Passing through

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(HOST) Fall Migration is currently at its peak, and on most nights now over Vermont, songbirds are heading south to their wintering grounds. As commentator Brad Kessler* tells us, the migrating birds mean many things to many different people.

(KESSLER) Each night this month I ve been watching the skies for migrating songbirds. As they pass over my Vermont farmhouse, I’m reminded of the dangers that lie ahead for them.

Back when I lived in Manhattan, I used to walk the streets before dawn during Fall migration looking for dead or injured birds. This was always in the earliest morning, before the street sweepers could dispatch a fallen bird.

My rounds were part of Audubon’s Project Safe Flight, which monitored bird kills around skyscrapers. I brought paper bags with me for wounded birds: sandwich bags for warblers, Macy’s bags for woodpeckers. I found birds I’d only dreamt of seeing in the wild – unfortunately most were dead.

One fall morning, a security guard named Thanh stopped me outside his building and asked what I was doing. When I told him about the night-flying migrants, he grew instantly animated. He’d often seen birds slam into the windows of his building, but couldn’t figure out why. I explained how the lights of skyscrapers attracted migrating birds on cloudy nights, and how, once on street level, they often flew into reflective glass.

I opened my rucksack and removed a dead bird I’d found just that morning: A stunning yellow-billed cuckoo, with a spotted tail, olive wings, eyes like drops of obsidian. It had flown all the way from South America the previous spring, only to be felled by a window near Wall street on its journey back home.

“Such a beautiful bird,” Thanh sighed. “Do they live here?”

“No,” I replied, “they just pass through.”

That morning we struck a deal: Each injured bird Thanh could capture, he’d keep until an Audubon volunteer arrived. The bird would later be rehabilited and released south of the city. Each dead bird he’d leave for us beside a certain planter.

In the weeks that followed, Thanh left us dead vireos, warblers, thrushes. Occasionally, he captured an injured bird as well. But Thanh – who came from Vietnam – wasn’t the only one helping those mornings; and this was what thrilled me the most: all the other night watchmen and street cleaners, from Ethiopia, from El Salvador, from Turkey – who aided the birds in the dark. Did they help out of sheer boredom? Or was it, as I imagined, they assisted these other migrants as one might aid a fellow traveler with a drink of water or a place to spend the night?

The beauty of migratory birds is their fleetingness in our lives. They knit the world together – one hemisphere with the next.

Did Thanh feel that way too? Was that why he helped save the birds he could? I never had the chance to ask. The last time I returned to Lower Manhattan, Thanh was gone, the planter empty. Perhaps, like the rest of us, he was just passing through.

Brad Kessler is a novelist who lives in Sandgate. His latest book is titled “Birds In Fall”.

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