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Weeds: Find a way to keep the birds

West of Sleepy Eye there was a hemp field this season. There are thoughts that hemp can become a crop to complement corn and soybeans, so farmers are rooting for it. It was fascinating to watch Bryan Berkner plant, tend, and harvest the plants. It was combined early in September, and the stalks were left to stand.

Every fall we have a day when the blackbirds come. Lots of them. It is usually on one of those crisp, sun-anointed fall days. The blackbirds are glorious to behold as they squawk and chirp and screech on every branch in the grove. I looked it up, and the noisy flock is called a “cloud” or “cluster” of blackbirds.

For several weeks this October, such a cluster made daily appearances in the harvested hemp field. I’m thinking they were finding hemp seeds in the stubble. (You can make your own joke here about the birds being interested in the minute level of THC. Birds with a buzz?)

It’s hard to know how many, but it was thousands. They regularly flew back and forth to a corn field across the highway, sometimes overhead as I drove to town. My guess is they liked the shelter of the corn stalks. Regardless of their reasons, it amazed as the group ascended and descended in harmony. Right, left, up, down in absolute unison. It really is a kind of natural poetry as you watch them move in such choreography. One can’t help but think, “How do they do that?”

The blackbirds are an extraordinary example, but we live with birds all the time, year-round. If you are outside, even if you have the windows open in the summer, you’re likely hearing them. They are a part of the backdrop to our lives, mostly unnoticed.

I got schooled in this phenomenon years ago by young son Ezra. He was three or four. We stepped out of the house together, and Ezra stopped and stood perfectly still. I thought something was wrong, and finally asked what he was doing. He said simply, “Listening to the birds.”

Then I heard them. Yes, there were birds all around us. It hit me, that in my adult-oblivion, with probably ten things on my mind, I was missing this great gift from God/nature. Since that day, I try to listen like a four-year old occasionally when I am out in the yard.

Our farm is home to a variety of birds. The constant ones are the sparrows. That’s what we’ve always called them, or “sputzies.” Come to find out, our sparrows are not sparrows, but rather house finches. They came from England. They are an invasive species. Only the species they displaced were mostly gone anyway. Tough little critters, the sputzies are flitting about the place when it’s 30 below.

Robins and barn swallows spend summers here. They are favorites, harbingers of the warm season when they arrive. The swallows come late and leave early. I commented to a few farmer friends back in September that I would miss the swallows. After several weeks of gathering on an overhead wire plotting their travel itinerary, they were gone one morning, and I felt a tinge of sadness.

I didn’t find much love for the sleek little birds among my fellow farmers. Some of them don’t care for their nesting and the resultant droppings. I actually leave openings in a couple sheds for the swallows. I’m willing to trade scraping a little bird poop for the bugs consumed and aerial show on summer nights.

Other birds make appearances but don’t take up permanent residence: blue jays, cardinals, owls, hummingbirds. Various woodpeckers hang out for a while. The most striking are bald eagles who have begun visiting a few times a year. They soar in circles above the farm site, likely looking for some critter-dinner down below. Occasionally an eagle will rest atop one of the highest branches in the grove. In my mind I thank them for their consecration upon our homeplace.

You may have seen the recent analysis done by scientists that reported the dispiriting news that North America has seen a decline in bird numbers of 30% since 1970. There are 2.9 billion fewer birds in our skies than 50 years ago. The greatest decline has been in prairie populations. In the bad news was that nugget that gave me pause. Those prairies are what lie beneath our farm, both in history and in soil.

When I was a kid, I remember walking out the driveway to get the mail, or whatever it is kids do. There were telephone and electric lines coming into the place back then. Almost without fail, there was a meadowlark up on those lines singing its trill, sharp melody. Meadowlarks are prairie birds. The ones I heard were likely descendants of populations that had been there thousands of years.

Back then, probably a fourth of the land around me was in some type of pasture. Another fourth of the land may have been in grains, alfalfa, or some other hay crop. There were still a couple untiled sloughs within the section. In many ways, it was a reasonable facsimile of the prairies that had been there a century before.

Now, it is corn and soybeans. I haven’t seen or heard a meadowlark in decades.

I suppose there are several ways I can react to the news about the dramatic decline in bird population in most of our lifetimes. One is to shrug and ignore it and go about my day. Many will.

Another would be to assume the scientists are wrong. I could look at all the blackbirds flying across Highway 14 and say, “Look at all the birds. How can there be fewer birds?” It is like saying it is cold outside, so there is no global warming. These imply that I am smarter than the scientists, and it is no doubt comforting to feel that way.

Or I can feel a bit of sadness and wonder if there is anything I can do to help. I grow corn and soybeans, so pointing fingers does no good. Maybe I can find a small way or two to use less of the world up. Maybe I can make my farm a little less unfriendly to nature. Maybe I can consider the Earth when I am choosing among candidates for office.

In Genesis 1:20, God says, “Let the water teem with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the vault of the sky.” God put them there. It is on us to keep them there.

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