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The incredible journey

March 14, 2011

I am not a bird watcher.  To be more current, I’m not a birder.  The former term was coined in 1901 and then morphed into birdwatcher (one word) and eventually birder. The latter happened in the last decades of the 20th century when our feathered friends became the focus of thousands of humans with binoculars, telescopes and life lists. Add to that electronic alert systems that broadcast rare sightings – usually birds or “vagrants” who’ve drifted out of their common habitat or migration route – and what used to be a casual hobby has become a serious and sophisticated adventure.

My lack of ornithological experience doesn’t keep me from enjoying Say Goodbye to the Cuckoo. Author Michael McCarthy also isn’t a birder, “merely a person,” he writes, and so his captivating narrative about the spring migration of birds, harbingers of warmer weather, doesn’t bog down in scientific detail. Instead, we experience his warmth, insight, fascination and, most of all, wonder about this phenomenal event that he infuses with literary references and engaging stories.  Granted, spring migration is a well-studied fact of nature, but it still holds some mystery. How is it these small creatures have the capacity for these epic journeys? How do they know where to go?

Here’s an example of what I mean. The Stilt Sandpiper weighs a mere few ounces and yet it flies at an altitude of 18,000 feet and is able to remain airborne, nonstop, for days in a row. It flies approximately 7,000 miles from its breeding grounds in sub-Arctic Northern Canada to South America, where it spends the winter before returning to Canada in the spring. And get this: when it heads south for winter, it leaves the kids behind because they’re not strong enough for the journey, but when they are strong enough, in a few weeks, they follow the same path as their parents, same fueling stops and all.

I didn’t read about the stilts in McCarthy’s book, but I remember them from another, which is how I got interested in this awesome natural event.  When I discovered Say Goodbye to the Cuckoo in an issue of the London Review of Books, I was interested but, considering its British focus — McCarthy writes about the spring migration from South Africa to England — I didn’t think I’d enjoy it as much as if it were about North American birds. Then the book came to the U.S. via a small publisher, and I’d read so much good about it that I went for it.

England’s birds aren’t all the same as ours – consider the nightingale (a nod to John Keats) — but this epic event that happens every spring remains the same for all migrating birds. It’s in danger, too. Michael McCarthy sends the alert that declines of the spring migration may be at hand. Hence, it’s subtitle, Migratory Birds and the Impending Ecological Catastrophe. But don’t let those environmental textbook sounding words fool you. This is a delightful, accessible book. Not one I’d recommend for everyone, though, only for those who enjoy reading about the mystery of nature or who are birders or birder wannabees. Rachel Carson types, you could say, and anyone who hears the songbirds in the upcoming weeks and wonders where they came from, and why now.

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