All the Birds in New Jersey

“When I wake up in the morning, I listen for the birds. If they’re not up, I go back to sleep. Why the hell should I be awake on a morning when there aren’t any birds?” When I was in middle school, my mom – who worked from home as a calligrapher – would sleep through noon.

During those days, I’d come home to my brother and my mom baking brownies — my brother cracking eggs while my mom watched. Or they’d be in the kitchen: my mom addressing hundreds of envelopes on the table while my brother lay in a circle of crayons at her feet, drawing dragons on graph paper. One day, I came home to find them kneeling backwards on the faded brown couch in the family room, staring out the windows into the deep woods behind our house. They had binoculars at their eyes, and stared into the New Jersey backyard: a swingset, young dogwoods, two-storey white pines and scattered white plastic chairs. The point, my brother explained, was to sit quietly for fifteen minutes for a few days and tally all the different kinds of birds you spot. 

“Your brother and I are going to count birds,” she said. It was the same month I’d spotted her on the bathroom floor. We spent time together, but didn’t talk much. “I’m trying to look outside, more.”

This was the Great Backyard Birdcount, run by the Audubon Society. The count began in 1998 when Cornell and Audubon partnered to create a national amatuer-driven bird ID program. Instead of ornithologists, they called upon the public to join in as citizen scientists. When compiled, they hoped, the data could be used for scientific research to study changing migration patterns and species behavior. 

Last year, more than 140,000 people participated. And while some refuse to use the data — saying so-called backyard birders aren’t reliable enough in their data collection — the head of the Audubon society has been using what people spot in their backyards to determine where birds are migrating to as once-cool summer climates grow steadily hotter. Hidden on the website is another goal: to get people interested in the outdoors. For my mother, it was a chance to turn her gaze — piercing, critical, careful — outside of herself. I sat beside her while she pointed out the birds as they attacked the stale peanut-butter covered bagel at the bird-feeder. 

The Great Backyard Birdcount website, the explanatory powerpoint and tutorials are perfect birder documents. Participants are prompted through a list of questions. 

“Where did you bird?” (Rural New Jersey.) 

“How did you bird? Did you go on a traveling, stationary, historical or incidental observation?” (Stationary. From the TV room.) 

“How big was your party?” (Three.) “What did you see or hear?” 

For those five days, my mom, my brother and I turned outside. Cardinals. Blue Jays. Three-toed woodpeckers. Black-capped chickadees and Eastern bluebirds. Whip-poor-wills, sparrows and thrushes. Some of the backyard birds we came to know by playing their sounds til someone would hear a call and shout “I know that one!” These were the quick teetering pine warblers, the song sparrows and tufted titmouses. 

I live in Burlington now; this May I’ll graduate from college. I have been sad lately. Sometimes I want to lie on the bathroom floor. There are mornings when it’s hard to get up and go outside, but I force myself to walk down to the shore of Lake Champlain. By February, the ice is beginning to melt. If you’re quiet, the gentle waves sound like the beach. I imagine it’s the Arctic — that’s we’ll see penguins or walruses. There’s a crowd on the boardwalk — 30 people with binoculars and cameras with ridiculously large lenses staring at a tiny, nearly indiscernible dot. I ask the old woman next to me what they’re taking photos of. “A Merzinger,” she says. “A Merzinger duck.” 

I think of my mother in New Jersey and how she’s spending her morning. If she’s rolled out of bed yet or is hiding under blankets beside a pile of bird books. My ears freeze. My back sweats. It could be spring but for the lack of singing birds.

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