It was December, 1925, and a blizzard raged outside Ada Clapham Govan’s Lexington, Massachusetts, window. Somehow, despite the wind, a faint chickadee-dee-dee reached her ears. The bird’s jaunty call broke through Govan’s despair, and she managed to scatter some breadcrumbs for the storm-tossed visitor clinging to her icy porch rail. It snatched up a few morsels, disappeared briefly, then returned “with every relative and friend” to devour more handfuls of her offerings. “The elation, the spiritual uplift I sensed in that moment,” she later wrote, “marked the re-birth of hope.”
For Govan, that inspiration was desperately needed. Over the next few years she would transform into a talented observer of birds, record-setting bird bander, and, in 1940, author of a best-selling book, Wings at My Window. But when that Black-capped Chickadee called through the wind, Govan was a lonely, 40-year-old homemaker, trapped indoors by pain from a serious fall and grief over losing two of her four children from unexplained illness.
The story of how a new passion for birds powered the return of Govan’s health and strength would resonate widely today if better known. She exemplified how community scientists can find joy and purpose—and make a real contribution to conservation—by studying backyard birds. And as we anxiously await our turns for the coronavirus vaccine through a difficult and isolating winter, Govan’s experiences are reminders that sources of comfort and delight live just outside our doors.
Feeding birds offered more than a temporary distraction for a housebound woman, says Holly Merker, a birding guide and co-author (with Richard and Sophie Crossley) of the forthcoming book, Ornitherapy: For Your Mind, Body, and Soul. “Finding appreciation in birds’ dynamic colors and soundscapes is therapeutic,” she says. While watching birds closely, we attune to pattern and detail, shifting our focus away from ourselves and toward nature. For grief-stricken Govan in the early 20th century, or for people today sequestered from family and friends, Merker says that the unexpected discoveries in our yards and neighborhoods help “to change mindsets while promoting recovery and healing.”
Crumbs for that first chickadee drew in other species unknown to Govan. Intrigued but on a tight budget, she sent her husband for bird books from the town library. Then, she drafted her young son into hammering wood scraps and cigar boxes into feeders. That spring, scores of woodpeckers, Blue Jays, and finches frequented her crumb-and-suet “lunch counters,” she later recalled. By summer, her burdens felt lighter and “birds had not only taken possession of our back yard; they had taken possession of my heart as well.”
In 1932, Govan began sharing her discoveries in letters to a new Boston Globe column, “Birds I Know.” In earlier letters to the Globe’s household section, Govan had consoled other mothers by sharing the heartache of losing two toddlers. In the new column, interspersed between casserole recipes and ads for foundation garments, were letters about wild birds written predominantly by women under pen names. Despite lacking a high school diploma, Govan, writing under the nom de plume “Of Thee I Sing,” contributed pieces ranging from thrifty tips on repurposing leftovers as bird food to poetic descriptions of a kinglet crest, red as flame and “rimmed around with ebony.” A master of humorous anecdotes, she dramatized seasonal migration through autumn’s last Fox Sparrow, who found his birdbath one morning hardened to ice. He headed south, Govan wrote, “where the water is wet, and a fellow can take a bath when he wants one.”
Govan also wrote that tending her feeders allayed her joint pain, and gratitude for “work that enthralls me” relieved her sorrow over family tragedies. For years she was too modest to write for money, but Govan faced new realities when her husband lost his bookkeeping job in the Great Depression. Financial strain prompted her to publish pieces in Nature Magazine, the Boston Sunday Herald, and the Christian Science Monitor, where readers looked for nature tales to escape from troubling economic news. “One would think, with hungry Americans lining up for food, there would be little sympathy for birds,” says Paul Baicich, co-author of Feeding Wild Birds in America. But nature study and bird feeding often grow in popularity during hard times, Baicich says. Furthermore, Govan’s writing shared a welcome message during the Depression: Helping other vulnerable creatures can build our own courage and resilience. Scores of readers wrote to thank her for launching their own bird obsessions.
Stronger but still not hearty enough for birding afield, Govan applied for a federal banding license and put her son David back to work, this time devising chicken-wire traps with prop sticks that she could trip with a string from indoors. Beginning with a feisty “chewink,” or Eastern Towhee, Govan would ring the legs of 3,635 birds from 24 species by 1940. Some years, she banded more Rose-breasted Grosbeaks than anyone else in the US.
As a bird bander, Govan joined a network of amateur and professional scientists, forming valuable social connections. One of those ties blossomed into a warm epistolary friendship when another writer interviewed Govan for an article on banding in 1945. Govan’s Wings at My Window had sold much better than Rachel Carson’s first book, Under the Sea-Wind, and the women’s letters traded complaints about freelance writing as well as notes on bird sightings, favorite books, and the plague of outdoor cats. Mutual influence is also clear. Govan would later alert Globe readers to pesticide risks, while Carson would extoll the healing powers of nature: “Those who dwell, as scientists or laymen, among the beauties and mysteries of earth are never alone or weary of life.”
The social aspects of birding may be constrained for us this winter as we face our own protracted challenges, but it’s the perfect time to explore Govan’s style of observing nature around home. “Walking locally and noticing the birds in my yard has been a great joy in the pandemic,” says Geoff LeBaron, Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count director. And just as bird banding did for Govan, community science projects such as the Great Backyard Bird Count offer opportunities to sharpen your focus and offer a real contribution to science, LeBaron says. In last year’s backyard count, conducted over four days in February, more than 250,000 people of all skill levels and backgrounds submitted bird checklists from patches in 194 countries. It’s thrilling, says LeBaron, to see how your local checklists coalesce with thousands of others into an annual snapshot of bird populations around the globe.
Govan’s story also offers motivation to participate in community science post-pandemic, when we’re free to venture further from our windows. Her banding data, collected over more than 15 years, was especially valuable for its long-term perspective, says Emma Greig, U.S. project leader of the North American wintertime volunteer bird survey Project FeederWatch. “Watching in the same place over time, especially when that place is your home, makes the data more personally meaningful,” Greig says. “And the data is more meaningful for research, too, because continuous data is key to understanding population changes.” Few feeder watchers will host 75 Evening Grosbeaks in one day, as Govan sometimes recorded (though this winter may be their best chance). But Greig notes that FeederWatch participants relish the collective importance of their efforts. The results “give you a big picture of what’s happening” and “where our conservation concerns should be.”
The bird-loving community that Govan built and connected with through her writing especially supported her in 1937, when development threatened a woodland bordering her backyard. Moved by her Nature Magazine article appealing for help, readers mailed donations, a few dollars at a time, to purchase what is today the Ada Govan Bird Sanctuary in Lexington. Govan was deeply grateful and proud, too, that she had inspired “shut-ins” and others who most needed the joy of birds to foster their own welfare.
Sparked by a humble chickadee almost a century ago, Govan’s love of birds restored her hope and redirected her life. Though her challenges contrast with ours this strange and oppressive winter, her story reverberates with anyone who knows—or is eager to discover—the many healing powers of birds.