Going North … Or South?

There was something new at the Jake Wolf Fish Hatchery in Sand Ridge. At least new to me. At the side of one of the fish ponds, basking in the sun, were over a dozen huge, dark, bald headed turkey vultures. The hatchery produces vast numbers of fish, representing 16 different species, but I doubt this piqued their interest. Vultures are focused on the featured fare in the wasting away decay buffet.

We’ve stopped there to take advantage of the hatchery’s fine indoor facilities, for many years while birding along the Illinois River and have seen many birds enjoying the ponds: ring billed gulls, herring gulls, Caspian terns, kingfishers, several species of ducks, and occasionally a red tailed hawk will watch the fish. But vultures? Maybe they also found the place enticing as a rest stop. Whatever the case, that first week in March seemed early for these carrion cravers.

Spring brings certain cyclical things that are hard to miss. Robins have returned to wrangle for worms from yards. Red winged blackbirds maintain their nesting vigils at intervals along highways punctuating the spring with their familiar “oak-a-rreeee,” as they defend their territories from various hungry predators. Vultures are once again gracefully etching lazy circles on the Illinois skyscape… hoping, for example, that your dog won’t be able to get up. Meadowlarks are back, although they’ve become few and far between, thanks in part to domestic feral cats, which love birds that nest on or near the ground. Some migrants are less noticeable and hence not well known… for example, Louisiana waterthrush, great crested fly catcher, blue-gray gnatcatcher, and scarlet tanager. Most of us are unaware of the snow buntings that winter in the Midwest or the indigo buntings that summer here.

As April advances, a steady stream of birds passes through Central Illinois, following the ancient flyway of the Illinois River. A congregating contingent of active and colorful critters, the warblers are favorites among birders, particularly in spring when they are singing. Their bright colors make them the butterflies of the bird world. A couple dozen varieties grace our landscape. Their spring songs reverberate among forests, meadows, and wetlands as they have for many thousands of years.

The best way I know of to learn about these birds is to hike with binoculars in the April woods, before the trees are all leafed out. Listen for bird song, then hunt for the source. When you spot the critter, put the binoculars to your eyes. Like any song, the more you pay attention, the more you learn it, and soon you will be able to immediately recognize the bird by the song. Birds generally tell you exactly who they are, just not in English. Non resident species head north by late May.

Migration is far more commonplace than many of us imagine. Millions of birds abandon the far north to escape snow and starvation. It’s now, when they fly in vast numbers northward that you might wonder… WHY? Migration, after all, represents an arduous, energy intense, dangerous venture over vast distances. Why not just stay in the sunny south, soak up some rays, have a cool drink, and nest at your leisure?

There is actually a great long term survival advantage in putting forth the energy and effort to brave the very real perils of migration. In the north birds benefit from more food available and more nesting locations. There are fewer predators per acre, the farther north you go. Daylight is longer. Go far enough and it stays light around the clock. Nestlings can be fed for many more hours in a day. This reduces the amount of time birds have to spend on the nest in that most vulnerable period of their lives, between hatching and fledging.

Migration represents a single minded and total commitment to the next generation. Despite hardship, self deprivation, and risk of death, these tiny feathered parents persist in their Magellanic journey across entire continents. They personify selfless dedication to the future.

This is a lesson some of us need to re-learn. We can gain much from the birds, but it will require what’s called a paradigm shift. It implies that we focus more on others, pollute less, and reduce our impacts on planet Earth. The real challenge is to protect and restore this landscape, and to improve the quality of air, water, and soil for the next generation.

Wendell Berry, poet and farmer, decries our global economy as a producer of money, not of goods. According to Berry, the world’s goods, such as topsoil and forests, must decline so money may increase… for the benefit of a decreasing number of increasingly wealthy corporate types. “The present is ever diminished by this buying and selling of shares in the future that are rightfully owned by the unborn.” This is a result of would-be Midases who want to turn all things into gold: plants and animals, trees, water, soil, air… even the future.

Peoria is fortunate to have places like Forest Park Nature Center with miles of trails through forest and prairie. The Illinois River provides a corridor, not just of migration, but of discovery. Explore Spring Lake, Chatauqua National Wildlife Refuge, Emiquon (at Dickson Mounds), and Banner Marsh. Turn off the TV, the computer, the cell phone… and go outside. Encourage your children to appreciate and understand the world around them.

In this election year, it’s unconscionable that we still aren’t focused on human caused global warming. Warning signs are everywhere. There is a steady rise in sea level as glacial ice melts. Migration patterns are shifting. Flowers are blooming earlier.  Insects are active earlier. Horticultural zones are creeping northward. There’s a global increase of 0.8 days per year in the growing seasons.

Spring is a time of resurrection and rebirth. The choice is clear:  either ‘head north’ and commit to a sustainable future, or ‘head south’ and become a short term menu item on the wasting away decay buffet.