Dust and Mud - Photography by Dana Thomas

Growing up in the coastal suburbs of Los Angeles, I remember the sound of birds in the morning. As the sun rose, the songs began, carrying through the cool of the morning. Those songs were comforting, and I became accustomed to them, so acclimated to their chorus that, I am sorry to admit, that in the urgency of my teenage years, I stopped paying attention and they became background noise.

As I aged, I became fascinated with and learned by sight the name of ducks and other water birds as well as the silhouettes of the raptors flying overhead.  This fascination with hawks, kites, falcons was powerful, and I learned to watch for them while working, driving or walking. Catching glimpses of these proud birds at unexpected times was a joy in my everyday world. The common Red Tail Hawk, Kestrels and the rare Kites became favorites.  These sightings were made against the backdrop of the daily songbird symphony, that still brought joy when I took a moment to pause and listen.

Moving inland to the dry foothills, I was gratified to find Red Tails hunting rodents in the sage and grasslands. Adding to this was the morning and evening migrations of crows past our home.  In the morning, murders of crows would fly east, to return as the sun was setting. Loud and overpowering, I would anticipate and wait for their flight west to roost for the night.  Interspersed with the crows were flickers that drilled holes in a palm trees looking for insects and hummingbirds drawn by the nectar of our garden. Some years we would live with barn owls taking refuge in the same battered palm, waking us at night with their screams as they hunted in the darkness.  Again, mingled with the crows, owls, hawks and the pounding of the woodpeckers were the songbirds ushering in the rising sun.

In the stress of everyday life, work and raising teenagers, my attention was drawn away from the birds, until one evening sitting outside with a glass of wine, I realized the crows were not flying by at their normal time.  Paying closer attention, I was shocked by the realization that they were gone and had been missing for a long time. Awakened by the loss of the crows, it became apparent that the volume and variety of the songbirds was not as full or deep as in years past. Eventually, to hear the morning sounds of birds became a rarity.  All that was left were the hawks, which thrived on the rodents who flourished at the intersection between the sage brush hills and the city landscape.

When I pointed this lack birds to friends, I heard a variety of reasons. Lack of habitat, pesticides, disease or the impact of drought.  Without a clear answer, I am disturbed by the fact that they are truly the canaries in the coal mine, and we have ignored both their sacrifice and warning. Whatever the reason for their departure, I pay closer attention and strive to hear birds in the morning, while my appreciation for their chorus and my sightings of hawks is no longer taken for granted.