Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Sunday, November 29, 2020

The Desert Island Hypothetical

My personal friendly Blue Jay

Over my 45 years of birding, people have occasionally asked me what bird I’d most long for if I were stranded on a desert island. I’ve always answered the Black-capped Chickadee or the Blue Jay. “But wouldn’t I get bored?” Hardly. As a child, I read Little Women at least fifty and quite possibly a hundred times, and I’ve always liked listening to the same songs over and over and watching my favorite movies again and again. 

Black-capped Chickadees building nest

A lot of birders need more novelty, or at least diversity, in their bird sightings than I do. I may be luckier right now, when we’re hunkered down during a once-in-a-century emergency, but overall, it’s the birders who thrive on novelty and diversity who do better on Big Days and Big Years than someone like me. I’ve been known, on an actual Big Day when every second of seeking out new birds is critical, to stop for 15 or 20 minutes just to watch Bank Swallows excavating holes in a bank, or even just a chickadee hacking out a cavity. I didn’t cover nearly as much ground on my 2013 Big Year as I’d originally planned—at the end of 2012, Russ’s mom came to live with us, reducing both our discretionary income and the amount of time I could spend away from home. If I were the kind of person who needed to maximize my bird numbers out of competitiveness or a yearning for more, I’d have been disappointed, but me being me, it wasn’t that big a deal—my Big Year was one of the most wonderful, rewarding years of my life just the way it was. 

The desert island question is just a hypothetical, and Peabody Street is hardly a desert island anyway, but if I had to be stuck in one place over so many months, my two avian choices, around every single day, have definitely made this strange time much more bearable. The chickadee certainly lacks brilliant color, but more than makes up for that in adorableness, and the Blue Jay combines vivid blues with a perky crest. How could I get bored looking at either?

Blue Jay

The chickadee’s Hey, sweetie! song may lack the syringeal complexity of a Winter Wren’s or Hermit Thrush’s, but simplicity has its own loveliness, and the chickadee song has the advantage of being heard year-round. Yes, like wrens and thrushes, chickadees sing the most songs from April into June and are hard to hear from October through December, but I’ve heard chickadees singing at least occasionally during every month of the year, long after Winter Wrens and Hermit Thrushes have flown the coop. And both chickadees and Blue Jays make a wonderful assortment of companionable vocalizations year-round. If anything interesting was happening, those two would alert me to it. 

Handfeeding mealworms to a Black-capped Chickadee

If that hypothetical desert island lacked all human companionship, I wouldn’t have to befriend a volleyball named Wilson, not if there were chickadees or Blue Jays around. Both not only take an interest in people; they make actual eye contact and would definitely reduce loneliness.  

Black-capped Chickadee

During this pandemic, a lot of people are growing restless and bored, and it’s easy to understand and sympathize. But I like that in Hogfather, Terry Pratchett has Death say about human beings, “Do you know, that in a universe so full of wonders, they have managed to invent boredom.” As much as I love the freedom to go where I want, exploring this universe so full of wonders, I’m pretty much satisfied, and never bored, even when I'm stuck in one place with just a few of those wonders. I hope you’re finding as much joy and wonder in your own small world. 

Black-capped Chickadee peeking in my window waiting for mealworms