A map of Alaska with the Statewide region highlighted.
Organization: Alaska Bird Observatory
City: Fairbanks
Region: Statewide
Program Area: Education
Grants Received:
2002: $10,580

Education protects Alaska's birds and their habitats

Mission Statement
The Alaska Bird Observatory

The mission of the Alaska Bird Observatory is to advance the appreciation, understanding, and conservation of birds and their habitats through research and education.
When I was a child, the world had few birds in it. Of course every kind of dabbler, twitcher, waggler, bobber, swooper, jabber and floater lived in Juneau. They shadowed the woods, shifted on the sea's ebb, and kited across the sky. But I did not see them. Only in the broadest categories could I recognize birds: eagle, raven, robin, gull, duck. My mind was unbirded.

How did the knowing of birds come to me? One rainy December day I wondered why Canada geese were poking about on the Mendenhall Wetlands when everyone knows geese fly south each fall. Not our
geese, it turns out- not the Vancouver subspecies. Slowly the beach became not just a place to walk dogsbut a reason to thumb through a bird guide and parse a confusing visual grammar of plumage and season, of life cycle and feeding behavior, and now there were not just ducks, but goldeneyes, buffleheads, mergansers and scoters. My husband and I boated to an island and discovered a crow rookery, and for the first time I realized that birds do not exist solely as window dressing for the landscape. They had intent, hidden lives, a natural history in every sense of the phrase.

A class views a recovering bird.Spacer ImageI began following birders around, doggishly staring at whatever their hands pointed toward, turning my head like a radar dish whenever they stopped to listen. Before long I could see and hear the kingfisher rattling across Montana Creek. The golden-crowned kinglet showered a flurry of piercing notes from a spruce tree. A melancholy chime trembling in the rainforest resolved into the varied thrush- a bird I had always called "robin" because of its red breast- and now its call became the church bell of spring.

The facts of bird books don't lodge in my brain as well as they should. But there is book knowledge, and there is knowingness, and I'm content to learn my way through the world one bird at a time. Some birders travel the globe pursing life lists. I envy them the clarity and patience of that quest. I don't inventory species, but I do collect memories.

A Yellow Warbler being banded.Spacer ImageOn a long hike through Kantishna country, my friend Sam taught me the thin, obsessive lilt "I'm a white-crowned sparrow" a tune that will invade your head as insanely as any pop hit from the 1960s. Staring at the Sistine blue of a Fairbanks sky in the fall, I witnessed a kettle of sandhill cranes, hundreds of them, cranking round an enormous spirograph, their cries rising into nothingness. For one piercing moment in Kaktovik, I glimpsed a snowy owl slicing through a veiled September dawn, every nudge of its wings and head whispering, "Kill, eat, live."

This spring, friends and I visited Cordova for the annual birding festival, which takes place when great northering flocks of nationless birds pause on the Copper River Delta. It was May, and in May you're restless and eager to collect all evidence of the greening, the quickening. At the shore, I learned another bird, the western sandpiper which individually is a charming dart and thrust across the mudflats, but in thousands flash and ripple against the sky as artfully as an aurora. On the marshes, trumpeter swans glided like corsairs through reeds, heads stained from underwater grubbing of weeds. At dusk, an aria of pure longing cascaded through the spruce forest as we walked home. My friend Martha, who knows more of birds than I ever will, said "Swainson's thrush" and at last I had a name for a sound that textured my childhood, a song I had forgotten until just then.

No one needs me to say why birds matter. Their existence is enough, for them and for us. But this was what I had come for. To remember how the call and response, the rustle and freefall, can seize hold of us at any moment. To feel how, in the stoop and soar, flit and flicker, the warm and living compass of their steady purposes, the legions of birds bind the world through space and time, across the oceans, and the firmament, and the earth.

Sherry Simpson teaches nonfiction writing at the University of Alaska Anchorage. She is the author of The Way Winter Comes: Alaska Stories and is working on a book for the University Press of Kansas about the relationships between bears and people. Her favorite bird right now is the camp robber, and some day she plans to learn its real name.