By Elizabeth Gray and Randall Poster
This summer, the hummingbird in your backyard may have returned after spending the winter on Mexico’s Pacific slope, and the warbler in your neighborhood park could be visiting you from its winter retreat in the Andes Mountains.
Humans instinctively understand that birds are both musicians and messengers. Our cultures (songs, literature, parables, visual art, dance, holidays, sports mascots and idioms) rely heavily on birds and what they represent to us, from the sacredness of eagles in many Native American cultures to the poems of Toni Morrison.
That’s because birds have a lot to say. Birds tell us about home and love and family. They tell us about safety and security. They tell us about joy and curiosity. They inspire us with their beauty and their flight. And, they also tell us when things are amiss in our own communities and on our planet.
Recent studies have shown that, since 1970, North America has lost nearly 3 billion birds through the destruction of their homes, the contamination of their environment and other factors. The same stressors take a toll on human lives and happiness. Air pollution is a silent killer. Storms, droughts and wildfires are increasing in frequency and intensity. Two-thirds of North America’s birds are threatened by our changing climate—changes that also threaten our cities and communities from coast to coast.
Yes, birds have a lot to tell us. When Covid-19 forced so many Americans to stay home in the spring of 2020, millions of us began to listen to birds in new ways amid the often eerie silence. And that’s how an extraordinary creative outpouring, “For the Birds: The Birdsong Project,” was born.
Featuring recordings by more than 200 leading artists, “For the Birds: The Birdsong Project” celebrates the joy and music that birds bring into our lives. Contributors include Mark Ronson, Yo-Yo Ma, Beck, Jeff Goldblum, Elvis Costello, Regina King, Matthew McConaughey, Tilda Swinton, Karen O and many more, including Audubon board members Jane Alexander and Lili Taylor (who played a key role in connecting us at the beginning of the project). “For the Birds: The Birdsong Project” benefits the National Audubon Society and includes many other partners, including Brooklyn Botanic Garden and BirdLife International. It may be the largest charity compilation ever produced: evidence of birds’ extraordinary cultural power.
We believe that birds should be a source of joy, of wisdom and of hope.
The joy they bring is limitless, and it’s available to all of us every day. Whether we live in the largest cities or on the smallest farms, Americans can encounter birds every day. This spring, take time to enjoy their songs, nest-building, colors and antics. Watch them go about their lives and wonder.
Birds can be a source of wisdom because they show us how to live life better. The decline or disappearance of birds is often the first sign of environmental problems—from the proverbial “canary in a coal mine” warning of polluted air underground to Rachel Carson’s warning of a “silent spring” as pesticides ravaged Bald Eagles and Peregrine Falcons. The late scientific giant Thomas Lovejoy often said, “If you take care of the birds, you will take care of most of the world’s environmental problems.”
Finally, birds offer abundant hope. They journey back each spring, year after year, bright in color and song, reminding us that spring always comes again. And when we listen to their warnings, they can spring back from the edge of extinction, proving that we can make a difference when we put our minds to it. Bald Eagles and Peregrine Falcons have returned from the brink of disappearance when we corrected our mistakes and offered them a helping hand. Many of America’s waterfowl have rebounded in number with concerted wetland restoration efforts.
Birds tell us we can build a healthier, more resilient world for them and for each of us. Let’s celebrate that message and commit ourselves to action.
Elizabeth Gray, Ph.D., is CEO of the National Audubon Society, a nonprofit conservation organization that works across the Americas to protect birds and the places they need, and Randall Poster is a Grammy Award-winning music producer and supervisor and the producer of “For the Birds: The Birdsong Project.”