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  • Sharon White


Updated: Feb 22, 2020

In a recent issue of The New Yorker, Jonathan Franzen describes the way songbirds are hunted in Europe. They’re caught on lime sticks “straight switches, about thirty inches long, that are coated with the gluey gum of the Syrian plum and deployed artfully, to provide inviting perches, in the branches of low trees,” in orchards and vineyards. And then skewered and cooked. You can make a lot of money in Cyprus and Malta catching birds. At least a billion die each year.

All summer, as my mother regains her speech after her stroke, I’ve been watching the birds here. Phoebes coaxing their babies out of the nest. Broad-winged hawks teaching their fledglings how to hunt. Yesterday, I heard the hawks calling to each other in the thick trees below our house. They were invisible and electric. Franzen says that seven million song thrushes are killed each year in the bucolic Italian countryside. It’s part of the culture, people tell him, to shoot wild game.

I guess I’ve been naive. I thought migratory birds were protected everywhere. They are mostly, Franzen tells me, but not all counties abide by the laws.

Once I traveled to Dominica to visit a friend who worked in the British version of the Peace Corps. I saw hummingbirds on sticks, sugared and sweet, for sale. I couldn’t imagine eating the delicate, invisible bones of a hummingbird. But I eat chicken. I figure I’ve been sorting out what variety of bird is invaluable and what variety I can eat.

The kestrels wake us these August mornings with their chatter. I miss the phoebes now all flown from their nest near the kitchen window. In Philadelphia there’s a cardinal who sits in the big elm near our third floor deck and serenades us some mornings. And blue jays, robins, purple finches, familiar but welcome.

I can’t imagine a world not laced and entwined with birdsong.

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