professional ornithologists. When we write about birds, we can and often do indulge our love of poetry. Despite poetry’s decline in stature throughout our culture, it is thriving in birding culture. We can find poetry almost anywhere we look, though we may not always recognize it.

One reason we may not always notice or seek out poetry in birdwriting is because of the difficulty in defining what poetry even is. I think of it as a yearning, when the words seek an elusive knowledge. I see that in both of the poems above. Formatting and other conventions are ultimately superficial. I read those posts now and see poetry because they are searching for something.

So where have you found poetry in the birdworld? Have you seen it in a trip report, Facebook status update, or blog post? Elsewhere?

Let’s celebrate our love of poetry and birds, wherever we find it.