Avian Obsessions

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Original Air Date: 
June 17, 2023

It’s summer, and you might be pulling out your binoculars, filling your bird feeders, and looking up as you hear a melodious song. But for many birdwatchers, it's not just a simple pastime. Identifying bird calls, tracking rare breeds through marshes and waters, and watching our feathered friends as they watch you has turned into true love of birds — an avian obsession.

A great horned owl

Jennifer Ackerman writes in her new book "What an Owl Knows: The New Science of the World’s Most Enigmatic Birds" about how owls are cryptic, hard to find, and difficult to understand. Speaking to Shannon Henry Kleiber, she said that’s part of the attraction.

Birdwatching gear

Mark Obmascik tells Anne Strainchamps about the biggest competition in North American bird-watching and how he got drawn into the quest.

A raven on a tree

Our producer Charles Monroe-Kane has a passion for ravens.  The raven has meaning for him from legend and art, to the point where he’s had one tattooed on his forearm.

A hummingbird drinks nectar

Christopher Benfey tells Anne Strainchamps why there was a hummingbird craze in 19th century Massachsetts, how artists and poets used them as symbols, and why they seem like winged jewels.


Show Details 📻
June 17, 2023
Full Transcript 📄

- [Anne] It's "To the Best of our Knowledge," I'm Anne Strainchamps.

- Have you ever fallen in love with a bird? A particular kind of bird, I mean. It can be a life-changing experience.

- [Jennifer Ackerman] The most vivid encounter I ever had with an owl was one day last spring in Western Montana.

- [Anne] Writer and birder Jennifer Ackerman.

- [Jennifer] I was with Denver Holt, who's one of the world's foremost experts on owls. We were in a gully that was just full of hawthorn and choke cherry trees, and we had just trapped a female long-eared owl in a mist net. I had actually seen this owl earlier while she was roosting in a hawthorn tree in the gully, but she was so well camouflaged that I almost couldn't see her at all. She was just all stretched up vertically, very tall, and her long ear tufts were fully extended. She looked just like tree bark. I was supposed to keep my eyes on her, but every time I looked away, even just for a second, I had trouble spotting her again. And if it hadn't been for her really bright yellow eyes, I just would never have known she was there. She was a mature bird and very wary, she wasn't easily fooled. But when we finally did catch her, they weighed her, they measured her, and they attached an identification band to her leg. And then I got to hold her. It was the most amazing experience. Her legs were big and strong, and her talons were really razor sharp. Those killer talons just tucked between my fingers. But her wings, her wings were soft as rabbits fur. They have this velvet-like covering that hushes the sound of their flight. And that's the thing about owls. They're ferocious, they're also soft and tender. They're really cute and also they're just brutal hunters. They're familiar with their big round heads and forward facing eyes like ours, but they're also strange and kind of otherworldly. And so there we were, eye to eye, creature to creature, with what felt like a powerful connection. What is this bird thinking? What is she feeling? We took her back into the gully to release her. I crouched in a tunnel of alder trees and pointed her toward a narrow opening through the branches. And then I cocked my wrist a little and opened my fingers. And this bird lifted off without a sound.

- [Man] One, two, three.

- [Jennifer Ackerman] She spread her wings and vanished into the thicket.

- [Man] Very good.

- [Jennifer Ackerman] For me, that moment was just so bright, so intense, and really deeply affecting. It somehow made me feel like a small part of something much bigger, much more mysterious. Owls do this; they just enthrall us and enchant our lives.

- [Anne] There really is something special about owls and we're not the only ones to think so. Owls represented wisdom to the ancient Greeks. They were associated with witches in medieval Europe. For your kids and mine, they'll forever recall Harry Potter. But why? Because owls are nocturnal? because they're the only birds with two front facing eyes? Well, Jennifer Ackerman tells Shannon Henry Kleiber, owls are cryptic, hard to find, and difficult to understand. Maybe that's part of the attraction.

- [Shannon] Jennifer, there are so many people interested in birds, and you have written about all kinds of birds, but there's something especially obsessive and fascinating about owls. I want to understand why that is.

- [Jennifer] Well, I think first of all, they're utterly unlike other birds, they're just so unique. You know, we see ourselves in them. Most birds don't have forward-facing eyes the way that owls do, so they look like us. And at the same time we see this suggestion of a whole other way of being. You know, most owls are night creatures. They move about unseen. They really reveal themselves only with their kind of weird hoots and cries. And it's spooky how they appear out of the dark without advance notice. And living things aren't supposed to appear and disappear this way. But owls break the rules and I think we kind of put them in a supernatural category for that reason. So I think it's this combination of things, the familiar and the strange that makes these birds really so powerful.

- [Shannon] Our interest in owls spans wide time periods and geographies, continents and generations. Owls are known as messengers and carry such symbolic meaning. What are some of the enduring myths and legends of owls that you found in your research?

- [Jennifer] Sure. Yeah, I just wanna say first of all that I spoke with one ethno-ornithologist. She studies the relationship between birds and people. And she surveyed how all different kinds of birds show up as symbols in the beliefs and stories of hundreds of different cultures. And it was owls that popped to the top. They just hold symbolic value for people all over the world. And crows are very common in myths and symbols, and sometimes jays, but owls just top them all. Some cultures consider them symbols of good luck and prosperity like the Greeks, Athena was the goddess of wisdom and she had an owl with her. And the Ancient Greek coin is called the owl. It has an owl image on one side and Athena on the other. And other cultures view them as emblems of evil, of bad omens and death.

- [Shannon] When did your own personal interest, beyond all birds, in owls in particular, start?

- [Jennifer] Many years ago, I put up a owl roosting box on the maple tree behind my house. We have a kitchen window that looks right out on this maple tree. I put it right there next to the kitchen window. And I'll be darned if an eastern screech owl didn't take to that box and roost. And it's little, it was a red morph. There are two morphs of eastern screech owls, gray and red. This one was a red one, and it would just roost during the day with this little head in this circle of the box. And I always sat there and waited, waited, trying to wait for the moment that it left the box to go hunting. But I could never catch it leaving or coming back. But what would happen in the morning is that there would be something, some piece of an animal, a bird or some piece of prey, hanging partway out of the box. And you would see it sort of, like one time it was a morning dove and its wing was hanging out of the hole in the box. And you would see it sort of twitch, twitch, and then be yanked inside and the bird prey would disappear and the owl was clearly eating it inside. I just became absolutely fascinated with owls at that point, but didn't return to them until many years later. But that was the beginning of it.

- [Shannon] I love your story about Julie, the woman who works in the emergency department of a hospital during the day, but volunteers with the owl research group at night and says it helps her with compassion fatigue. She says, "I could really use an owl right now." I loved that phrase. How does researching owls help her, and how do we as a society need an owl right now?

- [Jennifer] Well, I think Julie deals with a lot of trauma and death in her work at the ER. And she told me that it's, there's something so vibrantly alive and exciting about owls. She just, she's drawn to this weird mix. You know, they're just as cute as can be. She works mostly banding Northern Saw-whet owls. They are about the cutest owls on the planet. They look like what a baby owl should look like. They're just adorable. And yet, you know, they have these talons, they're really fierce hunters, and they're just so, so enchanting, so alive, that they really take her completely out of herself, out of her difficult world in the hospital and put her into the woods at night, in the world of these owls. I think there's something deeply comforting about watching animals going on about their lives. We have so many personal problems, we have so many world problems. And you see these creatures really dealing with tremendous challenges, but carrying on with their lives and courting in wonderful, weird ways; mating and then raising their young against all odds. I've always found it just so transporting and inspiring and comforting.

- [Shannon] I'd like to talk about owl sounds; their songs, their hoots, their calls, what do you call the way owls communicate?

- [Jennifer] They're vocalizations and they range tremendously. Some of them are hoots, some of them are squawks, they also chitter. They have a wide range of vocalizations. And the new science on what those vocalizations are communicating and the kind of information they contain is just absolutely fascinating.

- [Shannon] Well, tell me more, because I was reading your book about the sounds and thinking it reminded me of baby cries, and I remember people would say, well, when your baby cries a certain way, it has a certain meaning and you might be able to recognize it as this. So what are owl saying when they're making these sounds?

- [Jennifer] Well, we're just beginning to figure that out. The call that most people are familiar with in owls is the hoot. And it's often big owls hoot and little owls toot. That's the catchphrase. And these are usually territorial calls. They're ways of marking their boundaries in their territory. And also sometimes they're ways to draw a mate. The Northern Saw-whet owl is a very, very vocal little bird when it's looking for a mate. One scientist, David Johnson, actually counted the number of toots that this little bird made when it was trying to draw in a mate, and it reached 160 per minute.

- [Jennifer] So this little

- [Shannon] Wow! bird is just going, "Toot, toot, toot, toot, toot, toot, toot, toot!" and hoots also, they're very individual to the bird. Every owl has a signature hoot, kind of like a fingerprint. And that allows them to identify their neighbors, their mates, their allies, and also allows us to identify individual owls in the wild. And that is useful for two purposes: for actually counting them in terms of population and also understanding their social lives. When you know that you can actually identify individuals, you know who's mating with whom and how they might be switching up partners. So it's given us a real window on their social lives.

- [Shannon] What does it sound like? Can you do an owl sound for us?

- [Jennifer] Well, I can do a Great Horned Owl, which sounds, I'm not great, but here we go. So it has a little stutter on that second syllable. It's "Hoo-ho-ho" But they vary tremendously. So that's the sort of basic structure. But they have different tones, they have different rhythms. Some of them have this sort of sexy vibrato that they use. The talent of imitating owl calls is really something and some people are so good at it that they will draw in actual wild owls when they hoot like them, because the owls come in to check out who's in the neighborhood.

- [Shannon] Wow. Well, I can imagine for someone who is really interested in owls, communicating with them would be such a great aspiration. So if someone wanted to communicate with owls, learning these hoots would be a good way to do it?

- [Jennifer] Yes, and a woman named Karla Bloem, who's the director of the International Owl Center, she worked very hard to try to understand Great Horned Owls, because she had a captive owl, a Great Horned Owl named Alice. And Alice was, she was trying to train her to be an ambassador bird and to educate people about owls. But she didn't understand what Alice was saying, Karla couldn't understand the hooting language. And this Great Horned Owl would get very annoyed with Karla and would sort of bat her over the head with her beak until Karla learned to hoot properly. And she did. So she has some little bouts of communication with this bird now, which is just an extraordinary thing, I think.

- [Shannon] As familiar as owl seem, they are also, as you say, scientifically complicated and hard to know. What's going on with the latest science of understanding owls, and are we starting to learn more about them?

- [Jennifer] Absolutely, and I think the study of owls has really changed a lot over the past decade or so, and it's been partly due to breakthroughs in technology, some really powerful, new, strategies that we have. There are, for instance, nest cams that have really revolutionized the study of owls, 'cause they give scientists this 24 7, intimate look at owl interactions at the nest that otherwise would be just impossible to observe. We've also got some new eyes in the field like infrared cameras, radio tagging, even drones that they're using to explore areas of Siberia and satellite telemetry that's illuminating the movements of owls, both over short and long distances. They can put these tiny satellite transmitters onto the backs of snowy owls, and that's revealing some really wonderful new insights into their very mysterious movements.

- [Shannon] Jennifer, what did you learn about yourself while spending all this time with owls?

- [Jennifer] This was a fascinating project to work on, and it did take me out of my comfort zone. I'm a lark by nature, not an owl, so I'm a morning person and owls are night creatures. So I had to get used to staying up late, going out in the woods in the night. It was really an amazing experience to just be in the woods at night and to hear what owls hear. And it was very, very exciting and sometimes a little scary. I think owls have taught me something about moving through the world with more quiet and making a virtue of invisibility in a funny way. They're so beautifully quiet and their camouflage is so amazing, and they certainly have something to teach us about some of our technologies and how we might use their interesting biomechanics, their wing design, their feather design to make all kinds of things that are quieter like airplanes and wind turbines and bullet trains. Engineers are using owls as models for designing technology that will reduce the noise of some of the machines around us. I've thought a lot about what loud, sort of boisterous, noisy creatures we are and I think owls have something to teach us about their way of being in the world.

- [Anne] That was Jennifer Ackerman, bird expert and enthusiast and author of, "What an Owl Knows, the New Science of the World's Most Enigmatic Birds." She was talking with Shannon Henry Kleiber. Coming up, where the rarest birds meet the most obsessive fans; an inside look at the prestigious, grueling bird watching competition known as "The Big Year."

- [Mark] They just know everything. In fact, one of the guys is beyond amazing on the wing. He does it by ear!

- [Anne] Mark Obmascik, author of "The Big Year."

- [Mark] The first time I went in the field with him, Greg Miller, I thought he was playing a a David Letterman trick on me. We got out of the car near some woods and he just started calling out: Sedge Wren, Marsh Wren, Northern Cardinal, Lazuli Bunting. He hadn't even picked up his binoculars. He had learned to bird by ear. He can recognize the bird call of pretty much more than 600 native species to North America. Some people like me, I can probably identify most Rolling Stones songs by the first three chords. Well, Greg knows the chip notes of more than 600 species in North America. It's phenomenal.

- [Anne] Inside the world of competitive bird watching, next, on "To The Best of Our Knowledge," from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX. The biggest, most prestigious competition in North American bird watching, is known as "The Big Year," where birders compete to see who can identify the most birds in a single year. Mark Obmascik wrote about it in a book, also a movie, called "The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature and Fowl Obsession."

- [Mark] Well, here's the math of a Big Year. There are roughly 675 native species in North America. Now, these are birds that either live here, nest here, or migrate through on the grand sweeping pendulum that happens twice a year; spring migration, fall migration. Six hundred and seventy five birds. Well the winner of this contest saw 745 birds, which is just unparalleled. In fact, they say it's a record that probably will never be broken. And this year, the year that I wrote about, 1998, the strongest El Nino on record, all three of these contestants each saw more than 700 birds in their Big Year. It used to be considered an amazing feat in birding to see 600 species in a lifetime. These guys saw more than 700 in a year. It's really a staggering accomplishment.

- [Anne] One thing I thought was, these must be people who have entire field guides memorized. I mean, just to be able to recognize that many birds is astonishing.

- [Mark] These guys are two-legged libraries. It's an amazingly intimidating thing to go in the field with them, because these guys kind of sucked me in. I went native on this story. I started out more interested in writing about obsession than the objects of their obsession. But just to be with these guys in the field, they're kind of, they're like grown up Tom Sawyers. They've got this terrific zest, this great enthusiasm for life. And I would be with them and I would try to tag along and identify some of these species on my own. So I would faithfully be carrying my Sibley guide, 545 pages of pictures and descriptions of the Native Birds of North America. And these guys, they don't even bother. They just, sometimes they don't even bring a with them in the car.

- [Anne] There's a story you tell, I think this must be the same guy. He went out, I think he was someplace where he was looking for warblers. And, what, he could distinguish the one song out of 35 different warblers, but how different can a warbler sound from another warbler? But he could find the one out of 35 that he didn't have on his list yet, just from the song.

- [Mark] Go figure. There's an amazing bird called the Kirtland's Warbler, which is smart enough to spend most of its life in The Bahamas. But then for some reason, hormones take over or whatever, birds do it, bees do it. They decide to fly all the way to northern Michigan just to have sex in this one particular stand of trees. Second growth Jack pine forest. Well Greg Miller went with his father, who was the guy who taught him how to bird. And they went looking for a Kirtland's Warbler, one of the rarest species on the face of the earth. Now the woods in northern Michigan in summer are just brimming with life. I mean, there's just, there's warblers, there's cardinals, there's buntings, and there's mammals. I mean, it's just brimming with this amazing symphony of life. And the way that they found this one bird was it was the only sound in the forest that they didn't recognize.

- [Anne] Wow, that's an amazing story. Tell me about the other contestants that you were tracking.

- [Mark] Well, the other two guys, the first guy is really the guy who sold me on the story; a guy named Sandy Komito, who has a voice that starts about three floors below the basement. He grew up in the Bronx and definitely has a Bronx accent and grew up really poor. So poor that, in fact, he had only one shirt as a boy that he used to have to wash himself before he went to school in the morning. But Sandy managed to scrap and claw his way to the top of one of the toughest, most macho businesses anywhere. He's a New Jersey industrial contractor, but he still had this irrepressible itch to bird. I think that birds for him were kind of his ticket out of the concrete of the Bronx. Now Sandy was the defending Big Year champion. He had set the record in 1987 and then sat back for a decade and watched many other birders, including some of his best friends, take whacks at his record. Sandy, like many of these competitive birders, is such a perfectionist. He knew that he could have done better in 1987. There were some species that he just flat out missed. I mean, the logistics of a Big Year are pretty staggering. But he just thought if he organized things a little bit better, he might be able to improve his his number. And finally, I think his wife just got a little tired of seeing him pace around the house a lot saying, "Get outta here, go do a Big Year. It's driving you nuts, go try it!" So that's one contestant, Sandy Komito.

- [Anne] I see what you mean about obsessed. So what did they have to do, It wasn't obviously gonna be enough to just go out and find some places where there were lots of birds and start looking for them. To achieve at this level and rack up this many species, they had to get really, really specific about specific birds, right?

- [Mark] One of the really cool things about birds is just how persnickety they are about where they live. It's not like you can just set up in one part of the country and expect to see all 675 native species to North America. No, I mean, there are birds that for some reason they look nearly identical. But there are some sandpipers that insist on seeing the sun set every night on the Pacific Ocean. And then there are others that insist on only seeing the sun rise in the morning over the Atlantic Ocean. You've gotta see both of them. Now, one of the, the wild things about what's happened lately, is it ends up on a webpage, a rare bird alert within an hour or two hours.

- [Anne] A rare bird alert?

- [Mark] North American rare bird alert.

- [Anne] How does this go out?

- [Mark] Well, there are places where birders concentrate. And when a bird lands in a place like High Island, Texas, for example; or Point Pelee, Ontario; Cape May, New Jersey, around Monterey Bay, California. I mean, these are some of the big stations of the cross for birders, because they're kind of migrant traps. Birds that are coming from the south up to the north to breed tend to rest there or maybe storms knock 'em down there. Well, there's always birders waiting for these birds there. And as soon as a good one or a weird one shows up, they put it out on the web. There was even one service out of Houston, called, "The North American Rare Bird Alert," run by a guy who used to be a doctor in Canada, but actually moved down to southern Texas because the birding was better there. He charged a fee, I think a $25 membership fee, and then for an additional price, I think of $25. He would literally call you in the middle of the night and say, "There's a whiskered tern being seen in Cape May, New Jersey. Get on the next flight, get out there for the red eye."

- [Anne] What happens when a rare bird alert goes out?

- [Mark] Well, when a rare bird alert goes out, all chaos breaks out. Because there are hundreds, if not thousands, of people in this country who will chase rare birds. In fact, at one point during the Big Year, there was this little tiny bird, about as big as your pinky, called a Xantus's hummingbird, a brilliant green iridescent creature. So light that I think you could mail 10 of these birds for the price of a single first-class postage stamp. Well, what happened with the Xantus's hummingbird was there was a freak hurricane that hit its native home of Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. And it blew that bird for some reason, all the way up to Gibson's, British Columbia, near Vancouver, which for some reason, this bird decided to spend the winter there. Well the word went out on the rare bird alerts. And there were so many birders who came to see this bird, that the homeowner, the poor homeowner who had the feeder, the sugar water feeder started to get overwhelmed. Because naturally, this being the Pacific Northwest in the winter, the main way to get to Gibson's, British Columbia was to ride the ferry from Vancouver. Well, of course, the first thing everybody would do first thing in the morning on the ferry is they would coffee up. So they'd have their one or two cups of coffee, and then get off that ferry, and then trundle up to the Pattersons' driveway and wait for this little tiny creature to come up. And sure enough, you can't buy coffee, you can only rent it. So the poor Pattersons will look out their window and these people are doing the little wiggly jig out there. So finally, everybody took a collection and they went in, they got a port-a-potty and put it in the driveway. I think before that bird left that winter, there were more than, I think 3000 people who signed the log, they came to see that bird. 3000 people to see one teeny creature.

- [Anne] Oh, my word. Yeah, I had the image of these lone, champion birders off scaling mountain cliffs all by themselves, or hacking their way through North American jungles just for the sight of one bird. But it sounds like it was more like a big road show.

- [Mark] Well, sometimes it was. These guys were definitely alone in the Everglades at dawn. They were in the north woods of Minnesota after dusk looking for owls. They were in the Chiricahua mountains of far southeastern Arizona, one of the last holdouts or hangouts of Geronimo, you know, looking for trogons. But they also, I mean, it's a bird's eye view of the continent. So you've gotta chase these species where they go.

- [Anne] Did you wonder, I mean, as you spent time with these guys and began to go out birding yourself, you must have wondered what the appeal was of this. And it's one thing to like birds and maybe wanna have kind of an interesting life list, but why do people like this become this obsessed?

- [Mark] Boy, you know, I asked these guys that question probably a million different ways, and finally they just got sick of me asking, and one guy cut me off and just said, "You know, why'd you fall in love with your wife?" And I just came to conclude that obsession, passion, it's just something you can't put into words. It's something you feel and it's just something that drives you. I don't know that these guys can explain it in a way that I can understand, or maybe in a way that anyone can understand. It's just something that they love to do. But what I could understand is what if you had a year of your life to do anything you wanted and had unlimited time; in a couple cases, like these guys, unlimited funds, what would you do? What would you do for a year? I mean, these guys had this dream of seeing all the birds of North America in a year, and it was not only to see the birds, but also it was beat the clock, they were always up against the calendar, and it was beat each other too. They had to get 'em before these other two guys. And for them, frankly, it was thrilling and exciting. It was a magnificent travel log. And if you look at the result, I think that it cost them dearly. I mean, it cost them financially, a lot of money. It cost them, in some cases, it cost them their health. A couple of these guys got sick during the year and never really recovered. They were just driving themselves so hard. I mean, think of that: 270 days, waking up at four in the morning every day. I mean, it's amazing. But if you talk to 'em, they have no regrets. They lived their dream. They did exactly what they wanted to do. And you know, I think that's a pretty universal thing.

- [Anne] That was Mark Obmascik, author of "The Big Year, A Tale of Man, Nature and Fowl Obsession." If you wanna talk about a bird that has inspired people, a bird that's renowned for its intelligence, that's immortalized in the myths and legends of many countries, then you're talking about the raven. Like many people, our producer, Charles Monroe-Kane has a thing for ravens. He even has one tattooed on his arm.

- [Charles] I grew up in the kind of family where my mom collects chickens. Every Christmas, we all gave her chicken knick-knacks, salt and pepper fighting cocks, a ceramic hen cookie jar, even a clock that clucked instead of chimed. Aunt Mary collected pigs, Aunt Noreen collected frogs. My Aunt Lynette even collects M&M bric-a-brac. We were poor, really poor. See, my dad was a free spirit; he just couldn't stay in one place. Every new job, new idea, meant a new school almost every year for my brother and sister and me. My father always joked we had gypsy blood. I thought that sounded cool. When I was a kid, the thought of having the blood of a gypsy seemed a hell of a lot better than having the blood of a steel worker or an auto plant assembly line guy. But my sister, the oldest, she didn't think so. She hated moving, being broke all the time. She responded by becoming obsessed with stability. My brother, he just shrugged and partied a lot, content to be the rebellious middle child. Me, the baby? I found solace in Jesus. My conversion at age 13 wasn't via some Lutheran confirmation. No, not me. This was full on, washed in the blood of the lamb, speaking in tongues, hand waving salvation; I was born again. And I was intense about it. I witnessed my classmates, tried to convert my family, I preached in the streets. I even got involved in missionary work overseas. Eventually I got the call from God to be a minister and enrolled in a Bible college. And that's when this whole Raven thing got started. See, my folks had moved to Alaska after I graduated from high school. My freshman year, they sent me one of those folk tale books. It was full of native Alaskan raven lore. To be honest? I didn't read it, but I kept it. And when they asked me about it later, I of course told them I loved it. Being one to embellish, I must have overdone it because next Christmas and for my birthday and for years to come, the Raven stuff just flooded in. Little plastic raven totem poles, raven fridge magnets, raven playing cards, and the books? I swear I had every book about ravens ever written, more folklore than you can shake a stick at. But eventually I read the books, all of them. When you study theology, you always run the risk of flying too close to the sun and melting your wings. I can't tell you the exact day it happened, but by the time I graduated, I was an atheist. I joke now when I talk about it and say, "God and I broke up. One of us might call on Easter or Christmas, but the relationship's over." But it was no joke, I had truly loved Jesus. I adored the stories of the Bible and my calling to the ministry was real. But that was all gone now, I no longer believed in God. And what was left was a mess. When your core shifts, that can be tough. But when your core disappears, well then what do you do? Me? I moved to Amsterdam. I was in a circus for a while, I partied really hard. I never looked back. Strangely enough though, the one thing from my old life I didn't lose was the raven. I started to see the raven everywhere. Working closely with a friend to get a project done became this symbiotic relationship between a raven and a wolf in the wild. A hot toddy warmup after a ski trip became the raven puffing its feathers with oxygen to survive the cold. I was starting to annoy my friends with raven anecdotes. By accident, raven had become my metaphor. Eventually I decided to get a permanent reminder of the raven on my body, and I got a tattoo. Most tattoos face the world, but my raven faces me. There it is on my right forearm, and I look at it all the time. In the beginning, Raven takes pity on human beings and brings us fire and water from the heavens. Raven brings them in his beak in the form of a piece of ice and a burning ember. But the ice is too cold and the ember too hot and Raven drops them, forming the many lakes and volcanoes of our world. But Raven suffered greatly and he lost his ability to speak. Reality is, I think a lot about God when I look at my tattoo. I don't want to, but I do. I want to think about cool raven stuff, like how in a drought, ravens can imitate the sound of running water to lure their kill. Or how awesome Tom Waits would sound quoting the Raven, "Never more." But instead, I think about my relationship to God, about some bird losing its voice so I can have fire and water, about someone I used to love dying for my sins. The physicist Niels Bohr once said, "Reality is that which when you stop believing in it doesn't go away." That's the cold hard facts, man. It doesn't matter if you believe or not. It just sits there waiting for you and it will wait forever. "And the Raven never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting on the pallid bust of Palace just above my chamber door. And his eyes of all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming and the lamplight or him streaming, throws the shadows on the floor. In my soul from out that shadow, that lies floating on the floor shall be lifted, never more."

- [Anne] That was our producer, Charles Monroe-Kane, who has many tattoos, including a very special one of a raven. Coming up, one of the most magical birds in the world, and Emily Dickinson's favorite, the hummingbird. It's "To the Best of Our Knowledge," from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX. We're talking about avian obsessions. And here's something I bet you didn't know: Charles Darwin, the most famous evolutionary biologist in history, author of the landmark "On the Origin of Species," was obsessed with hummingbirds. And so were a lot of his friends.

- [Christopher] We all know about Darwin, and debates about apes, and the birds he was interested in the Galapagos. But hummingbirds very quickly became a major participant in the debate about evolution. And it was mainly people who did not believe in evolution, who said, "How could natural selection have created this? Something so beautiful, so gorgeous, so patently designed?"

- [Recording] I never saw any other bird where the force of its wings appeared as in a butterfly, so powerful in proportion to the weight of its body. This little bird, skipping from side to side, amidst the dripping foliage.

- [Christopher] It was Darwin's own ornithologist, John Gould, who was the greatest hummingbird painter before Martin Johnson Heade. Gould tried to get into these paintings the idea that only God could have made these. You know, the irony is that Darwin's ornithologist did not believe in evolution, he believed in creationism. He thought that God just sat down with his drawing pad and said, let's make this little topaz one, and let's make the ruby throat for New England and let's make a few others with weird things coming out of their ears. So hummingbirds were a big part of scientific debate.

- [Anne] Back in the late 19th century, there was actually a hummingbird craze. Writers fell in love with them, famous artists painted them, ministers preached about them. Christopher Benfey tells the whole story in his book, "A Summer of Hummingbirds," which began when he was researching the intersecting lives of writers and artists in 19th century Amherst, Massachusetts. And he discovered the one thing they all had in common was: hummingbirds. As Benfey puts it,

- [Christopher] I just followed those hummingbirds wherever they would take me.

- [Anne] You write that there actually really was a kind of cult of hummingbirds around this time.

- [Christopher] Yeah.

- [Anne] In American history and amongst the sort of intelligentsia, that you were.

- [Christopher] Exactly.

- [Anne] Following, really? A cult of hummingbirds?

- [Christopher] Well, I think I call it an informal cult, and there's probably hummingbird cultists today too. But I think certain ideas and feelings, religious ideas, scientific ideas, coalesced around the hummingbird for various and bizarre reasons in this gilded age period. For one reason, there was a new feeling about nature, that nature was more dynamic, more changing than people had thought about. There was a new feeling about religion and a sort of a search for religious symbols that captured the sort of God of love and nature that was being preached in Protestant churches. And there was a new feeling about love, about human love between people and hummingbirds seemed a symbol of that. So I think this remarkable bird that only exists in the new world became a kind of magnet for a lot of different ideas, with a very questing, uncertain, traumatized post-Civil War generation.

- [Anne] You mentioned that people also began to see hummingbirds as a new kind of symbol of the divine. Can you kind of flesh that out a bit?

- [Christopher] Yeah, what's really satisfying about that is that the Maya and the Aztec people worshiped hummingbirds, too. And they had their leading God as the Hummingbird God. So in a way, these gilded age questers are going backwards and forwards at the same time. Henry Ward Beecher, who's a major figure in my book, by far the best known preacher, minister of his time, Beecher preached on the question of what God looked like. And for this generation, an old man with a long beard sitting up in a throne in the sky, just wasn't convincing. And they wanted an idea of divinity that was more, more in touch with their view of nature as being the sort of expression of divinity. And the hummingbird had just that elusiveness. Emily Dickinson has a beautiful poem about hummingbirds that begins with the line, "A route of evanescence, a route of evanescence with a revolving wheel." And that idea of an evanescent God seemed very compelling for this generation.

- [Anne] Well it's, I think probably important to remember, this is kind of the period of time after the Civil War, when it must have

- [Christopher] Exactly. felt as though an entire old order had been destroyed. And here were these brave, young men and women, writers, artists, preachers, painters, who were trying to create or figure out what the new order would be.

- [Christopher] Yeah, that's absolutely right. The more I went into the feelings and moods of these people, the more I realized that they were really a kind of post-traumatic generation. That the Civil War had really made huge changes in everything that they thought was stable and certain. They were really living in a kind of brave new world. And they were looking for symbols that both had some concreteness, but also expressed their sense of change.

- [Anne] Well, tell us a little about some of these people you write about, the ones who are falling in love with hummingbirds. There was a famous painter, Martin Johnson Heade?

- [Christopher] Martin Johnson Heade is one of my favorite of all American artists. He's very idiosyncratic, very eccentric, both in his personal habits and in his paintings. I mean, this is a man who could easily have fought in the war, who was good with rifles, able bodied. And in the middle of the Civil War, he picks up everything and travels to Brazil in order to paint hummingbirds.

- [Anne] So, did he do for hummingbirds what Audubon did for other birds? What's notable about Heade's hummingbird paintings?

- [Christopher] That was his aim. What he thought he could do was what Audubon had done, which was to track the birds to their lair. Heade knew that nobody who had painted hummingbirds before had painted them from life. So Heade said to himself, I'm gonna go where hummingbirds live. And he painted the South American forest in a way that they had never really been painted before, with a kind of spooky intimacy.

- [Anne] Yeah, they look sort of like paintings of the forest prime evil, you know?

- [Christopher] Exactly.

- [Anne] Hummingbirds flitting about at the dawn of the planet, almost. There's something beautiful but very wild and primitive about the scenes.

- [Christopher] Yes. And there was a feeling in the early 19th century that maybe the Garden of Eden was somewhere down in South America. And then Darwin came along and kind of confirmed it and said, you know, I've seen creation taking place on the Galapagos Islands with these finches and their variations. And I think Martin Johnson Heade is, in his own mind, painting the dawn of creation; that in these incredible, almost surreal paintings of hummingbirds and orchids, where the orchids are big and slightly threatening and mysterious, I think he did imagine that he was painting the origins of life.

- [Anne] So now, what did hummingbirds mean to Emily Dickinson? Did she write many poems about hummingbirds?

- [Christopher] She did, yes. And she often included hummingbirds in her letters. She would report on hummingbird sighting, she used hummingbirds as a metaphor for how we read letters, how she reads letters, by sipping each word from the flower of the envelope. For Emily Dickinson, the hummingbird is a symbol and embodiment of an insight that is really deep in all of her writing, and that is this sense of evanescence. Emily Dickinson seems to have realized early on that she couldn't pin things down. And one of the exciting things about Emily Dickinson's poetry, is that sense of continual shifting, motion, change.

- [Anne] Well, actually, when you think just of the rhythm of her poetry, it's a lot like a little darting, hovering, skimming things. You know?

- [Christopher] Exactly.

- [Anne] Four words and a dash and four more words and another dash.

- [Christopher] Yeah, I think that's beautifully sad. I completely agree with that. She's the poet of dashes in both senses, you know? the poet of dashes as punctuation and the poets of dash as speed. And she sometimes signed that poem, "A Route of Evanescence," with the word "hummingbird" as though she was the hummingbird who had written the poem about herself. That it's almost a kind of self portrait.

- [Anne] Has uncovering this whole history, the way you have tracing all these connections, has this changed the way you see the birds themselves?

- [Christopher] Yeah, it certainly has. I always loved hummingbirds, but I wasn't a hummingbird obsessive. But now, of course, I've put hummingbird feeders in my garden, and I think I'm almost as excited as Emily Dickinson. When the first hummingbird came to my feeder, I thought it was the most magical thing ever. And I think my friends were a little puzzled at my excitement. But it's also changed the way I thought about that whole Gilded Age period. We think that we know what the Gilded Age was, that it was a time of great political corruption, of great fortunes, of great waves of immigration, of industrialization and so on. And I think what I uncovered, both in the book and in myself, was a sort of different climate of emotion and feeling. And those are the hardest things to write about. That's why we love Emily Dickinson so much. That's why I love Martin Johnson Heade so much, that these are artists and painters who do reveal a new climate of feeling, even as they're revealing things we may not have noticed in our own backyards.

- [Anne] Christopher Benfey is the author of "A Summer of Hummingbirds." "To the Best of Our Knowledge" is produced in a bird-filled city, surrounded by lakes. Madison, Wisconsin, home of Wisconsin Public Radio, Shannon Henry Kleiber put this hour together, with help from Charles Monroe-Kane, Mark Reichers and Angelo Bautista. Our technical director and sound designer is Joe Hardtke with help from Sarah Hopeful. Additional music this week from Owl Face, Katza and Lost Radio. Our executive producer is Steve Paulson, I'm Anne Strainchamps, happy bird watching. PRX.

Last modified: 
June 19, 2023