When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free. – Wendell Berry
I've got nothing against ducks, but I found myself going to where the red-bellied macaw rests in the cavity as sun set approaches
This poem encapsulates, in part, what I felt after two weeks of counting parrots in Suriname. Each day we began and ended in the dark, often wet and cold as it is the rainy season. We were out on the rivers as part of a national year-long parrot population study. The many parrots were astounding, in numbers so much more than those parrot species in dire situations in most other countries where I work as a parrot conservationist. This is where part of Berry’s poem does not resonate with me. Though I don’t know what wild things think, I do believe that parrots experience grief, and anxiety and fear over the loss of their family and friends. I have witnessed parrots refuse to eat after the death of a partner, and attend to a sick or ailing bird by flying to their rescue. In fact, this is the primary method that trappers in Suriname use to catch parrots where it is legal. They have a “calling bird” that is tied to the top of the tree, and when other birds come to investigate, they become enmeshed in the trap set for them. There is a temporary ban on trapping three of the more commonly trapped birds in Suriname so our teams were spared the sight and sound of birds in distress, though we did have blue-and-yellow macaws occasionally circle above our boats, changing their calls to what appeared to be an angry warning.
Our last morning of counting in Suriname
So, on this trip I was spared the most direct evidence of despair, though it is never far below the surface of our day-to-day work as parrot conservationists. Over 50% of parrot species’ populations are in decline, and nearly one-third are seriously threatened. The demand for pets drives most of this loss in many regions, especially in the Americas where One Earth Conservation works. Every day I hear stories of grief and loss like a punch in the gut. Two weeks with wild parrots though assuaged the ache in my soul. I didn’t know it was happening. Yes, the days were full of wonder and awe, but it was mostly hard work being out in the weather on long boat rides, and focusing intently on each and every bird that flew or called near us. Now back in the capital city of Suriname, Paramaribo, I feel more peace than I have in a long time, an easy acceptance of my connection to all of life that sustains me through the reality of the woes of this earth.
The last morning of counting was particularly glorious. For once, it was not only clear of precipitation, but of clouds. The milky way, stars, and constellations shone brightly, and one of my favorites when in this part of the world, the Southern Cross, led us upriver to the south where we would begin our count before sunrise. Accompanying us were five planets lined up with the moon. The birds began to move early because the day was so clear with no threat of rain or wind. The ample sun made their feathers and colors shine. When we took a group picture on the boat after the count ended, you can see the smiles in each face reaching up to the eyes. We shone too with an unspoken joy, that until that picture was taken, we did not know we had experienced together.
Being with birds is good for us. Studies have shown how people’s satisfaction and happiness increase with greater bird diversity, though they may not be consciously aware of what is happening. If we can become aware of our deep relationship with life, in the form of birds or other species, then we can muster the will to be good to them. Parrots and birds are telling us much, if we can just slow down and listen to them.
Please join us on our next walks, July 9th and July 23rd at Marshlands Conservancy and Green-wood Cemetery in New York. You can register and find out more here (we take reservations on Meetup).
If you cannot attend, or join us on our other activities, including our Parrot Pilgrimage in Nicaragua in December 2022, take a moment to step outside, look up at the stars and the birds, letting the beauty you love be what you do.