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Mindful Birding: Embracing Death and Life

Rev. Dr. LoraKim Joyner sharing stories of bird death during a Birding for Life Walk in Central Park, New York City in September 2021

We just finished a series of Birding for Life walks and on the last one, as I was leading some children along a trail, a six-year-old noticed an explosion of feathers on the ground. “Someone died here,” I shared as I picked up some of the feathers. “Who do you think it was?” I asked as I showed the feathers to them and other children slowly catching up to the first who had come across the reddish-brown feathers. “Probably some hawk or falcon hunted this female or juvenile Northern Cardinal and she died,” I explained to help them out. Several children started picking up the feathers as well and carried them along the trail until we came to a wide space well suited for a conversation.

I knew we needed to process the death of the cardinal, for birding is not always about beauty and the sense of freedom that birds can bring. Mindful birding means listening to all that the birds have to say to us, which is that life is fragile and a web of tragedy and beauty.

So, I asked if there were any questions or if anyone wanted to share what they were feeling. Some raised their hands and said they felt sad. One adult said that we needed to pause and honor the bird’s life. So, we were quiet for a while. Then another child said, “Yes, it’s sad, but it is life. She died so that the falcon could live. Her death brought new life.” Later this same wise youngster wrote a letter to the cardinal while we paused to draw and study trees and birds:

I nodded my head, for what more wisdom could I add to her words? If the participants had been adults, I might have added how birding helps us embrace reality and be embraced by it. Birding isn’t always pleasurable, for to really look at a bird, we see and feel deeply into their pain and suffering (as well as their joy), and hence our own. They connect us to our own vulnerability, for they too mourn like us and even experience pandemics.

I also would have gone on to explain to them how the West Nile Virus of the early 2000’s wiped out up to two-thirds of American crows in some areas. Scientists who studied them showed how the crows became less adventurous, and reduced the sizes of their territories. Young female crows didn’t disperse as they normally do, but remained close to their families. Birds merged with new families outside of their normal territories and helped raise widowed birds’ chicks.

Rev. Dr. Joyner sharing with others what it is we make of death, loss, and birds

If I was with adults, I might have referred to an article by Ben Craig in the New York Times, “The Birds on My Balcony Have Taught Me a Lot About the Pandemic

He wrote, “Rather than looking to wild animals as symbols of hope or freedom, maybe we can recognize them simply as fellow creatures with only the cruel hand of natural selection to balance the benefits of community and cooperation against the risks of disease. Documenting the sickness of animals can lead us to the sources of their beauty. The faces of suffering and splendor are not always as different as they seem.”

If I was lecturing or preaching, I might have referred to another article in the New York times by David Brooks on September 17th, “Is Self-awareness a Mirage?” He researched how humans make up stories about why they feel what they do and why they did what they did,

“One of the most unsettling findings of modern psychology is that we often don’t know why we do what we do. You can ask somebody: Why’d you choose that house? Or why’d you marry that person? Or why’d you go to graduate school? People will concoct some plausible story, but often they really have no idea why they chose what they did”

He concluded, “Maybe we can’t know ourselves through the process we call introspection. But we can gain pretty good self-awareness by extrospection, by closely observing behavior. We can attain true wisdom and pretty good self-awareness by looking at behavior and reality in the face to create more accurate narratives. In telling ever more accurate stories about ourselves, we send different beliefs, values and expectations down into the complex nether reaches of our minds, and — in ways we may never understand — that leads to better desires, better decision-making and more gracious living.”

But I was with a group of children mixed in with their teachers and parents. I didn’t need to say anything. Slowing down and sharing the life and death of birds, together, had brought us closer to each other and to reality, as well as to the cardinal and all of her kind. We had come into a welcoming space, which in turn, I pray, helps us become more welcoming to life on this earth. For this is their home as well, and not just our own constructed of human hubris and fabricated stories. It is a home fraught with peril and pandemics, and through that reckoning, may lay actual freedom.

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