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Birds of a feather feel dread together

For some reason things of bird-interest seem to flock to me—seriously. One of the first big book projects I worked on was The Sibley Guide to Birds and right around that time I met my now husband who was a self-proclaimed birder. I didn’t even know what a birder was at the time. This particular word originated in the US in 1945 and was first cited in Audubon Magazine. The OED has a funny quote about the term from The Boston Globe, in April 1967: “Some time ago an assembly of Audubon enthusiasts rejected the term ‘bird watchers’ by which they had been commonly known, and adopted the designation ‘birders’.” Well, I think it’s funny anyway. If you know any birders—they can be a serious bunch—you’ll think it’s funny too.

Getting back to my story, since that fortuitous introduction to birding by David Allen Sibley and my future husband, bird books and books obsessed in one way or another with birds come my way all the time. I thought it particularly odd that in my first few months of working on freelance publicity projects two works of fiction with characters deeply interested in birds landed on my desk.

Now, this all came together last week when there was a mass crash of birds in Utah—the birds mistook a Wal-mart parking lot and a football field for a body of water. This atrocious mistake killed thousands of eared grebes and injured many more and started me thinking about one very peculiar birding word: dread. Both of the two aforementioned books I’m working on this winter deal with mass die-offs of birds. It is an occurrence that has become more prevalent in the past decade with over 150 known instances in the United States. I have never seen a die-off but I have experienced a dread.

Counting chicks, banding birds, and avoiding elephants

Several years ago, in the summers, I would volunteer to spend a week on a research station run by the American Museum of Natural History’s ornithology department. It is called Great Gull Island, despite the fact that it is primarily inhabited by terns in the breeding season. We volunteers did a few things research-wise that required a number of people to enter the tern colony and band birds, count chicks, eggs and elephants (an elephant is a baby tern, no longer a tiny chick but not yet a fledgling. They run about haphazardly, zigging and zagging and dodging always carefully placed feet – for there is nothing worse than trampling one of these wee creatures).

On Great Gull Island, as volunteers and museum researchers move through the colony they believe, although they aren’t 100% certain, that stress levels in the birds reach a collective peak and all at once without any kind of obvious impetus the birds lift off as one, leaving their nests, babies and eggs and fly off the island. They will circle the island en masse a few times (it is not a large island, about one mile from tip to tip and 400 yards across at its widest) and then return in smaller groups. The OED Online describes the phenomenon simply as: ‘A sudden take-off and flight of a flock of gulls or other birds.’ But there really is something much deeper than this to it.

Dread, panic, …. and silence

I’m not an expert in the matter, so I decided to ask Joe DiCostanzo of the Museum of Natural History for his thoughts on the word dread. His first response was to send me the definition from A Dictionary of Birds, edited by Bruce Campbell and Elizabeth Lack (1985, Buteo Books):

Under DREAD it says see PANIC. (This dictionary originated in Britain so it may be that the Brits use the term panic more than dread. That I do not know.—Joe’s note) Under PANIC it has the following:

PANIC: in a special sense, a sudden wave of alarm – often for no reason apparent to the observer – spreads very quickly through a flock of birds (especially waders) or colony (especially gulls Laridae and terns Sternidae). The birds rise and fly off together, usually returning soon; also called a “dread”.

But Joe and I both agree that it is more than a simple “wave of alarm.” To really understand the occurrence of a dread in the field one must experience the emotional feeling that is associated with it and here is where the term dread truly fits the bill. Joe added in his message, “The only thing I would add to the definition above is that with terns, the dread is also characterized by the initial fly-out being done silently and the terns only start calling (loudly) as they return. To me this initial silent fly-out is really what makes it a “dread” as opposed to the birds just flying off in a “panic” as a loud calling flock. In the tern colony, your attention is drawn to the dread by the sudden silence since—the birds are generally calling all the time as part of their normal activity. Sometimes you hear the dread through the colony as an approaching wave of silence.”

Until Joe described it I couldn’t recall what it was about experiencing a dread that was so unsettling. But it is the silence. The terns call all day long—loud and high pitched—and dive bomb the people entering the colony. They even call throughout the night without relenting. So to experience complete silence on the island is deeply disconcerting. The term dread is nothing if not perfectly suited to this amazing phenomenon.