My Warbler

(Artwork by Maria McNitt –

The blue-winged warbler struggles as I extract him from the fine netting stretched across the underbrush.  Our instructor Caleb assures us that this will only be a tiny interruption in his migration, and the information gleaned from our bird banding will contribute to stewardship efforts. 

I immobilize the bird between my first and second fingers, as instructed, but realize that any flinch or spasm on my part will certainly snap his neck.  I gently slip him into a muslin bag with a drawstring top and take him to the processing station.  Caleb advises us to place the bags inside our fleece jackets to keep the birds warm until we release them.  My warbler’s wings flutter against my beating heart. 

I weigh and measure my bird, fluff his feathers to record his fat reserves, look for lice.  I have just flown back to the Midwest from a bird watching trip in Florida.  My warbler has flown north from his wintering grounds in South America across the Gulf of Mexico and then up through the United States to his breeding grounds along the Great Lakes.  The warblers fly at night, in diminishing numbers, but still in flocks large enough to be picked up by radar, a puckered veil draped over the night sky.  During the day they drop down to rest and eat.  What wild wind has deposited him here, in my suburban backyard?

The last step is placement of the numbered metal band encircling his ankle.  The band number is sent to a central data bank and his movements can be tracked only if he has the misfortune of recapture.  I hold him by his feet in the birder’s pose, suitable for photographs.  The group gathers around for a picture of this stunning bright yellow bird with only vaguely blue wings.   Far more characteristic is a dark black streak through his eyes, looking like a smear of mascara hastily applied in his eagerness to migrate and mate. 

I recall my first sighting years ago on a business trip.  I grabbed my binoculars at the end of the day to investigate the brush circling the immaculate corporate campus.  An unfamiliar song prompted me to wade into the tangled swamp in my business attire.  I struggled to follow the bird as he skittered from one branch to the next.  My shoes were ruined, my fancy silk skirt clotted into a wad by a jumble of burrs.  But suddenly, there he was above me, my first blue-winged warbler, singing lustily, a tiny mote of wildness and wilderness above my head. 

Holding him now, I look directly into his fierce and lively eyes that accuse me of keeping him from his goal of fattening up during this brief stopover. 

Tonight he will again fling himself into the dark sky to head north, guided by an ethereal pull only he can understand.  This spunky spirit is not apparent in any of the pictures and drawings in my guidebooks.

I stare at him with solemn awe.  He leads a harrowing life.  Weighing no more than a couple of pennies, he finds himself on the cusp of tragedy on a daily basis.  When I let go of his feet to release him, he sits motionless on my palm for a moment, as if considering me, wondering about this new human stench that lingers on his feathers, feeling the discomfort of his numbered bird band.  My touch has tainted him, stigmatized him, stripped him of his enrapturing wildness.  I bridle at my smug conceit that I’m the gentlest of stewards and I chafe at the jumbo carbon footprint that envelopes me.          

He flits off into the woods.  Later that morning his wheezy song drifts down from overhead trees.   “Safe travels,” I whisper.

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  1. Richard Baker on September 7, 2021 at 1:41 am

    A touching story of compassion and sensitivity.

    But I didn’t follow: ‘I bridle at my smug conceit that I’m the gentlest
    of stewards and I chafe at the jumbo carbon footprint that envelopes me.’

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