What If All The Birds Disappeared?

By Smithsonian American Art Museum — Source: Wikimedia Commons

The birdsong wakes me up a few minutes after sunrise and I lie in bed listening to the familiar two syllable whistle of a Northern Cardinal and the chatter of a house wren.

I imagine birds moving through the Yew tree that grows beside my bedroom window, the way they once did before the Trump administration ended the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) back in the spring of 2020.

What a terrible year that was.

The MBTA was a law that was put in place in 1918 in response to the decimation of U.S. birds in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

The law, codified into a treaty between Canada and the United States, made it unlawful to pursue, hunt, kill, capture, possess, sell, barter, import, export or transport any migratory bird unless authorized by permit. The MBTA was subsequently extended to include Mexico, Japan, and Russia.

It protected almost all of North America’s native birds, nests, and eggs from humans and was responsible for saving many species of birds that would’ve otherwise been hunted to extinction.

I roll over and turn off my my birdsong simulator. My heart grows heavy in the silence that follows. In just ten years, the birds have disappeared. It happened so much faster than we thought it would.

It’s easy to forget about the birds when you’re inside and distracted by familiar human sounds — the of dishes, the drone of the TV, the hiss of the shower.

Maybe that’s why we let the birds disappear. Maybe we stopped hearing them.

I take my ancient dog outside and we pass by the old bird feeders, crusty from years of neglect. They dangle, abandoned, from the lower branches of my giant catalpa tree. I don’t have the heart to take them down. It would mean that I’ve accepted a reality that I’m not ready to face— birds will never visit my backyard again.

I look up, hoping for a glimpse of a hawk or a woodpecker. As usual, all I see is the open expanse of empty blue sky.

Once, when I’d first fallen in love with birds, I saw a Great Blue Heron glide over my house. It had looked like an ancient pterosaur visiting from the past.

The herons are gone now — blue, green, gray, black-crowned — all gone.

The dog finishes his business and hobbles back to the house where I lift him gently and place him on the top step. His hips are arthritic and the steps are difficult for him, but he tries to get by on his own.

I drive to my favorite nature preserve. It was a place that once attracted a huge variety of birds. Most of my favorite birds were water birds and raptors like Bald Eagles, Northern Osprey, and Blue Herons. But my all-time favorite bird was the ruby-throated hummingbird, the only species of hummingbird that migrated from Central America to New York’s Mid-Hudson Valley.

I try to recall the last time I saw one of these tiny flying gems, but my memory fails me. It’s been at least half a dozen years since I saw a hummingbird. The combination of habitat loss, pesticides, feral and domestic cats, window collisions, and climate change wiped them out, just like all the other birds.

I pull into the empty parking lot of the silent nature preserve and watch the river’s surface glitter in the afternoon sun. They keep the place in decent shape, even though it seems like I’m the only one who comes here anymore. I step out of the car, lift the dog out of his secure car seat, and set him gently on the ground.

We walk to the river’s edge where a profound stillness hits me. The place reminds me of a graveyard. There are signs, like tombstones, depicting photos of the birds that once lived here, with little paragraphs of descriptive text illuminating the details of each extinct species.

It is June, and the water is a blanketed with water chestnuts, an invasive aquatic plant that forms a dense mat of greenery on the surface of the river.

The egrets and herons used to perch on the fields of water chestnuts that grew here, hunting for striped bass, white perch, and other fish abundant in the Hudson River estuary.

I carry the dog along a narrow nature path, pausing to examine a dead tree overrun with bright orange trumpet vine. No hummingbirds are left to buzz around the conical, nectar-filled flowers. They droop, as if acknowledging this great loss.

I turn on the evening news and cringe as a correspondent discusses the terrible storms, droughts, and floods that have become routine in our current age of extreme climate change.

At first, she does not mention the birds. The headlines are focused on the global hunger crisis, the dwindling supply of fossil fuels, and the loss of a coastal town in Florida due to rising ocean levels.

I move to shut the TV off in disgust, but pause as a family of Bald Eagles fills the screen. They’re being raised in a nature preserve in an undisclosed location, along with several hundred species of birds that no longer exist in the wild.

Bald Eagles used to be ubiquitous in New York, after an aggressive effort to save them from extinction in the mid 20th Century. The eagles nearly perished because of a pesticide called DDT, which was banned under the Endangered Species Act in 1973.

I was born in 1971 and, as a child, I’d never seen a bald eagle except on postage stamps and U.S. currency. By the time I reached my 40s, there were eagles everywhere, with nesting pairs located throughout northeast. This was considered one of the biggest conservation success stories of all time, but the eagles quickly disappeared when DDT and other pesticides were once again legal to use in 2021 and beyond.

I watch the screen, fixated, as an adult eagle brings part of a severed fish to the nestlings, still small and bald and helpless. I start to cry and I’m surprised that my tears are from anger, not sorrow.

It’s wrong that birds only exist in hidden preserves or within the gardens and private aviaries of the wealthiest people. It’s more than wrong. It’s an abomination. For almost everyone else, the joy of watching and listening to wild birds in our yards, parks, and preserves is a fading memory.

I turn on my bird simulator and set the timer so it will automatically shut off in thirty minutes. I’ve grown accustomed to falling asleep to birdsong. At least I have this small indulgence.

I let myself pretend that the birds I’m hearing are real and alive, but it’s very hard to cling to this fantasy tonight.

I know I failed them — the eagles and herons and hummingbirds. I should’ve made more of an effort to protect them. I should’ve marched for the preservation of the birds and donated all the money I could scrape together to help the organizations that existed to conserve them. I should’ve paid attention to the laws that were being unwritten when I still had the chance.

I fall asleep to the coo of a mourning dove and the sweet, sad song of a white-throated sparrow. Another day has passed without seeing a single bird. It is very likely that they are all gone now, except for the few that remain in those out-of-reach places that are more like living museums than nature sanctuaries.

Tomorrow, I will repeat my old rituals — walking past the feeders in the yard, visiting the river and the nature sanctuary where the birds once flourished. I will move through another day looking up at the sky — hoping that, in spite of everything we’ve done to destroy them, the birds will return again.

Occasional poet. Writer of sad essays. Novelist. Birder and amateur photographer. I enjoy trees.

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