“Aristotle was, shall we say, a creative thinker, even by the freewheeling standards of ancient Greece. In addition to declaring that horsehair turned into living worms, he believed that birds hibernated in holes in the ground each winter.
“It’s easy to laugh at Aristotle, because we know better. The truth about migration is that birds are conjured up from the soft April air of a Gulf Coast sky. The blue is rolled up to make indigo buntings and cerulean warblers, the fog folds in on itself to birth gray catbirds and gnatcatchers, while the orange clouds at dusk give of themselves to create orioles. And the liquid gold of the afternoon sun is measured out, drop by precious drop, to form male prothonotary warblers. Once the sky is full to bursting with these new-made wonders, it lets them fall like snow on the land. Poetic hogwash, you say? Suit yourself. I’ve seen it happen.”
The above lyrical passage is from Scott Weidensaul’s wonderful work, Living on the Wind; Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds. I first read it years ago, after attending a birding event where he spoke. Although I’ve also read other books by Scott (Of a Feather: A Brief History of American Birding, Return to Wild America: A Yearlong Search for the Continent’s Natural Soul, and The Ghost with Trembling Wings: Science, Wishful Thinking and the Search for Lost Species), this one book, Living on the Wind is by far my favorite. When I recently I picked it up again to read it through, it became clear why that is so when I read the last paragraph of the preface:
“This book covers a lot of ground. Over the course of more than six years, I traveled virtually the length of the hemisphere, logging nearly seventy thousand miles by jet, car, bush plane, sailing ketch, tundra buggy, dugout canoe, horseback, and on foot - yet traveling fewer miles than a single small sandpiper would in its short lifetime, propelled only by muscle and the instinct to migrate.”
Living on the Wind demonstrates clearly, often with heart stopping detail and always in beautiful prose, what these remarkable creatures endure in their travels between continents. It is a part of their lives we too often forget about.
Everyone who cares about migrating birds and their collective futures, should read this book. Doing so makes us conscious not just of their migrational challenges, but also reasons for their population declines. Weidensaul makes care deeply about these brave travelers enough to act on their behalf.