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Selected Podpieces

Night Migration

There are nights in the fall when I turn off the lights and step outside to stand on my deck in the dark. Most of what little light there is comes from the moon and the stars. I live on Cape Cod, in a quiet part of town where there are no streetlights, in a neighborhood of summer homes that stand empty three-fourths of the year. My eyes adjust to the dark, but still I can see only the silhouettes of pines and chimneys against the starlit sky; unless the moon is bright, I can pick out no details; can’t see the dog’s tennis ball, the seedheads of the now-brown grasses, the wooden swing my parents gave us for our fifth wedding anniversary a remarkable number of years ago.

But sometimes, if there’s no wind, I can hear voices in the sky: small quick calls, tiny tseeps, the voices of birds passing overhead in the fall migration. I have to strain to hear them; an inherited age-related hardness of hearing is making inroads on my auditory acuity. But the merest hint of a thin cry reassures me: they’re on their way. Millions of sparrows, catbirds, warblers, blackbirds, tanagers. Owls and woodcocks, loons and swallows, orioles and nuthatches, heading south by the light of the stars. Studies have shown that for some birds it’s the light of particular stars that guides them: they navigate by the patterns of the Ursa Major, Ursa Minor, constellations even I can see, near-sighted as I am. The inconstant moon, though, is useless for navigation, and the light of a full moon may even keep them from finding their way.

On a moonless night, the migrants fly unhindered over my dark neighborhood toward their winter feeding grounds. But birds have only instinct to guide them, and for too many of them, when they approach the nearby town, the suburbs of the large city to the south, the megalopolis of the eastern seaboard, instinct misguides them. Disoriented by the blinding brilliance of city lights, many birds collide with tall buildings and fall to their deaths. Others are drawn to the light and flap and flutter at the bright windows until they drop from exhaustion. In the morning, a passerby may find hundreds, even thousands of birds littering the sidewalks around a single tall building.

I try not to think of this when I’m standing in the dark, listening for the voices of the night travelers overhead. It’s a privilege to hear even one. It’s a pleasure to imagine them, eyes bright with starlight, migrating in the night by the billions, season after season, as eternal as the ocean tides.

(First published in The Trouble With Birds by Joyce P. Lopez)

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