There is a story I like of an old Zen master who one day was asked to speak wisdom to his acolytes as they were sitting outside. He obliged. He rose and walked to the front of the students. He waited a moment to think carefully about his words, opened his mouth, and then just as he was about to speak, a bird in a nearby tree sang its beautiful warbling song. The master did not interrupt but instead simply listened and waited until the song finished, and the bird had flown away. When it had, he finally spoke: “The sermon has been delivered,” he acknowledged, and took his seat once more.
I think about this story often and dwell on its themes. The true master who is the truest student. The songbird who speaks truth without language. The wisdom elevated by listening to the world without ego.
This time of year, I try to take the lesson of the Zen master and listen to the autumn world around me, the softening sounds of my time on earth. I take pause and hear the breeze which rustles box elders scarlet and shivers aspens gold. The wind which blankets the land and grows it rosy before winter’s snowy slumber.
The birds’ notes, the bearers of great truths, have shifted from their summer selves, too. No longer do they sing for love, but instead call for companions as they find flocks to blunder between fermented crabapple trees with, and telegraph where the good black oil seed is for the benefit of all who husk germ.
I find solidarity with their industry, for I believe we all come from the same inner place. They, doing what is good and right, and I as well. I, too, likely like you, get a hankering, a reckoning to winterize, to preserve, to stock up like a tree’s fattening roots, swollen full with the liquor of next spring’s buds and blossoms. I do it through crisp cider, hot corn chowder, steamed cans, jammed jars, strong mulled toddies, and wool. These are my fruits and fat stores. These are my natural inclinations.
I take from the story of the Zen master, too, that we are all on the same team. Just as the master understood to defer a message of truth to the birds, we can all recognize the truth in what autumn fills us all with: that drive of readiness for spring by ways of winter. That our season of without only can be because of seasons of with, and that our seasons of bounty can only be through the rest with which we are pulled in winter.
So this autumn, I encourage you to listen like the Zen master to the world around you. When it whispers, “put on a sweater and sip hot drinks by the hearth,” do so. When it bellows, “can and jam all of the things for winter is coming and the taste of summer is that season’s delight,” do so as well.
And when the world says, “listen,” in beautiful birdsong, do so, and know that you sing, too, by being who you are to your core.
At eleven o’clock last Friday I was standing alone outside a 120 ft pigeon loft in Fielding, Utah, scanning the sky for incoming birds A few minutes later, the loft owner, Derek Alder, pulled into the driveway. “I passed them in Malad,” he said, hopping out of his truck They should be here is about 10 minutes.” Earlier that morning Derek had driven 250 pigeons to Spenser, Idaho, 180 miles away. He had released them at 8 am and had barely beaten them home.
“Here they come!” Derek spotted the lead group of 40 as they flew into view, just over the tops of two trees a few hundred yards away. When the first bird entered the loft, the computer chip in its leg band sent a message to the loft computer. We heard the ping, It was 11:19. The lead group had flown 180 miles in three hours and 19 minutes. That made the average speed close to 55 mph.
Soon the computer was pinging nonstop I was mesmerized These were all young birds, less than a year old, who had been taken to a place they had never been before, 180 miles away. They had found their way home and were now calmly walking into their loft for a bite to eat and a sip of water.
I had begun my own journey into this world of avian athletes last summer at the Cache County Fair. I had gone to cheer on my neighbor’s kids who were showing their pigs, and ducked into the bird barn on the way out. I was expecting chickens, but found my self surrounded by pigeons. This encounter soon led me to Hyrum to meet the main exhibitor, Randy Balls. He met me at the door to his house with a big smile. “Do you want to see them fly?” he asked. We spent the next hour sitting on a bench in his backyard, watching his pigeons as they circled and swooped overhead Randy’s love for his birds was contagious, and I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that I now find myself with four homing pigeons of my own in an improvised coop in my backyard.
Growing up I had heard stories of pigeons who carried messages in both world wars. My favorite story was the one about a bird called Cher Ami, who was assigned to an American unit and carried into battle in a wicker backpack. The unit was pinned down by German guns, and to make matters worse, was also hit by friendly fire.
A desperate message was written and placed in the small canister tied to Cher Ami’s leg. “We are along the road parallel to 276.4 Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heaven’s sake, stop it.” Cher Ami took off. She was hit by bullets that blinded one eye and shot off part of her right leg. But she kept going. She delivered the message to army headquarters, and was credited with saving the lives of one hundred and ninety four American soldiers.
We know the messaging partnership between homing pigeons and humans can be traced all the way back to the pharaohs of ancient Egypt. What we don’t know is exactly how pigeons do it. Somehow they are attuned to the earth’s gravitational fields in ways that humans are not. I like the mystery of it. I like keeping alive the flame of wonder and awe as we continue to learn and interact with the natural world
I first met the Great Salt Lake in 1964 with two Central Michigan University college buddies on our way to Los Angeles. We heard you could float in its magical waters. Sure enough- it worked and we bobbed in its gentle waves oblivious to the many other virtues of this extraordinary water body. The Great Salt Lake’s Importance
This saltwater marvel is the largest wetland area in the American West. Its 400,000 acres of wetlands provide habitat for over 230 bird species traveling from the tip of South America, north to Canada’s Northwest Territories and as far west as Siberia. These wetlands and surrounding mudflats are vital habitat for 8-10 million individual migratory birds with many species gathering at the Lake in larger populations than anywhere else on the planet.
In 1991 the Great Salt Lake was declared a site of “hemispheric importance,” the highest level of designation given to a site by the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network. The Reserve conserves shorebird habitat through a network of key sites across the Americas. Salt Lake receives the largest percentage of the world’s population of migrating Eared Grebes, nearly one-third of Wilson’s Phalaropes, more than half of American Avocets, and 37 percent of Black-necked Stilts. The lake’s shoreline, playas and mudflats also support 21 percent of the North American breeding population of Snowy Plovers, a species identified as one of greatest conservation needs by Utah’s Wildlife Action Plan.
These shorebirds are among nature’s most ambitious, long-distance migrants. But their numbers are dropping quickly. Shorebirds are showing the most dramatic declines among all bird groups. Species that undertake hemispheric migrations rely on specific habitats and food sources to survive, but these resources are increasingly under threat from human disturbance including habitat loss and degradation, over-harvesting, increasing predation, and climate change. As humans have continued to alter the landscape, shorebird populations continue to drop, with accelerated declines in recent decades.
Of 52 shorebird species that regularly breed in North America, 90% are predicted to experience an increase in risk of extinction. This includes 28 species already considered at high risk, and 10 imperiled species that face even greater risk.
At the base of Salt Lake’s food chain are microbialites, underwater reef-like rock mounds created by millions of microbes. These structures and their microbial mats form the base of the entire Great Salt Lake ecosystem, serving as a primary food source for brine shrimp and brine flies, which are the main food source for these aquatic birds. Falling water levels exposing the microbialites to air could trigger a collapse in the lake’s food chain according to a July study by the Utah Geological Survey.
So we humans aren’t the only one’s suffering from our disappearing Lake. Thank goodness we have awakened to this extraordinary resource found on our doorstep with many organizations and agencies attempting to save what remains for our health, wealth, and for the millions of threatened feathered friends that grace our skies, and our lives. Last May, Utah Governor Cox declared 2021 the year honoring shorebirds. We can do our part by taking action on conserving water and energy.
Jack Greene for Bridgerland Audubon Society and I’m wild about Utah and its magnificent great lake.
Written by Hall Crimmel & Dan Bedford, Filmed and Edited by Isaac Goeckeritz, iUtah EPSCor, Rachel Carsen Center Environment & Society,
Based on the book Desert Water; The Future of Utah’s Water Resources edited by Hall Crimmel and published by University of Utah Press, 2014
I first caught sight of the eight pelicans swimming in s straight line towards the waters edge, looking a lot like a tank division in in an old WWII movie I slammed on the brakes just in time to see them all dip their bills into the water, come up spilling water and cock their heads back And then, gulp! Fish slid down their throats.
Wow, I thought. These pelicans are working together to to drive the fish into the shallow water’s edge where they can easily scoop the up And then it got better. Fanning out, the pelicans regrouped in a circle Swimming towards the center, they tightened the noose. And bam! Dip, scoop, knock back some more fish
I was amazed at how soundless and seamless it all was and could have watched for hours, but I was on the one lane auto route at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge and the cars behind me were starting to honk their horns, so I reluctantly moved on.
As soon as I got home I plunged into research on this majestic bird, beginning with the bill. When the pelican dips its bill into the water, the lower portion expands into a flexible sac that allows the bird to to scoop up as much as 3 gallons of fish and water. When the pelican cocks back its head, the sac contracts, the water is expelled through a barely open bill, and the fish swallowed. The huge pelican bill, which at first glance looks like a formidable weapon, is actually an exquisitively designed fishing net.
Archeologists have found pelican skulls dating back 30 million years, so this unique bill has definitely passed the test of time.
Back at the refuge I was able to turn into a visitor pull out and pick up the rather stunning bit of information: these pelicans fly in from Gunnison Island in the Great Salt Lake, over the Promontory Mountains, daily to forage for fish. That’s a 30 mile trip each way!
Long before the Mormon pioneers arrived in Utah, pelicans were building their nest on Gunnison Island. They were briefly disturbed when an artist, Albert Lambourne, tried to homestead for a year in 1850, and a guano mining company dropped off a crew – a Pole, a Russian, a Scot and an Englishman- to mine the bird poop. But the operation wasn’t profitable, and when it closed down, the pelicans reclaimed the island. Each March the birds fly in from as far away as Mexico, build their nests, and raise their chicks. The rookery is the largest in the US. In 2017 the pop was estimated to be as high as 20,000.
Back in Cache Valley in 2010, Jordan Falslev built a viewing platform near Benson Marina, The Pelican Perch, as his Eagle scout project. There used to be hundreds of pelicans out there on the water, but when I stopped by last week I didn’t see a single one. Numbers are way down now largely because the dropping water level in the Great Salt Lake have exposed a land bridge to Gunnison Island that allows predators to ravage the nesting site.
You can still catch sight of a pelican in flight in Cache Valley. (Their wingspan is 10 ft. Rudy Gobert, in comparison, has a wingspan of 7 ft 9 in.) But for my money, the best show in town is watching packs of pelicans hunt for fish at the Bear River Migratory Bird refuge.