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Appreciating and Protecting the 'Life of the Skies'

John Haslinger, left, and Dan Rueben watch for birds in Maryland. They call themselves "bird dweebs."
Jacki Lyden, NPR
John Haslinger, left, and Dan Rueben watch for birds in Maryland. They call themselves "bird dweebs."

Have you seen the birders?

Spring migrations are picking up as shadows shorten on the winter landscape. Birders are poised with binoculars and notebooks — telescopes on tripods — and I spotted a group of them as I drove near Sligo Creek Parkway and woods in Silver Spring, Md. They were looking for a white-winged crossbill, a rare visitor to the Washington, D.C. area who had been — for more than two weeks — frequenting a grove of hemlock.

It was cold, grey and windy, but John Haslinger and his friend, Dan Rueben, who lovingly call themselves "bird dweebs" were braving the elements. They were marveling over a golden eagle they'd recently seen on the Eastern Shore, and other exciting finds.

"That's what I'm talking about when I say "dweeb" — you're willing to get in your car and go a distance to see a bird you've never seen before," Haslinger said. "We saw pipets over on the Eastern Shore — we rarely get to see them — so it was nice to see a bird you don't get to see often."

Bird dweebing contains, of course, a passion for nature.

In a delightful and poetic new book The Life of the Skies: Birding at the End of Nature New York writer Jonathan Rosen contends that everyone is a birdwatcher. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says that 47.8 million Americans call themselves bird watchers. Rosen says playfully that while some people admit to being bird watchers, or even "bird dweebs," others don't yet know that they are moved by birds. Rosen's book will soon make a believer out of you.

Rosen is a novelist, an essayist and a frequent New Yorker contributor. He lives in Manhattan a couple of blocks from Central Park. One day at lunch, on a late March day 12 years ago, he overheard someone say that warblers would be coming through Central Park soon. He knew then and there that he was going to find them, and he signed up with a local branch of the Audubon Society. It's not only that Rosen sees a lot of birds in New York, where Central Park's grassy expanse more or less crowds visiting birds together. He believes we all have an innate need for the natural world. The great biologist, Edward O. Wilson, called this need "biophilia" — a drive humans have to associate with nature in order to be happy.

Rosen is as at home with the life of the mind as he is with the skies, and he's a keen literature student. Each chapter of The Life of the Skies cites a poet or an artist, and there are beautiful poems and contemplations embedded throughout the book. His title comes from a poem by D.H. Lawrence who declared that "birds are the life of the skies, and when they fly, they reveal the thoughts of the skies." Rosen takes readers from New York to Louisiana – where he chases the possibly extinct Ivory-Billed Wood Pecker — and on to Israel, where he sees hoopoes, which are mentioned in Persian mysticism. Though Rosen places hoopoes in the book's 'Birds of Paradise' section, Israelis say they smell like dung.

From domestic American birds to the Orphean warblers of the Negev desert, Rosen details the colorful lives — and plumage — of entrancing birds and the ornithologists who pursued them. But what we love is what we kill: ornithologists did indeed kill birds in the 19th century. And today, Rosen warns that many birds are close to disappearing forever.

The Life of the Skies may tempt some readers to pick up field binoculars and head outdoors. But others will simply be moved by the universal presence of birds, and how essential it is that we not only look at them, but look after them as well.

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Jacki Lyden
Longtime listeners recognize Jacki Lyden's voice from her frequent work as a substitute host on NPR. As a journalist who has been with NPR since 1979, Lyden regards herself first and foremost as a storyteller and looks for the distinctive human voice in a huge range of national and international stories.