Sunday, May 08, 2005

Of chimney swifts, ivory bills, and other heavenly things ...

This weekend marked an important milestone in my experience of our tiny planet's annual peregrination around the Sun.

There is nothing I look forward to more as a certain sign of Spring and approaching Summer than the return of chimney swifts (Chaetura pelagica) to these latitudes. I had my first sighting of the year on Saturday afternoon, along the eastern border of Prospect Park (Brooklyn). Soon, the purposeful yet unfathomed twittering of these flying acrobats will fill the heavens above my head.

There's some poetic beauty in the coincidence of these friends' arrival with Mother's Day. It was on a day very much like yesterday some thirty years ago that my grandma initiated me into the secret society of chimney swift admiration.

I remember it well. I had been staying for a few days alone with grandma in West Virginia. She was driving me back to Ohio to my parents. We stopped for lunch at a Holiday Inn in Marietta, on the Ohio River. In the parking lot, after lunch, beneath a leaden sky, grandma looked up and pointed out the "flying cigars." These tiny birds live and die on the wing. They only land to nest -- and then, they merely cling to the insides of a tree cavity, or chimney. They feed on flying insects, and migrate south when the cold approaches. They don't rest until they've reached Peru. It's a long way to go, twice a year.

Folklore has it that when a storm approaches, chimney swifts fly lower than usual. I've observed this many times over the years.

This was not the only wonder of nature my grandma initiated me to. Nor was she the only mother -- or aunt -- to perform that valuable service. But she was the eldest, and greatest. She would have appreciated the Ivory-billed woodpecker's "rediscovery," and would have pulled a gigantic book of Audubon prints from the shelf to show a young boy what a wonder it is.

Grandma took flight from this world last fall, but of course, she lives on with the swifts and the ivory bills. Let's remember all the mothers of the world, past and present, and the great mother of us all, this small planet, hurtling around an ordinary star, somewhere in the universe.

1 comment:

matt said...

Jonathan Meiburg, from the band Shearwater, has a drawing of the Ivory Billed Woodpercker on the body of his banjo. It's pretty keen. He's a grad student in ornithology, so he's well placed to capitalze on the new cachet the bird seems (deservedly) to have.