My parents’ homeland is Mauritius, an island of rich cultural and natural diversity located 900 kilometres east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. I spent the first nine years of my life travelling back and forth between Mauritius and Ontario.
Mauritius, of course, was home to the now extinct dodo bird. It’s funny about the dodo bird – growing up, we were mostly aware of the dodo’s reputation as the butt of a kind of evolutionary joke, and I thought it was somewhat embarrassing. But the island is also the site of one of the great successes in wildlife conservation: the recovery of the echo parakeet. Once down to a population of only 10 birds in the 1970s, this tropical bird – with its stunning dark green plumage and black collar – now numbers 300, thanks to the work of local conservation organizations and countless volunteers.
When I came across a magazine article about bird banding in Ontario, I was thrilled to find out that bird observatories depend on volunteers, and that many observatories are willing to train people who have no previous experience to do the work. It seemed like something I could do – and I so wanted to know the feeling of holding a bird in the hand!
We were a team of three on the banding trip to Cabot Head on the Bruce Peninsula: Stephane, the French-born bander-in-charge, Liz, an ornithology student, and me. We would get up just before sunrise and unfurl the 15 or so nets in the neighbouring woods. Every half hour, we would check the nets, untangle any birds caught, place them in a cloth bag and take them back to the cabin to measure and weigh them and determine their sex and age. We would do this for most of the morning. On cold, rainy or windy days, we would not unfurl the nets – partly because fewer birds fly in such weather, and partly because birds captured in those conditions might risk shock or hypothermia or simply getting more entangled in the net. But in better weather, there was plenty of activity – one day we banded 82 birds.
I was struck by the varied responses of different birds to being netted. The sharp-shinned hawks and blue jays seemed quite argumentative, while the white-crowned sparrows kicked – like horses! – and the western palm warblers were timid and quiet and watchful.
Untangling the birds is extraordinarily painstaking work. The net gets wrapped around the birds’ delicate structures, and you really feel how a bird is mostly feathers, how small the body is. I was pregnant during the trip and just beginning to feel the baby move – it felt like a fluttering. It was really intriguing to me to feel this sensation at the same time as I was learning the feel of a bird in the hand. And I love the idea that a bird banded in Cabot Head may be found again years later in Costa Rica – how this work connects volunteers across such distance.
I would like to continue to learn about bird banding. I find myself researching the ecologies of places that I write about more and more. I love this naming of things; now it seems to me so essential – this specificity – to poetry and language and the attempt to create a sense of intimacy in one’s experience of the world. When I know something about the environment that I live in, I feel I’m taking my place there with other creatures, other lives, other cycles. It makes my life larger.