Standing on the streets of Cleveland, shivering in the pre-dawn dark, I can’t tell which direction the wind is coming from, only that it’s sharp enough to cut through my fleece jacket and make me wish I’d worn more layers. Tim, in his khaki cargo shorts and hoodie, seems oblivious to the cold. He starts off down the street, gesturing for me to follow, and I am grateful to get moving.
“You better walk fast. Keep up!” Michelle hollers, already ten paces ahead.
I jog until I reach her. I’ve never seen the city so empty. The only vehicles on the road are the RTA buses, their headlights casting yellow beams on predetermined paths. They hiss and screech and groan as if they, too, are just waking up. It’s just past five a.m. and in the sky above us orioles, warblers, thrushes, and other songbirds are flying south. Cleveland, with its maze of tall, bright buildings threatens to interrupt their journey. Tim and Michelle keep their eyes glued to the sidewalks looking for birds that have strayed from the flyway and collided with buildings.
I know I should be scanning the ground for victims, but my eyes trace the skyline. Illuminated billboard signs, lamps in office windows, and electric lettering on buildings turns the sky an ominous purple. A flock of birds glides through the air, silhouetted against the artificial light.
“Quick! Gimme your net,” Tim says.
I jump, my attention snapping back to ground-level. My stiff fingers clamp the wooden handle, and I fumble to pass it off to him. In one swift motion he crouches down and brings the net to the sidewalk, trapping a bird in its soft mesh. The bird, just slightly larger than Tim’s fist, flaps its wings in panic. Beside me, Michelle springs into action; on a brown paper bag she marks down the time, location, and species of our catch. 5:14 a.m., Euclid Ave., gray catbird.
As Tim slowly lifts the net and gently pulls the bird from its hold, he juts his chin to the glowing green Starbucks sign above our heads.
“See how much brighter this store front is than the rest?” he asks.
He’s right. Lights inside the store illuminate posters advertising pumpkin spice lattes. A beacon of warmth and consumerism in a row of dark storefronts—but for whom? I scan the deserted plaza. The store won’t open for another hour. Tim cups his hand around the bird’s head, as he transfers it into the brown bag. The darkness helps calm the bird—limiting stress aids rehabilitation. He folds the top of the bag like a lunch sack, and paperclips the fold three times. The three-paperclip method is crucial for containing live birds. Ornery birds can push or peck their way out. Certain species need to be double bagged because they shit so much that their poop soaks through the paper and their feet tear through the limp packaging.
He sets the package in the red Hawaiian-patterned reusable TJ Max bag slung over his shoulder. This bird will go back with Tim to the Lake Erie Nature & Science Center (LENSC), where he works as a wildlife rehabilitation specialist. It’ll spend one to two days under his care, resting and eating mealworms, maybe taking some anti-inflammatory meds, regaining strength for the long flight south. The center has an astounding 86% survival and release rate.
We find our next victim in less than ten minutes. In the shadow of a skyscraper, a bird lies on its back, white speckled belly facing up, tiny legs protruding from its body. I can tell by the way its neck is bent, cheek flat against the cold concrete, that it won’t ever fly again. Michelle places an index finger on the body to check for a heartbeat—nothing. The plumage almost matches the sidewalk, a dusty brown color. Faint stripes on the wings and stomach help us identify it as a house wren. I half expect Michelle to pull out a stick of chalk so we can trace the outline of its body like a homicide victim.
“Aw, still warm,” Tim says lifting the bird from the ground. By repeating the same small route over and over, we have a better chance of finding birds while they are still alive or in this case a close estimate of time of death. “Here,” he says and thrusts the bird in my direction. “You’re allowed to touch them, you know.”
I crouch to the ground, dropping my notebook. Tim chuckles at my eagerness. The carcass feels warm and vulnerable in my hand; moments ago this body held considerable power. I could close my fingers and make the creature disappear completely. An average house wren weigh about ten grams, as much as two nickels. I stroke the soft head with my pointer finger and then hand the bird to Michelle. The body will go to the ornithology collection at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History (CMNH); it’s data now.
Before standing up, I tilt my head back and stare up at the wall of reflective windows. From this angle, the building seems impossibly tall, an obvious barrier in an otherwise wide open sky. I shrink in its shadow. But there’s no time to linger, Tim and Michelle are already starting off again.
House wrens, gray catbirds, and other songbirds that migrate south in the fall do the majority of their long-distance flying at night. They use stars to determine their orientation, north to south. As dawn approaches, and the night sky begins to lighten, the glow of skyscrapers and illuminated Starbuck’s storefronts, outshines the stars, confusing the navigating birds. Light pollution can cause birds to veer off course and descend into the city, where buildings create insurmountable boundaries for creatures accustomed to the boundless, open sky. A head-on building collision can result in cracked beaks, damaged wings, any number of other injuries, and even death. Building collisions kill an estimated 365-988 million birds in the United States annually.
For the most part these deaths are concentrated in coastal cities. After crossing large bodies of water, like the Great Lakes, the birds need to land in order to rest and eat. Cleveland, Chicago, Toronto, and Milwaukee have made lake shores treacherous. This problem is human-made, and therefore humans can solve it. Tim, Michelle, and the cohort of volunteers that join them, make up Lights Out Cleveland, one of many North American organizations pushing to reduce light pollution. They urge companies, and people, to turn off or dim their lights during migration periods, and every morning from mid-August to the end of October, Tim and the volunteers scour the streets of Cleveland from 5-8 a.m., rescuing the injured and collecting the dead.
I knew as soon as I’d learned about Lights Out that I wanted to see these building collision first-responders in action on the front lines. I’d corresponded briefly with Tim on Facebook before picking a date to rise at 3:40 a.m. and drive to the city.
It was a Friday, early in October. Fall migration season was nearing its end as autumn picked up speed and cool winds pushed birds south. But with a few deceptively warm days in the month, there were still a few waves of travelers left, according to the predictions of BirdCast, a migration forecast run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Having overestimated the time it’d take me to drive to Cleveland (not taking into account that there’s no traffic at 4 a.m.), I’d arrived before anyone else, parking alone in front of the designated meeting spot: Drury Hotel, a grand stone building with impressive arched windows; and of course, a glowing red sign and bright white lights spotlighting the entrance.
A few minutes passed until I got company—a blue Mini Cooper with the license plate “MEDUCK.” As the car pulled up behind me, I eyed the driver in my rear-view mirror.
She got out a moment later, knocked on my passenger side window, and waved a butterfly net at me. I nodded, but before I could get out, she’d already opened the passenger door.
“You’re here for the birds, aren’t you?” she asked; her British accent surprised me. “Here’s an extra net for you. No, don’t get out yet. I just think I saw one, so I’m gonna go check it out.” And with that she took off at a light jog down the empty sidewalk, butterfly net streaming behind her.
After a few minutes, other cars started lining the street and a small group gathered in front of the hotel.
Tim clapped his hands to get the group’s attention. “Alright, everybody. Cold front last night means northern tail winds. Expect a lot,” he said.
Northern tail winds mean that the breeze comes from the north and blows south, just the direction birds fly during fall migration. Aside from solar, stellar, and geomagnetic cues, birds also pay attention to the weather. Moderate tailwinds (25mph or less) give them just enough push so that they can cruise, but not get blown off course. Cold fronts remind them that their food source here will soon be dwindling, and sets large numbers of birds in motion.
Tim broke us up into groups of three. We donned yellow and orange safety vests and dispersed across the city.
After the house wren, we’re on to our second loop of Public Square, one of the most dangerous routes. Bright windows and glowing signs are only the beginning of hazards. City beautification efforts have led to increased greenery—trees, bushes or as Tim says, “They’ve installed habitat.”
The reflection of the trees in shiny building exteriors makes the bird think the habitat stretches on forever. Architects of skyscrapers love incorporating glass into elegant and modern designs. Large windows give bored office employees an opportunity to connect to the outside world: take in the rising sun, admire birds soaring through the sky. But to birds, glass is deadly.
We weave around concrete planters, past hotel entrances and store fronts scouring the ground for bodies. A homeless person wrapped in a purple sleeping bag sleeps on the steps of an office building, and I lower my voice so as not to disturb them.
“Ope, couple of dead beer bottles,” Tim jokes, pointing to two brown Great Lakes Brewing bottles on the ground next to a planter.
Every bottle and cigarette carton, every leaf and piece of crumpled newspaper begin to look like birds to me. I try to keep up with my walking partners, but their eyes scan much faster and they spot each victim well before I do. Once you do collision monitoring, Michelle tells me, you never stop looking.
“My whole neighborhood brings me birds,” she says and chuckles. “My freezer is like half food, half specimens. I’m like, ‘Andy! Take these to work so I can have more room for pizza!’” Dr. Andy Jones, Michelle’s husband, is the Director of Conservation at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and oversees the ornithology collection. He views the Lights Out collection as invaluable.
As we walk, Tim tells me about his lifelong infatuation with birds. “Birds are bomb,” he says. “Mammals are cool. Reptiles are certainly interesting, but birds are friggin awesome.”
At age five, he remembers begging his parents to let him keep one as a pet. His dad worked at a pool and would bring home all kinds of creatures: turtles, snakes, frogs. They’d keep them for a few days, then release them. One day he brought a surprise home for a seven-year-old Tim. Tim guessed every animal he could imagine—except a bird. “I was a stupid kid,” he jokes. The surprise turned out to be a cockatiel named Socrates. That was the beginning. By age thirteen Tim was breeding caged birds; by twenty, he had over 300. He’s toned it down a little now and only keeps a few homing pigeons.
When we cross the street, we don’t bother to wait for the “walk” sign—there’s no one out anyway. My ears perk up at the sound of a nearby chirping. I think it could be a bird, but I’m skeptical it might be the mechanical beeping from the crossing sign. I’m too embarrassed by the fact that I can’t tell city sounds from nature ones that I don’t bother to ask. Tim stops in the middle of the road and looks up. I almost run straight into him.
“See those warblers circling?” he says, pointing to five small shapes fluttering in the bruised purple sky. My stomach churns. Confused by the light and unsure of which direction to fly, the warblers might keep circling until they collapse from exhaustion. Their repetitive and rapid wing movements make me feel like they’re trying to convey some urgent message. I can’t help but think of how miners used canaries to judge the toxicity of the air. If the birds were in trouble, so too, were humans.
The later it gets, the more people begin to emerge out of buildings. Managers jangle keys and open brass doors of skyscrapers. A homeless man urinates in alleyway. Car headlights flash in the street. Bus doors creak open and exhale crowds of morning commuters.
“Excuse me,” a woman standing on the street corner asks us. “What’s with the nets?”
Tim launches in to a spiel about the Lights Out Cleveland project. The sign shifts from a red hand to the walk symbol and the woman looks like she wants to cross, but Tim keeps talking. He tells her that his crew has nursed and released 486 victims and collected over 1,000 specimens total this season. He pulls a business card from one of his short’s pockets. She smiles with closed lips, takes the card, and hurries away from us. Michelle gives Tim a tiny round of applause. She knows the challenge of getting people to listen.
Each feathered body that I see placed in a brown paper bag carries a somber message, but so many of us are ignorant to the sound of their silence. Unlike the dead canary in the coal mine, this silence isn’t an indicator of air quality, but a warning that there is something seriously wrong with our priorities. If we don’t act soon, bird populations will continue to dwindle. To picture a world without birds is to picture a world void of one of the oldest and most diverse life forms. They remind us of the beauty of evolution, the wonderful otherness of nature. These thoughts plague my mind as we walk. This morning has brought a rollercoaster of emotions: elation at being a part of the solution, devastation at witnessing firsthand the brutality of the problem.
We find a yellow-shafted flicker in front of Tower City. Unlike the others, it’s been dead for a while, feathers matted around a deflated body, beak bent open in a perpetual cry. Cigarette butts form a halo around its head. The dirt-stained, fraying feathers suggest the wind dragging the body through the streets. Even though the mangled body can’t be used as a specimen, we collect it anyway, unwilling to leave it for maggots and rats. On the brown paper bag, Michelle marks the time of death as “unknown.”
I glance at my phone to check the time: 7:32 a.m. If the clouds weren’t covering the sky, we would’ve seen the sunrise a few moments ago. Instead it seems to have gotten lighter all at once; the sky goes from the eerie dark purple to a light gray. Instead of charging through the sidewalks, we now weave in and out of men carrying briefcases, women clacking in their high heels, a young kid riding a high-tech scooter. A security guard takes the weather covers off the furniture on a hotel patio. He delicately arranges floral throw pillows on either end of the pink outdoor loveseat; the city is all about appearances. The guard sees us and waves.
“That’s Dave,” Tim says. “He’ll save birds for us, if he finds them. Puts them in the planters around the patio.”
I imagine Dave tucking dead birds behind the hostas and daylillies, like a grandmother cleverly hiding Easter eggs in her garden. I picture Tim pushing back the leaves, with the same impatience as a child, but instead of a candy-filled egg, he finds a feathered specimen.
We almost don’t see the Lincoln sparrow on the sidewalk next to a looming concrete building. It looks still, so Tim and Michelle remove the net and prepare to take their forensic photograph. But I notice that the bird’s tiny legs quivering ever so slightly. I look closer and notice the way the edges of its shadow ripple, as if on water and not solid concrete.
“Wait,” I say. “I think it’s still breathing.”
“Holy shit,” Tim scoops it up and cups his hand over its head. “You’re right. We got a heartbeat!”
He looks at me with what feels like a newfound respect. “Good catch, dude.”
After the sparrow, we don’t find another bird. My nose drips from the cold, and I can hardly move my frozen fingers. My feet ache; according to Michelle’s phone, we walked five and a half miles this morning. We meet up with the rest of the group in front of the hotel and compare our finds—not the worst day, but not the best either, we conclude. The sparrow twitches in the bag, coming back to life from the near-death scare. Tim tells the group about my catch and says we should expect a full recovery, thanks to me. I feel proud.
I look at the faces of bird saviors around me. They all have different reasons for being here. Some are Tim’s friends, some have deep appreciation for museum specimens, some come for the exercise and social aspect, some like seeing the city at a weird time. Others are bird lovers, here for the purest of reasons. The woman who lent me her net early this morning leans in to tell me that she isn’t a birder, per say, just an animal lover.
“Every life is important and if I can save one, it’s worth it,” she says. It’s not a line. Her name is Ali and throughout the morning I’ve learned she’s something of a legend. She’s here everyday—arrives first, leaves last. “I always think, ‘there’s one more out there, just get one more,’” she tells me. Tim reminds her that they’ll never get them all. The rest of the volunteers head for their cars, but Ali lingers, staring up at the sky. A flock flies overhead, wings flapping in beautiful synchronicity. A woman brushes past us on the sidewalk, pulling a suitcase behind her. Cars honk, brakes screech, and the parking garage across the street fills up. The birds disappear from our view.
The lower level of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History reminds me of a parking garage—all concrete and struggling fluorescent lights. I follow Dr. Andy Jones past several storage rooms and into a lab area where volunteers are helping to process the Lights Out birds who didn’t survive. The volunteers, mostly older retired folks, huddle around a worktable in the middle of the room. Each person has a brown lunch tray, a pair of metal scissors, and a set of forceps in front of them. Courtney Brennan, the ornithology collections manager, stands at the head of the table and directs the procedures. I feel like I’ve been transported back to high school biology and it’s dissection day.
On the counter, a fan blows onto a row of thawing white throated sparrows. The museum is still processing Lights Out collections from 2017, so these birds have spent the last year in the freezer. Freezing the birds helps preserve the specimens, but also kills any mites, lice, or bugs that might be living between the feathers. Researchers must be extremely cautious not to allow any critters into the museum’s ornithology collection; just a few bugs could eat through the entire collection of preserved birds.
Courtney reaches for one of the sparrows and sticks it in her armpit. “See, this is why you should never wear your favorite shirt to work,” she says. The best way to speed up the thawing process? A little human warmth.
When the carcass reaches an acceptable temperature, she passes the specimen to a volunteer. The first step for preparing the bird involves feather tousling. Run your fingers across its back, against the grain so the feathers get spread every which way. Ruffle the soft downing on its head, like you might scratch a puppy’s head. Hold the bird up in the air, a foot above the table, and—drop it. The new volunteers hesitate.
“Drop the specimen?” one old lady asks, as if thinking this part was a joke.
“You want to dislodge the mites? Drop it,” says Dr. Jones.
The white paper barely crinkles when their bodies land on the table. Despite all the feather-ruffling, head-patting, and calculated scientific dropping, I don’t see any bugs. Just wait, says Dr. Jones. He slides the white sheet under the microscope, spins the knobs to pull it into focus, and motions for me to take a look. Tiny black-winged creatures litter the paper that looked blank to my naked eye. These mysterious microscopic ectoparasites live between the barbs of bird feathers. A bird might have five mites living on it, no mites, or hundreds. The mites are also species specific; you won’t find the same bug on a white throated sparrow that you’d find on a black capped chickadee. Scientists aren’t sure where the mites come from or even if they have any effect on the bird. Having such a huge data set from the Lights Out collection might help answer some of those questions. The volunteer uses a paintbrush to sweep the contents of the paper into a tiny glass vial that will be shipped to researchers in Philadelphia who are itching to document life between feathers.
After labeling and sorting the vials, the volunteer pulls on a pair of white gloves. It’s the first time I’d seen any of the Lights Out volunteers reach for gloves so I know things are about to get bloody. Using a pair of metal scissors, the volunteer clips the left wing off the bird in one swift motion. The wing will be spread pressed between plastic sheets and preserved. Then she begins plucking off feathers one by one. This bird will become a skeletal specimen, so the feathers are no longer important. Flurries of gray downing float down and land in a pile on the lunch tray. She peels away thin pink skin from the carcass as casually as if she were picking away at layers of her own sunburned skin.
Once the volunteer has rendered the beautiful feathered creature into an unrecognizable body—dark red muscles, charcoal gray eye sockets—it’s time for the cutting. One slit up the middle of the bird and you can remove the liver, heart, and examine the gonads to sex the bird. The heart, the size of a pencil eraser, and part of the breast muscle both go into separate glass vials. The vials are stored in a freezer behind us, kept at negative sixty degrees Celsius. These two organs contain enough DNA to provide data for hundreds of future studies.
Dr. Jones shines a tiny pocket flashlight into the bloody body cavity; this sparrow is a hatch year, meaning less than one year old. He tells me that the majority of the casualties are hatch years—their bodies haven’t quite developed enough to handle the strain and potential dangers of long-distance flights. Baby birds, Dr. Jones shows me by pressing the tip of his fingernail into the bird’s head, have soft cartilage skulls. This skull is only five percent ossified, meaning hardened to bone, whereas an adult would be one hundred percent. The lack of protection over their brain is likely why window collisions are most often fatal.
“How’s this?” the volunteer asks, holding the limp mass between two gloved fingers. Only a few pieces of stubborn red flesh cling to the delicate bones.
“Perfect,” Courtney replies, though the bones look far from clean to me. “He’s ready for the basement.”
At this pronouncement, one of the older ladies shudders. “You do not want to go down there,” she says to me.
Deep in the bowels of the museum are the beetles. Glass tanks filled with thousands upon thousands of hungry beetles, whose sole purpose in life is to eat the rotting flesh off of bones that the museum will preserve for decades to come. It’s the most organic way to go about the process, and the beetles do a pretty damn good job. And for their efforts they receive holiday benefits, like most employees. Dr. Jones sends out a mass email to the CMNH staff, encouraging employees to bring in their turkey leftovers as a bonus for the beetles.
It takes about a day for a bird skeleton to be fully cleaned by the bugs. When the bones look ready, Courtney reaches into the tank and pulls out the skeletons. She has great respect for the beetles. She carefully shakes each the bones to dislodge any lingering eaters, and then sets the bones into an ammonia and water solution to clean off the beetle shit. Then the bones are frozen again, ensuring that no bugs laid eggs or hitched a ride, before finally becoming part of the permanent collection.
I try to convince Dr. Jones to take me to see the basement, but he just shakes his head. While the volunteers finish skinning birds, he instead leads me to see the study skins collection—a creepy name for something actually quite beautiful. Taxidermic specimens, birds preserved with their plumage intact. The taxidermy process takes far more time and practice than creating a skeletal specimen. Through just one small incision up the stomach, you have to remove all bones and internal organs. Once the body cavity is cleared, you stuff it with cotton to mimic the body shape. For extra support, you slide a stick inside, creating a bird popsicle. When the bird is sewn back up and the stick clipped, it looks incredibly realistic. The only giveaway of the embalming process is the white cotton poking out where the shiny black eyes used to gleam.
Rows of archival metal cabinets house the study skins. Dr. Jones walks along the rows and turns down an aisle. We open the drawer labeled Passerina cyanea, neat little songbirds with brilliant blue feathers. They look as alive as the songbirds I’d witnessed up close on my scavenge with Tim. Inside the drawer, birds are separated into breeding season and migration season, as plumage often differs accordingly. Clipped wings, pressed between plastic, fill half the drawer.
The room smells of mothballs, an odor emanating from the older specimens which were once treated with arsenic or borax. Now they don’t treat the specimens with anything; as long as the skins are kept safe and clean, they won’t deteriorate. I run my eyes over each of the birds in the drawer, reading the tiny tags tied to the bird’s legs. The tags indicate the year the specimen was collected and who collected it. I’d never guess that some of these birds are older than my grandparents, if it weren’t for the tiny yellowing tags. I spot one from 1932. 1883. 2005. 1923—this one was collected by A.B. Fuller, an American zoologist who was the curator at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History from 1931-1945. I wonder how many tags will soon read “Jones” or “Jasinski.”
Next, we look at the collection of black capped chickadees. Their short necks give their bodies a round shape. The black spot on their heads does make it seem like they’re wearing tiny black caps. Dr. Jones hopes to grow his collection of black capped chickadees in order to study their history and adaptions. A bird collected in the 1900s can look a lot different from the same species of bird collected in 2018.
Black capped chickadees used to be concentrated in one specific area, but when the glaciers melted, they spread out across North America. Hold on, I want to say to Dr. Jones. Glaciers? Suddenly, standing in the midst of thousands of preserved birds, it hits me just how long these creatures have been inhabiting the Earth. But I let him continue: By comparing chickadees that now reside in the eastern U.S. versus in the western U.S., scientists can learn a lot about how habitat influences evolution. For example, if the species typically migrates south, but one bird lives farther north than another, its wing shape might change, becoming longer and pointier to help it fly longer distances.
“Is it possible that eventually black capped chickadees will evolve into different species? How much do they need to change?” I ask.
Dr. Jones laughs. “That’s a huge question,” he says, “and there isn’t really an answer I could give that someone wouldn’t argue with.”
The museum collection contains over 35,000 birds, including both study skins and skeletons. The oldest specimen is a red-bellied woodpecker collected in Ohio in 1840. Ohio was a very different place in 1840, and you can see it in the bird’s feathers. Plumage that we now know to be white, was once thought to be gray. The gray coloring came from soot in the air, the product of coal burning stoves. In fact, most birds from the 1900s bear traces of air pollution from the developing industrial world.
I grew up in the twenty-first century. I’ve never had a Silent Spring moment—an eye-opening, wake-up call where I was confronted all at once with the knowledge that humans were responsible for the changing climate, dying species, disappearing habitat. For me the sixth extinction has always been an indisputable presence lurking in the shadows; I’ve never known a world without it. Still I sometimes forget that species endangerment isn’t a distant, exotic threat occurring in jungles thousands of miles away. It’s happening in my own backyard. As a whole, Americans have learned a lot about how our actions impact the environment since the nineteenth century, and we’ve made changes. Compare a freshly gutted, stuffed, and re-sewn red-bellied woodpecker to one collected a century ago and the evidence of air pollution reduction is in the feathers. But open the industrial freezers in the basement of the CMNH and one glance at the hundreds of healthy young bodies, zip-locked away in plastic bags will have you questioning if we’ve changed or if we’ve just traded one threat for another.
In 2017, Lights Out collected 450 white throated sparrows—which is more than the museum’s entire collection of that species. They’ll soon run out of space, Dr. Jones tells me as we walk through the metal filing cabinets that house the skeletal specimens. He gestures to the ceiling, imaging how they might purchase more cabinets and expand upward. But for now the tops of the ornithology cabinets house spillover from other collections boxes labeled “domestic dog,” “hyena,” “wolf.” All of which, I note, could easily eat a bird, but predator and prey separation becomes less important when you’re just bones in a box.
We open a drawer labeled Melospiza lincolnii—Lincoln sparrows. The faint smell of vinegar, lingering ammonia, fills my nostrils. He hands me a small cardboard box, the kind in which you might gift someone a nice pair of earrings or a diamond necklace. The bones inside are weightless, clean and white. Most of the boxes in the drawer are Lights Out birds, and I can see from the tag that this particular bird met fate on the east side of Key Tower at 5:25 a.m. on October 26, 2017. As I cradle the skull in my hand, taking in its unique shape—the circular bones that outline the eye sockets, the pointed beak—I can’t help but think of the Lincoln sparrow I found fighting for its life on a sidewalk in Public Square. Our conversation trails off, Dr. Jones and I give the cabinet graveyard a moment of silence. I set the box back down and he closes the drawer.
Skulls of baby birds that will never fully ossify. Wings pressed between plastic that will never again push through wind. Frozen beaks that no longer fill the forest with strange and beautiful songs.
As we leave the collection, locking the door behind us, Dr. Jones pauses and reflects. “I’m preserving everything,” he says, “because you never know what birds from 2017 will tell some smart person a year from now, or a hundred years from now.”
I try not to weigh the purpose of birds in an archive against the purpose of birds in the air.
Twenty minutes from downtown Cleveland, the Lake Erie Nature and Science Center (LENSC) sits on the edge of the Huntington Reservation. On Google Maps, it’s a giant green square in the sea of gray that makes up suburban West Cleveland. The wood paneled building sits low to the ground, barely visible behind the trees and shrubs planted along the walkway leading to the front door. It takes me a moment to find a parking spot. Several families with mothers pushing strollers and toddlers clinging to their father’s hands walk toward trails, which are marked by wooden signs along the edge of the forested area. The dense tree line makes me forget I’m just outside the city. I look up and see nothing but leaves.
I meet Tim in the building’s lobby next to a giant hollow plastic log. He greets me with good news: they released Lincoln sparrow I saved yesterday, fully healed and ready to continue its journey south. But that’s it for small talk; he ushers me behind the door that says “Employees Only. Please Keep Closed At All Times,” and leads me through a long hallway that twists and turns past staff offices, a break room, bathrooms, then down a staircase—of which he takes three steps at a time—and finally into the rehabilitation area.
I imagined the rehab center would look like a veterinarian’s office: soothing earth-tone-colored walls and an exam table in the center of the room. Instead I find a crowded and chaotic basement, with clinically white walls. Tiny syringes and bottles of medicine cover the counter. I scan the labels on the cabinets: Saline Solution/Medications/Syringes. And: Peanut butter/Pedialyte/Baby Food/Misc. Cages built into the wall, like you might see at a pet store, hold larger birds and water habitat species, but the doors are opaque so you can’t see inside. Boxes of brown paper bags and overflowing laundry baskets of towels line the perimeter of the room. No matter where I stand, I am in the way. I notice right away that its oddly quiet for a basement full of birds.
Three volunteers are huddled around a stainless steel worktable in the front of the room sorting through the first batch from this morning’s Lights Out rescue expedition—so far: 24 live and 14 dead. Tim takes his place at the table and someone hands him a brown paper bag. He can tell just by picking it up if the bird inside is dead or alive. If the bird is alive, you’ll hear the scratching of talons against the paper and a “thump” as it rolls over. If it’s dead, all you hear is the swish of feathers sliding around without resistance. Tim plucks three paperclips off the bag and pulls out a tiny song bird, he gently strokes its head revealing brilliant highlighter orange head feathers. Tim gestures to a chip in the tip of its beak, a common collision injury. The risk of infection can make even the smallest injuries fatal, but under Tim’s care, this bird will return to the flyway soon. These creatures may be fragile, but they’re resilient, too.
“Golden crowned kinglet,” he says. One of the volunteers writes this down on a paper log. She also records the location (parking garage downtown), side of the building (West), time of collection (7:40 a.m.), and date (10/21/18). Tim nudges a tiny syringe full of Meloxicam, an anti-inflammatory, against the bird’s fractured beak, encouraging it to take the medicine. “Poor baby.”
Then he covers the bird with his palm to keep it calm and speed walks into a walk-in closet full of aquariums and boxes. The clear sides of the aquariums are covered with pages from the sports section of the newspaper and mismatched towels are draped over the lids to keep the birds in the dark, another strategy to limit stress.
“We’re predators to them so they’re not gonna wanna sit there and look at us all day,” Tim says.
He puts the bird in an aquarium with other kinglets. The newspaper covering on this aquarium reads, “Today Cleveland…tomorrow who knows.” It’s an article from the early summer of 2018, when anxious Ohioans were waiting to see if their beloved basketball savior, Lebron James, would leave the Cleveland Cavaliers (again) or stay loyal. But for the moment I imagine the headline is about migration. Today Cleveland…Tomorrow: Florida? Mexico? South America?
Tim and his team move quickly: identify the bird, weigh and record the data, tiny drink of Meloxicam, and off to the appropriate aquarium. Not all of the birds are able to be saved. One white throated sparrow’s feet are bent and twisted beyond repair. Its chest shakes with each shallow breath. Tim weighs it, holds it up to his eyes, sighs and then carries it out of the room. He returns a few seconds later and the bird has gone still in his hands. He checks the box “euthanized” on the data log and lightly tosses the almost weightless body onto the counter. They’ve already moved on to assessing the next bird, but I can’t look away from the fresh carcass lying among a pile of tiny used syringes.
Tim reassures me that their method is humane. The bird just inhales a tiny puff of CO2 from a tube and goes right to sleep. It feels nothing. I think about Ali, scanning the streets as the rest of the volunteers made their way to their cars. And Tim’s words, somber but direct, “You can’t save them all.” Now this bird will be zipped into a plastic sandwich bag, tossed into the large freezer with all of the other rescue-fails, awaiting transportation to the museum.
Once all the collections from this morning are processed, the happy ending portion of the afternoon begins. Tim scurries around the room lifting up the towels on aquariums and peering inside. He flips through the data logs attached to the outside of the enclosures, assessing which birds are ready for release and which ones need to stay on for another day. He clasps his hands together and announces to the room that we should be able to release around fifty birds today, once Gary and Jill arrive, that is.
Gary and Jill are the center’s official bird banders. As if on cue, the couple walks through the door. Jill wears her long gray hair pulled back in a ponytail, and thin wire-framed glasses perch on her nose. She says hello to Tim, but gets right to business, clearing the stainless steel table. She pulls out a small notebook and a massive, dog-eared copy of the Identification Guide to North American Birds. Gary wears a dark green baseball cap with a “Humans for Cheetahs” patch sewn on the side. His green flannel, rolled up to the elbows, reveals a colorful tattoo of a cheetah on his forearm. He pulls out a giant tackle box and sets it on the table. Inside are rows and rows of small black film canisters. He opens one of the canisters and pulls out a string tiny silver bands, each with their own unique numeric code. Each of the canisters contains bands of different sizes corresponding to different species—there are twenty-five different sizes of bands to fit the smallest humming bird to the largest water fowl.
While Gary and Jill get all of their equipment set up, Tim motions for me to follow him. He leads me into one of the back rooms and instructs me to stand by the door, near the light switch.
“We’ll start with kinglets and creepers,” he says. “When I say ‘now’ turn off the lights.”
“Wait, what?” Up until this moment, I’d been a quiet observer, hovering, but staying out of the way.
I flick the switch, plunging the room into blackness. In the darkness I hear Tim talking to the birds.
“Come on, little guy. Oh my god. Seriously? You’re so friggin adorable.”
When I get the okay, I flick the switch back on. Tim slides a kinglet back into a brown paper bag and hands it to a nearby volunteer to bring to Gary and Jill. Finally, I piece together the process. It takes birds a few moments to adjust to changes in light, so Tim gets his sights on them with the lights on and then, in the short moment of darkness, he reaches in and scoops them up. If the lights were on, the birds would easily dodge his hand or fly out of the enclosure. We repeat the procedure—lights on, lights off—over and over until all the healthy birds are out. I feel myself getting a little dizzy from our closet strobe lights show.
Meanwhile, the banders secure a metal bands on the bird’s legs with a pair of pliers that look way too heavy duty for this job, but which they wield delicately. From tracking banded birds, scientists have learned about reproduction, behavior, migration and more.
Though Tim and the volunteers shuffle around the room transporting birds from cage to table, Gary and Jill keep their vision zeroed in on the precious creatures in their hands. Jill places a newly banded Lincoln sparrow back into the brown paper bag, looks up for the first time, smiles, and hands it to me. I can feel the bird bouncing around, like popcorn kernels bursting against the paper package. Lincoln sparrows are notoriously anxious, so we release them first. Holding the bag as level as I can, I follow a volunteer up the stairs, through the long winding hallway, and back out into the center’s lobby. We walk through the double doors and outside into the cold October afternoon.
We carry our packages to the edge of the forest and kneel down. A moment passes and nothing happens. Then in a flurry of motion my tiny sparrow bursts from the bag and takes flight, weightless body defying gravity. I try to follow the freckled brown wings but the bird disappears into the forest habitat in just a few seconds. I imagine that I hear the trills of its distinctive bubbly song echoing through the trees, but in reality all I hear is a kid whining in the parking lot a few feet away and the hum of suburban traffic in the distance.
Alexia Kemerling is a writer, runner, and activist from the heart of Ohio. She wears hearing aids in both ears and pretends to be good at lip reading. Her writing has been published in Mud Season Review, Bridge, and Timber Journal. She is also the recipient of the Grace Chamberlain Prize in Creative Writing from Hiram College.