Birds try to escape climate change

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I was walking all the way around my adopted hometown of Portland on the 260-mile-long "Urban Growth Boundary," Oregon's famous experiment in progressiveness and pissing off landowners. I passed farms, suburbs, pod-malls, vistas. But I was looking for something harder to see -- what a city was, or could be. I had come North to escape the desolation of Los Angeles. I wanted to know.

And then I heard it: a single breathy note, echoing down from fir trees along a two-lane south of downtown. A vibration pure as a flute but buzzed with unexpected harmonics -- near, like it was inside my body, and yet alien -- wet, dissonant, warning, welcoming: it was the roundest, interestingest sound ever.

An Explorer rushed by, vanished. A minute passed. And then another note, oddly chosen, filled the tall green space. Filled me. Then another, again at an interval I couldn't figure: Random? Augmented seventh? Twelve-tone row? Caged, uncaged, waiting in wealthy silence for the next note, I thought, Maybe this is what a musician knows: A single note can be the world.

The varied thrush -- it was a bird I remembered. Imperfect naturalist that I am, I had believed it to be found only far up in the North Cascades, where I'd first heard a pair fluting at each other in a grove of huge shaggy hemlocks, a sound so remote and antique it was unnerving. And here it was on the edge of town! My bird books say the varied thrush winters throughout the Pacific states, even down into my old California ranges. A rarity only to me, it seems.

But the books will have to be revised. The thrush is leaving.

Like hundreds of other birds, this one is moving its winter range northwards as the climate warms. The Audubon Society has just released a 40-year comparative study of 305 bird species showing an average winter shift of 35 miles, while some (like the varied thrush) have moved two, three, even four hundred miles. It's an unmistakable trend. Yet, oddly, a few species have moved south. Apparently global warming means global weirdness, eddies and unpredictabilities. Who knows what an Oregon winter is, any more? Surely not the snowy, sunny thing we had this year. Where's the drizzle? Soon we will add: Where's the thrush?

Only last year we heard that horticultural "plant hardiness zones" had migrated north one full zone since 1990. The National Arbor Day Foundation's Web map shows an eerie animation of all 10 zones, colored like snowcones, melting northwards -- Atlanta's milder winters drifting up to Knoxville, St. Louis' to Cedar Rapids.

The birds follow.

When I saw the varied thrush marked on a map of the 20 species shifting the farthest, it felt strangely personal. Turns out its winter range used to be centered right here on the Columbia River -- my paradise, my carpetbagging heart's delight. Now it has moved up to about Vancouver, B.C. It's the kind of bird you generally hear but don't see, but just a month ago I glimpsed one in a still-bare oak down by the coast. Colorful against the gray sky, orange and black but scruffy, like a mussed-up robin crossed with an oriole. I better put that date in my notes.

I came North to escape desolation: the heat, the sprawl, the juggernaut of loss. Now the south comes after me. And the thrush heads to Canada, like my lefty friends. I considered moving on, too, when it looked like torture and propaganda had become the new baseline of our political lives.

But there is no haven; there never was. Solzhenitsyn's generation sometimes spoke of internal exile. It didn't mean being sent off to camps. It was the silent inward withdrawal to a place of untouchability -- the last defense.

I wonder how much numbness, how much internal exile, will tempt the next generations, those to whom the scale of our global misdeeds will be unmistakable. To get through the next hundred years we will need to listen very quietly, even as we go about our arguing and living. We will have to look for something harder to see than guilt, harder to hear than slogans of hope or denial.

Sometimes I glimpse a way of living that isn't merely sprawl and avarice -- a city humbled by limits but edged by beauty, penetrated by it. There are moments so replete no desolation can touch them. We may go looking for them, but in truth they find us as often as not. If we are listening. 

David Oates writes about nature and urban life from Portland, Oregon.

City migration
Jun 24, 2009 12:17 PM
If all the people from So. Cal. who have moved away to 'escape' the horrors of sprawl by bringing their SUV and McMansion lifestyle with them to oregon would just GO BACK to where they came from and try to DO SOMETHING about the horrible conditions the cities they left are in, perhaps we would see some evolution. Perhaps the whole pack up and leave when things are getting to hard mentality is the reason we are experiencing global warming in the first place. The south doesn't come after you -it is you. Deal with it.
Rock on . . .
Jul 09, 2009 12:07 PM
Yes! That was awesome, Tina.

And to the author: the winters are supposed to be snowy. It's only since the 80s that the area has been receiving less snow. So more snow is a good thing. Deal!
So exclusive
Jul 15, 2009 08:58 AM
Of course this comment is from someone who is either a native Oregonian or moved there a while ago and claims this as home. It is not bad to point out problems with reasoning but I moved to Portland to learn more about how to make my home a better place and I got the same ati-portland sentiments that exclude people from the society if they were from a different place. If you want to spread the word about sustainability, what Portland is so well known for doing well, you should probably be a little more inviting and hospitable, we are all trying to do our best here!
Jul 16, 2009 08:44 PM
I'm sure the Native Americans that your great-great grandparents displaced had the same sentiments. Migration happens, and America is one of the few places where you can do it unrestricted and freely. Deal with that.
Bird Migration
Jun 24, 2009 02:11 PM
Is the cited bird report "just released" by the Audubon Society the same as the report they released in February, 2009? These reports say that birds migrate to areas having both adequate food at an agreeable temperature. Nothing new here. Back when climate changed just for the heck of it (before man had any discernible influence on the climate), didn't these birds shift and adjust their range then? Of course they did. Now, natural climate change has an assist from man's encroachment into their habitat through urban expansion, pesticide use, wildlife management boo-boos, and such. It's a wonder the swallows still come back to Capistrano.

I'm sorry you miss your favorite species, but try and look at it this way...if this is how the highly touted global warming is affecting you at your place on the planet, consider yourself lucky. The global warming alarmists say you/we/all of us are in store for much worse...just wait and your great grandchildren will see!
Birds fly North
Jun 24, 2009 05:28 PM
I live in Western WA near Aberdeen. I have been seeing and hearing varied thrush for over 30 years at my home. Nothing shy about them winter, spring, summer, or fall. We have noticed scrub jays in the past 10 years showing up in the more open areas -- but still have our saucy Steller's Jays that announce us at every step of the way on our morning walk-abouts. When the oceans become too fresh from melting ice packs, we'll see colder weather. Then everyone can obsess about how we'll grow enough food to feed the planet and what to do about freezing Rufus hummingbirds... It's always something. Turn off the TV. Go for a walk. Control your urge to multiply and replenish the earth.
taking notice
Brett Rasmussen
Brett Rasmussen
Jul 13, 2009 07:26 PM
Wow, people tearing into this fellow for noticing changes in the phenology of his area. God forbid we be aware of what is happening in the natural world around us and attempt to communicate that with others!
I think it's pretty clear that the environmental and societal problems the world faces go beyond this one species. But we certainly are better served by responding in a proactive and positive way.

Also, I prefer to pay attention to changes in my environment, regardless of the size. I choose not to "wait for my great grandchildren to see" the results of climate change. We are ALL the problem, we are ALL in this together, and we ALL need to work together to change things. Let's all "deal with it" together.
Jul 14, 2009 05:08 PM
This is a lovely piece, written so well I could almost hear the thrush myself. Thank you. These are the moments for which each of us must be grateful.
Varied Thrush
Jul 14, 2009 09:12 PM
Wonderfully written. I could feel the dripping forests of the North Cascades. Don't let the bitter blather get you down.