An Ode to Two Tanagers

When an ornithologist saw this photo of two Scarlet Tanagers killed by striking a glass window, he was moved to write a poem.

Most of us have heard that dull 'thud' at one of our windows. We rush over, dreading what we may find, and too often have our fears confirmed—a bird lying stunned or dead after striking the glass. Few things are more distressing to a birder, and we are right to be distressed. Building strikes are generally considered to be the leading cause of human-related bird deaths, claiming as many as a billion birds in the United States each year.

In April, I saw this heartbreaking photograph by Melissa Groo showing a pair of window-killed Scarlet Tanagers lying side by side on a bed of clover; they seemed to embrace even in death. I work with dead birds every day in my job as a forensic ornithologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but Melissa’s photo affected me not as a scientist, but as a poet. Partly as a respite from the grim realities of combatting wildlife crime, I have written poetry for many years, celebrating the consolations and mysteries of nature. Moved by the tanagers’ beauty and the pathos of their deaths at the height of the mating season, I wrote the following poem.

Scarlet Tanagers, Headlong 

Her feathers, their quiet and their modest hue 
No remit from all that spring requires
While his give honest signal of desire
Blood-red, his heart worn upon his breast
Apart, they journeyed north, and together
Found this welcome span of trees
From their crowns, he sang, hoarse and sweet
Concealed, she heard, and then revealed
Heedless and headlong was their chase
In choosing a mate there must be risk
No greater test to pass, and so she fled
He pursued and so he proved his worth
But just here, stood my forest house
Here my door, as clear as air
Here, they struck, in an instant stilled
Broken by glass, they touch at last
I kneel, lift them in my hands
Feel their living heat, feel it go
Their softness is too hard to bear
Weightless, beyond my strength to hold.

Audubon has many resources for minimizing bird strikes and ensuring your yard and home are bird-friendly. By following these guidelines, we can reduce the toll, and enjoy the delight of watching birds through our windows without the dread of hearing that heartbreaking thud.