My friend asked incredulously, “You got up at 3 a.m. to go bird watching?”
Well, yeah, because by 6 a.m. I was parked alongside a mountain road, watching the rising sun tint pink the snow-capped peaks. The only sounds were the songs of the vesper sparrows and meadowlarks, the sharp whistles and trills from the one providing a musical counterpoint to the liquid stream of notes from the other. Greater sage-grouse contributed the drum line – a low beat coming from a pouch in their esophagus, which they inflate with up to a gallon of air before squeezing it out in a soft “boom, boom, boom.”
The vesper sparrow belongs to the taxonomic species Pooecetes, meaning grass dweller. Both its scientific and common names are apt, for it inhabits grasslands and sings into twilight, the hour of vespers. A small brown and white bird, it tends to be secretive, unlike its neighbor the meadowlark, which at this time of year often can be seen perched on the top branches of a shrub or fence post. Male meadowlarks sport a bright yellow breast with a V-shaped collar. Despite its eye-catching appearance, John James Audubon felt that the bird was so common that it was overlooked by early settlers, so he bestowed on it the scientific name of Sturnella neglecta, (starling-like ignored). These days, however, it is the state bird of six states.
It the pale dawn light I could see neither the sparrows nor the meadowlarks, but I could make out the real reason I was parked in that particular spot. Not too far in front of me were a dozen male greater sage-grouse, parading about in the hopes of impressing a hen.
Viewed head on the male greater sage-grouse looks like a stereotypical old-fashioned English gentleman – bald, with yellow eyebrows, strutting with a puffed-out chest and wearing a thick white scarf. From the rear he offers a different view entirely: His spiky tail feathers fan out like a war bonnet.
Unlike the males, the female greater sage-grouse is unremarkable, a pudgy bird about the size of a chicken, with brown and white feathers that provide camouflage in their desert habitat. Even the males can be difficult to spot except in the early morning hours of breeding season, when they gather at a place known as a lek, an open area where they can be better seen and heard by females.
Because leks are located in prime areas for mineral extraction or housing development, habitat destruction led to greater sage-grouse being extirpated from five states in their historic range. It is an example of the urgent need to care for our common home that Pope Francis called for in his 2015 encyclical “Laudato Si’.” Conservation of the natural habitat is necessary because destruction of the environment is tied to society’s decline, he said: “The human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together; we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation.” (LS 48)
Conservationists ask us to consider, in the words of Pope Francis, “What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up?” (LS 160)
Myself, I would like to leave a world in which those children can sit alongside a mountain road at dawn, listening to bird songs and watching the sunrise. I want them to be able to find a still, quiet spot that conjures images of Eden and thoughts of God’s creation – the type of place that is becoming increasing rare in our overcrowded, clamoring world.
Such places can be found today in part because there are those who appreciate their value. In 2015, after a decade of conservation work, the population of the greater sage-grouse was stable enough that the federal government decided not to give the bird protection through the Endangered Species Act. Because of that work, I was able to spend a morning contemplating God’s creation. Because of that work, there is hope that those who now are children will be able to do the same when they are my age. But this will only happen if that work is carried on. So, yes, I got up at 3 a.m. to go bird watching, not only for myself but to be able to share the experience in order that others may know conservation is not just for the birds, it’s for future generations.
Marie Mischel is editor of the Intermountain Catholic. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.