Glistening Glass Sculptures in the Desert Explore Bird Molt and Gender Transition

Through science and art, Silas Fischer explores the connection between Gray Vireos and the researcher's own queerness.

This March, Silas Fischer made one of their final turns heading south from Albuquerque, New Mexico, toward the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge. Two hours later they would reach the sprawling pinyon-juniper forests and sagebrush steppe that would be home for the next four months. In the trunk, research gear clanked against 44 glass bricks wrapped carefully in foam. Above the rattle, Fischer’s ears perked at the song of a small bird—the high-pitched cheerio, che-whew, chireep of the Gray Vireo. “I hear them before I see them,” Fischer says.

The Gray Vireo is far from the flashiest of North American species: "Few birds are as plain as the Gray Vireo," reads Audubon’s Field Guide. It has a gray head and back, with gray wings and a gray tail, a white eye ring, and a dark gray bill. Indeed, the Gray Vireo is easily overlooked compared to the other small gray birds that live nearby; it’s hard to compete with a Verdin’s yellow-painted face or a titmouse’s charisma. But the vireo is a tough little bird. It inhabits some of the hottest, driest places in North America, including the Mojave, Sonoran, and Chihuahuan deserts. However, these landscapes, and the species itself, are under threat from the increasing heat, aridity, and wildfire driven by climate change.

The first time Fischer, a scientist and artist who is transgender and goes by the pronouns they/them, met this bird, they were a college student. During a summer research internship, they grew fond of the Gray Vireo and its ability to survive in the blistering desert. “They’re not this bright, colorful, sexy bird,” Fischer says. “They’re these ‘others.’ That resonated with me.” They chased the bird into graduate school, where they now travel to New Mexico each year to study the species’s lifecycle—nestling, fledgling, adult—in an effort to better understand how the species responds to an even hotter landscape.

This bird, however, is more than Fischer’s research subject. Over the years, Fischer has discovered similarities between the Gray Vireo’s lifecycle and their own gender transition, a relationship they’ve expressed through art. “I’ve gone through a lot of personal transformations in New Mexico,” Fischer says. The glass bricks they hauled to Sevilleta are part of their latest project called Molt, which explores the connection between Gray Vireos and queerness. Fischer drove the carefully packed installation of glass objects to the desert to put them in their place with the birds that inspired them.

The journey to Sevilleta is familiar to Fischer. For the past three summers they’ve worked under the blazing hot sun and scoured pinyon-juniper forests for the songbird, which is currently listed as threatened in New Mexico. To survive in the desert, the Gray Vireo is pushed to its capacity; the birds drink hardly any water and get most of their hydration by eating insects. When a bad drought year rolls around, the bird suffers. And as the Southwest grows even hotter in the coming decades due to climate change, dry years are expected to become more common.

Fischer’s research demanded they document the species’s early development, from egg to fledgling. When they found a nest, they returned repeatedly, watching eggs hatch and teeny nestlings grow. A few days before the birds left the nest, Fischer placed radio transmitters on their backs to track their fledging period, when the birds are capable of flying but still need parental care. Fischer also followed the migration of a separate group of adults to Mexico using geolocators—light sensors that record sunrises and sunsets, allowing scientists to see where the bird traveled. 

Additionally, they witnessed a vulnerable part of the bird’s lifecycle: the molt. During the summer, Gray Vireos shed their old, worn feathers to make way for fresh plumage—a process that reminded Fischer of their own transition. In 2018, after coming out as transgender, they started hormone therapy, where they inject testosterone to make their appearance more masculine and in line with their gender identity. “I feel like I’m going on a migration, too,” Fischer says. The birds’ resilience in hot, arid lands also reminds Fischer of their own hardiness through the trials of gender transition. Both have undergone a molting of the past, they say.

To portray this connection between birds and queerness, Fischer created Molt. One piece is a wishing well made of individually blown glass bricks that was placed in an open juniper savannah in Sevilleta where the birds nest. The wishing well is an offering of water for the Gray Vireo, and it represents a younger Fischer’s wish to have a different body. For another piece, Fischer created glass castings of the Gray Vireo using wax models of dead fledglings and combined them into a glass circle, two feet wide, that looks like a glistening puddle. Both of these creations are symbolic oases for the Gray Vireo in the rugged landscape.

“Art can be a really powerful tool to engage people and hopefully make them understand things they maybe wouldn’t otherwise,” Fischer says. Molt was scheduled to be displayed in downtown Toledo this May, but the showing was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The glass objects remain out in the desert, shimmering under the blaring sun.  

Now a PhD student, Fischer hopes to trek back to New Mexico next spring, COVID-19 and funding permitting. Using their past work as a foundation, their dissertation will examine the development and migration of the Gray Vireo along with other birds, including Ash-throated Flycatchers, Scott’s Orioles, Louisiana Waterthrushes, and Worm-eating Warblers. The statistics will, as always, be accompanied by art.

The journey out West never gets old. As they drove up to the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge to continue their research and install Molt, Fischer finally reached the expanses of juniper trees, and their eyes filled with tears. “I feel like these birds and these juniper trees—I feel very personally connected to them,” they recall. They were home.