Lately when I wake up, I can hear birds outside my window. And not just one or two birds, but a whole song-shower that rings through the entire neighborhood. I still hear the usual leaf blowers too (can you really say you live in the suburbs if you don’t wake up to a leaf blower?), but the rattle and roar of cars is mostly missing.
When my family first moved to this area about 20 years ago, it was remarkably quiet–a little too quiet, as far as College Era me was concerned. I was put off by the eerie void of human sounds, with only the wind, leaves, and birds announcing themselves. But now, the empty rolling hills that used to surround us have been developed, covered with waves of houses, divided by roadways that are predictably packed. At some point during the last year, I stood in our backyard and just listened to the traffic, feeling small, and helpless, and sad. As I listened, it hit me that the quiet I had once found creepy was well and truly gone forever—unless there’s some kind of giant catastrophe or something, I thought.
When I was little, huge flocks of red-winged blackbirds lined the route I walked each morning on my way to school. In my mind I called them day birds, or sometimes school birds, because their broad trill was a sign that my day had started. I heard them outside my classroom window as the hours rolled by, marking the time along with me, a natural clock as predictable as any sun dial. Their mass chorus hit a second peak just before dusk, my day birds bidding me goodnight before heading off to wherever enormous masses of blackbirds go during the dark hours (maybe under a bridge or something? I wondered then, and I still don’t have an answer). I walked to school at the same time every morning, but without the birds I’m not sure it would’ve felt like my day was really beginning. Their presence was a compass point, a hand to hold.
All of this has come back to me over the last couple of months, the Lockdown Era, now that I can once again keep time by birdsong. When we’re stuck in a cauldron of traffic noise, we lose connection to the non-human companions who go about their daily duties alongside us, and whether we realize it or not, we’re disoriented on some deep, evolutionary level. The Washington Post published a piece this week about how people across the country are seeing and hearing more birds than before, and while that’s largely because it’s quieter, I think it’s also because more of us are feeling lost and lonely. Our ears are attuned to the sounds of these feathered fellow travelers because we’re subconsciously seeking solace wherever we can find it, and there’s something profoundly comforting in the presence of another living creature—especially a living creature that has never heard of COVID-19* and can’t pass it to you through sound.
When I hear birds outside my window in the morning, when I notice that those birds and I are beginning our day together, a string in the web of life is plucked. The reverberation travels outward, further and further, extending to a renewed awareness of my relationship to all living things, all of us doing our best to live the life we’ve been given, together, through one natural cycle after another– a shared struggle that ultimately reconnects me with all the people and places I miss so much right now. I wonder if people will still notice birds more often when this cycle ends. I’m trying not to be pessimistic, but I kind of doubt it. Humans, as far as I can tell, are not super great at changing their ways permanently for the better—at least for the most part. But I’m hopeful. Because pandemic or no, we can all use a little more comfort, a little more companionship, in our lives, and once we know where to find it, it might be hard to cover our ears and walk away.
*birds have heard of avian flu, obviously, and they’re kind of sensitive about it so don’t bring it up.