Rediscovering Virginia Eifert’s article, “These Birds are America”

Virginia Eifert (see yesterday’s post) wrote this article in 1945 for Audubon Magazine. The magazine reprinted the article in January 1973, as part of its 75th anniversary issue, seven years after Virginia died.

I’ve only just turned 16, but this is one of the most powerful, beautifully written, and important articles written about the necessity of bird conservation, and why now more than ever it is vital. If you’re in Canada, as I am, this article is just as applicable — add “North” in front of America/n each time and it’s just as true.

Virginia Eifert lived through a great deal of bird destruction. When she was born in 1911, it would still be another two years before the U.S. Congress would pass the Weeks-McLean Law, what we now know as the Migratory Bird Act,  which outlawed market hunting and the interstate transport of birds. Virginia was three years old when the last Passenger Pigeon died, and the last captive Carolina Parakeet died when she was seven. The last confirmed live sighting of an Eskimo Curlew came three years before her death in 1966. While we now live at a time when Passenger Pigeons, Carolina Parakeets, and Eskimo Curlews are only museum exhibits, Virginia knew that these birds had been alive and abundant only a short while earlier. She saw what had happened to them at the hands of humans.

Special thanks to Virginia’s son Larry Eifert, for giving me permission to reproduce this wonderful article in its entirety here.

* * *

“These Birds Are America”
by Virginia S. Eifert

They were here when we came, the birds which are a part of the American picture. They watched the cabins going up in the clearing at Plymouth, knew the secret of the lost people of Roanoke, clung in wide-eyed silence in the woods during the battles for freedom, moved out when cities grew, moved back again when gardens and bird pools and feeding stands said “welcome” and meant it. These birds are as much a part of America as its trees, its plains, its waters, its history, its shores, its hills, yet they are only as permanent as we choose—only as permanent, in fact, as the trees, the waters, the soil itself. They all are linked in the great picture of the American whole—a picture which is determined by the preserving or the squandering of the land and its inhabitants.

We began badly. Humankind in the early days knew nothing of conservation. Here before us was a huge and boundless land; its trees, birds, and other wildlife were too much present. Back from the shores stretched the magnificent, terrifying wilderness. Where there were trees, there was danger; it was an ancient fear. The instinctive thing to do was to clear the land. As the American trees burned, the woods birds which had lived there died, or departed to other places, or adapted themselves to changed conditions. Cut down the trees, kill off the animals, shoot the birds—they’re fair game. That was the common opinion for a great many years, while the inheritance of the future grew less and less as the principal was squandered. In those days wildlife was looked upon as something undesirable, slightly disgraceful, a blot on civilization.

So went the cormorants and gulls and terns from the East Coast nesting colonies—these birds ate fish and the fish were ours. Rose-breasted grosbeaks and waxwings and many more were shot because they ate fruit, or peas, or corn. The incredible numbers of the passenger pigeon provided great sport in knocking them down out of tree or sky. Then they were gone. Eskimo curlews, piping plaintively, came down out of the sky and covered the prairie with their numbers; they were netted, trapped, shot. Then they, too, were gone. As lakes and swamplands in the Middle West were drained, the waders, shorebirds, and ducks departed elsewhere or died. Everywhere, small boys were permitted to shoot birds; it was what small boys were expected to do.

When men woke suddenly to what was happening to these things that always had been part of the American picture, the situation began to change. It took a long time for the realization to take effect, and the battle is far from being won even now. Still, as there never were a hundred years ago, there are millions of acres of land set aside for the use and protection of birds, sanctuaries with their armed and conscientious wardens. There are hundreds of bird clubs in America, united in the cause for birds, and bird-shooting by the young is not condoned. Laws now protect birds that once were considered useless, worthless, and to be exterminated as soon as possible. Protection has come and if it is not yet quite enough, still it is better than before. If these things had not come to pass when they did, America by. this time would have lost a vital, singing part of its personality. For in its birds lies the story of America.

Perhaps no region would be emptier without them than the ocean shores. The voices of gulls are tuned to the sounds of waves; there is a wildness among seabirds which belongs to the temperament of the sea. The tide beach, the salt marshes, the bright sky, the veils of fog, the fish wharves, the edge of foam—birds belong here.

New England must have its sanderlings on every shore, must have herring gulls on the red rocks of Scituate and on the whitened roofs of fishhouses from Passamaquoddy Bay to Provincetown. New England is hermit thrushes singing in balsams at dusk along the Androscoggin; it is a Blackburnian warbler flashing like a flame across the Mohawk Trail and disappearing into the birches; it is a phoebe nesting in a crevice on the Great Stone Face.

Picture of a Phoebe (and Crested Flycatcher) from the 1920s "Bird Guide" used by Virginia, with her notes. Used with permission from Larry Eifert.

Picture of a Phoebe (and Crested Flycatcher) from the 1920s “Bird Guide” used by Virginia, with her notes. Used with permission from Larry Eifert.

Birds—they are meadowlarks singing in the rain at Gettysburg, and canvasbacks on Long Island Sound. They are willets that fly down Hatteras from Currituck to Ocracoke and back again; kingfishers that sit all day among cypresses of the Dismal Swamp. They are the loggerhead shrikes of the peanut fields and black vultures over cotton country, and laughing gulls above the battlefield at Yorktown.

Picture of a Belted Kingfisher (and Black-Billed Cuckoo) from the 1920s "Bird Guide" used by Virginia, with her notes. Used with permission from Larry Eifert.

Picture of a Belted Kingfisher (and Black-Billed Cuckoo) from the 1920s “Bird Guide” used by Virginia, with her notes. Used with permission from Larry Eifert.

There always must be a pelican on every post along the Southern shores, black skimmers flying in yapping crowds, royal terns over the paint-blue waters of the Gulf where porpoises leap in the sun, ibises in the Everglades and a snakebird sunning its wings on a palmetto tree. There must be a cardinal in the grapefruit grove, a pileated woodpecker in the Southern forest.

These all are the South, they and the egrets that were saved from extinction by sanctuaries in the swamps, on the coastal islands, along the mangrove shores. For when the South became sanctuary-conscious, it made possible the keeping of these things that were so much a part of the scene that to find the South without them was unthinkable. The sanctuaries brought back the great white heron and the pink spoonbills that were almost gone and whose return even yet is not complete. The salvation of the ivory-billed woodpecker also is still going on, perhaps a futile attempt to keep forever in the swamp wilderness a sight of this great bright bird. By protecting birds in the South, we have protected migratory birds that nest throughout much of the rest of the country. An assurance of safety not only in their nesting areas but in their wintering grounds has helped tremendously in keeping them part of the picture of America.

Birds are inseparable from its vivid whole. Without them America would be lost, a nation defeated, deprived of its inheritance handed down from a sometimes careless past. They are the Carolina wrens along Daniel Boone’s Wilderness Road, and a raven on Mount LeConte; they are the crying of whip-poor-wills in the hill woods of New Salem where Lincoln used to live; they are ten thousand wintering mallards on the lakes of the Illinois, and an eagle flying over Starved Rock. They are snow geese flying down the Mississippi Valley, and the voices of the Canadas against the stars. These birds are there because of the protection that came in time, protection that extends from the breeding grounds of Canada and northern America to the wintering grounds of Texas. It is a protection which must not be relaxed.

A Mallard, from Viriginia's  1920s "Bird Guide", with her handwritten notes. Used with permission from Larry Eifert.

A Mallard, from Viriginia’s 1920s “Bird Guide”, with her handwritten notes. Used with permission from Larry Eifert.

Westward as the landscape changes, the bird picture changes, and sometimes both have been threatened so dangerously that today there might be no more birds on the great plains and in the mountains and drylands. For there came drought and a wind that picked up the dessicated soil that had been plowed too well and not always wisely. The dust clouds swirled eastward and the Dust Bowl grew so fast that the shrieking gray and yellow kingbirds of every dusty cowtown and cottonwood went away in silence or died. The great plains might have lost their birds, but the end of the drought and the reclamation of dust lands came in time.

The turn came in time to assure the westward traveler the sight of birds which ever afterward will stand associated with the great lift of land and the surge of the Rockies, with wheat fields and prairie dogs. Where a great sky arches above the pale yellow acres of Kansas wheat, and sky, and a flat white road—the lark buntings become a symbol of land safety, symbol of the stability of the soil. Black and white buntings mean rooted plains-buntings in the wheat, a Swainson’s hawk on every post, a dickcissel chanting, the-throaty song of a western meadowlark along the singing rails of the Union Pacific, and western kingbirds shrilling and fluttering wherever there is a perch. Their presence means that the restless earth of the plains has been anchored again, that the soil has stopped blowing and there are green things, that streams flow again and the cottonwoods are alive. There are nesting places, and there are birds. The equation is as simple as that, and it is as easily upset.

It could have been seriously upset in the Western mountains where fires, overgrazing, erosion, and careless lumbering endangered life from the high country to the foothills, but national control helped establish the life balance again. Consequently there still are birds in the mountains, birds that are part of the high, clear, crystalline, unreal atmosphere of the peaks and passes. The Rockies today still mean white-throated swifts cleaving the air on a bright morning, mountain bluebirds bathing in an icy stream that runs through a purple meadow, the harsh cackling and laughing of magpies in a pine, the chortle of Clark’s nutcracker discovering a camper’s unguarded sandwich, the twitter of house finches among the red rocks. There still are ptarmigan on the Continental Divide where the white goats live, and red-shafted flickers on the western slope.

The picture of America is incomplete without the desert birds. It is a grim land, the desert, where there has been the least danger of extermination at the hand of man, perhaps because the great lion-sun and the personality of the desert itself combine grimly in their own code of extermination. Men have been so engrossed in keeping their own lives that they have given little or no time to destroying birds. There are none of the great colonies here, however; birds are isolated in spots that provide a living. There is the great white hawk, the ferruginous rough-leg, above the harsh red mesas of Navaho country, the skittering nonchalance of the rock wren on the rim of Grand Canyon, a roadrunner racing into a creosote bush, a black silk phainopepla in the palo verde—and “still sings the Rachel Jane, hid among the cactus.”

These must always remain—these and the Steller’s jay screeching in the pinyons, the sage hen in the simmering badlands, the violet-green swallows nesting in hordes along the cliffs of the mad Colorado. There always must be avocets and stilts in the Utah marshes, white pelicans at Great Salt Lake, western grebes “walking on the waters.” Yet not long ago drainage threatened the Western marsh birds; egging and wanton killing were exterminating many colonies, from the Bear River marshes to the rocks along the Pacific. But again protection, in the form of restricted areas, national parks, sanctuaries, came in time. The bird rocks of the Pacific were declared out-of-bounds; the colonies on the mainland began to increase again. The marshes and tule lakes regained much of their former abundance.

It came in time—this is the great singing voice of America, exulting. Not in time to save the Eskimo curlew and the passenger pigeon, not in time to save the heath hen and the great auk, but in time to save those others that might have followed. The birds which remain now multiply to perpetuate the picture of America. Here is positive proof of the new “goodwill toward birds” which more and more prevails.

Their continued presence in our land is an assurance that among Americans there is a new tolerance, that there is a growing understanding of the part birds play in the economic and esthetic future of America. Today more people than ever before realize the significance of the bird in the landscape and derive from it a very real spiritual and intellectual pleasure. The bird is an assurance that life still is good, that in spite of menace there is confidence, that in spite of change there is adaptation, that in spite of death there now is life. Our rescued birds are the symbol of a growing America. 

Birding News #36

:: The University of Alberta has created a citizen science project to help accurately estimate the number of bird window collisions in residential homes in Canada.

:: The 2013-2014 Winter Finch Forecast is out!

:: A dramatic increase in the Ross’s Goose population is causing ecological damage to the Arctic 

:: Urban birds in Britain fare better in colder weather than rural birds do

:: The US Fish & Wildlife Service has proposed an Endangered Species Act listing of ‘threatened’ for the rufa Red Knot

:: The ABA’s Young Birders Blog — The Eyrie — has moved to a new blog address. Make sure you check their blog out and add the new URL to your favourite blog reader!

:: A game cam in Russia got some amazing photographs of a Golden Eagle taking down and killing a Sika Deer

:: The once-abundant Common Loon is facing declines in Canada

:: Black Cockatoos in Western Australia are recolonizing replanted forests at former mining sites.

:: An article by Nick Walker for the October issue of Canadian Geographic about citizen science and the important research that Bird Studies Canada does (full disclosure — I’m interviewed at the end of the article)

Great posts in birding blogs this week: 

:: From Dan at Birds Calgary: Gulls, Grebes and Grackle at Elliston Park

:: From Jeremy at A Victoria BirderDon’t Forget Your Hood!

:: From Scott at Birding is Fun: Worm-eating Warbler

:: From Mia at On the Wing Photography: Stained and Unstained Sandhill Cranes

:: From Corey at 10,000 Birds: The First Diabolical Wood Warbler Quiz of 2013

:: From Ioana at The Eyrie: 2013  Mid-Atlantic Young Birder Conference

:: From Sharon at Birdchick: The latest Birdchick podcast

Rediscovering Virginia Eifert

When I was researching my 4H speeches last year on endangered/nearly extinct birds, I came across the writings of American nature writer, naturalist, and artist Virginia Eifert (1911-1966). She was an amazingly prolific writer, an early conservationist, and a strong believer in outdoor education, but it seems that few people — even passionate outdoors types — know about her nowadays.

I love the opportunity to rediscover amazing naturalists, because it’s like finding hidden treasure. And these are people who have blazed a path for the rest of us. And because Mrs. Eifert was a writer, an artist, and a photographer — three things I’m working hard on besides my birding — she is a great example for me. If you want to see what I mean, just look at this example from one of Virginia’s journals when she was 16,

A page from Virginia's 1927 journal, when she was 16; reproduced with permission from Larry Eifert

A page from Virginia’s 1927 journal, when she was 16; reproduced with permission from Larry Eifert

And I thought it would be fun to share this special treasure, and help remember someone who in her lifetime was “one of the more well-known nature writers in America”, according to her biography by John E. Hallwas of Western Illinois University. You can find the biography, as well as some of her essays, and some of her books which are now available as Kindle editions after being out-of-print for a long time, at a website maintained by Mrs. Eifert’s son Larry Eifert, an artist.

Professor Hallwas also wrote “The Achievement of Virginia E. Seifert” in 1978, which includes some more information. Mrs. Eifert lived and wrote in Illinois and became an expert on nature and wildlife in the state. She was born in Springfield on January 23, 1911, the oldest of three children. Her mother “had a lively interest in nature” and they spent lots of time outdoors, enjoying picnics and excursions. Virginia learned at an early age that nature could be found nearby — some of their favorite destinations were nearby city parks. In fact, according to her sister, Virginia “practically grew up in Washington Park”. Until her last year of high school, Virginia spent a great deal of her time outdoors, and at school, where her favorite subjects were nature study, writing, and art. Her favorite books were nature titles by such authors as Henry David Thoreau, Ernest Thompson Seton, and Gene Stratton Porter.

But in her senior year, she contracted an illness which was probably rheumatic fever, though it wasn’t accurately diagnosed at the time. She was confined to her room, where the only nature available to her was what she could see from her window. And she never finished high school. However, according to Professor Hallwas, with information from her younger sister,

The time of her confinement may actually have accelerated her learning, however, for the number of library books on nature that she read during that period was enormous. Writing and drawing helped to fill the long hours of physical inactivity. She slowly regained her strength, but the disease left her with a legacy of heart damage that eventually shortened her life.

Virginia in the woods, at age 18; photo reproduced with permission from Larry Eifert

Virginia in the woods, at age 18; photo reproduced with permission from Larry Eifert

After Virginia recovered, around the age of 19, she became very busy with a number of writing projects. The family’s neighbor, the editor of The Illinois State Journal, invited Virginia to write an unpaid nature column, which she did on a number of subjects — “Beautiful Springfield”, “The Christmas Stars”, “The Laws of Nature”, “Wild Goose Chase”. She also began a paid project, writing and illustrating her mimeographed weekly “Nature News”, which she distributed to regular subscribers for five cents an issue.

Virginia attended Eastern Illinois University for one semester, in 1934-35, taking courses in botany and zoology. Without a high school diploma, she couldn’t enroll in the degree program. But it didn’t matter, because as Prof. Hallwas wrote, “she evidently did not care for a rigorously scientific (non-humanistic, non-artistic) approach to nature.” He added that a fellow student remembered her saying, “I’ll never let science ruin my love of nature.” Prof. Hallwas wrote that while “Virginia gradually developed an enormous understanding of the scientific principles relating to the natural world…. [it] was nature for the sake of a broader general understanding of the world and a more intense appreciation of life that became her central commitment.”

In the early 1930s, Virginia joined the new Springfield Nature League (which would later become the Springfield Audubon Society). She was a contributing editor for the Nature League’s bulletin, conducted hikes, and directed a bird group. And it was through the Nature League that Virginia would meet her husband, Herman Eifert, in 1934. He was a college student then who would become a high school teacher of English, biology, and physiology. They were married two years later, at the summit of Starved Rock, Illinois, at sunrise.

In 1939, Virginia was hired by the Illinois State Museum to write, edit, and illustrate a new promotional publication, The Living Museum. It was a job she would hold until her death in 1966. What began as a four-page, mimeographed leaflet would become a printed, multi-page journal with a circulation of 25,000. Prof. Hallwas wrote that

Virginia was essentially free, for twenty-seven years, to write the kind of essays she wanted to write. Much of her very best writing is within the pages of the 326 issues that she produced, and those essays provide a remarkable record of her interests and development after 1939.

The earliest essays are very short and sometimes end by referring to exhibits in the museum. But Virginia gradually moved away from that format towards lyrical essays that re-created the sights, sounds, and smells of the outdoors. …

The best of her lyrical essays are very poetic indeed, and they are among the finest pieces of descriptive nature writing in American literature.

Prof. Hallwas wrote that Virginia’s writing may have benefitted indirectly from the tenor of the times — “Many of her essays recommended the balm of nature to war-weary readers.” For example, in the 1942 essay “Inevitably, Spring”, Virginia wrote,

The man-made world may seem all wrong, but the natural world is still, reassuringly, comfortingly, the same as it always has been. In spite of headlines, there will soon be meadowlarks and robins, bluebirds and doves. In spite of priorities, the raccoon soon will be dabbling for crawfish in the creek.

From her essays, Virginia branched out to writing and illustrating guidebooks for the museum — Birds in Your Backyard (1941), The Story of Illinois (1943), Flowers That Bloom in the Spring (1947) and so on. From there she moved to full-length books.

Virginia spent much time travelling around the country. In her twenties, she accompanied her younger brother through a number of states in his Model T Ford. From 1957 until her death in 1966, she taught many classes in Wisconsin at The Clearing, an outdoor school for adults in Ellison Bay founded by Jens Jensen in 1935. She also travelled more than 5,000 miles along rivers, on towboats and steamboats. She wrote several books that clearly show her love of America’s rivers: Mississippi Calling (1957), River World: Wild Life of the Mississippi River (1959), Delta Queen: The Story of a Steamboat (1960), and Of Men and Rivers: Adventures and Discoveries along American Waterways (1966). Rivers also feature in some of her biographies for young readers: Three Rivers South: The Story of Young Abe Lincoln (illustrated by Thomas Hart Benton), and Louis Jolliet: Explorer of Rivers (1964). In his biography, Prof. Hallwas writes, “For Virginia the exploration of North America was a vast chronicle of discoveries by travelers in the wild who were not really explorers, but writers, artists, and naturalists.”

Over the course of her 55 years, she wrote 18 volumes of nature writing, cultural history, and biography, along with hundreds of articles on natural history subjects for publication such as Audubon Magazine, Nature Magazine, Natural History, and Canadian Nature. I am sure her photographs and illustrations are countless. Almost as if she knew that her life would not be that long, she wrote in River World, six years before she died,

I stand on the shore and know that it was here yesterday, and will be here tomorrow, and that, therefore, since I am a part of its pattern today, I also belong to all its yesterdays and will be part of all its tomorrows. This is a kind of earthly immortality, a kinship with rivers and hills and rocks, with all things and all creatures that have ever lived or have their being on earth. It is my assurance of an orderly continuity in the great design of the universe.

One of my favorite essays by Mrs. Eifert is “These Birds Are America”, on the importance of bird conservation, which was first published in Audubon magazine in 1945 and then reprinted in January 1973 for the publication’s 75th anniversary. It would have been a very powerful article in 1945, even more so in 1973 during the height of the ecology movement, and now, more than 60 years after Mrs. Eifert first wrote it, we more than realize why the work must continue. Just a few months ago, at BirdLife International’s World Congress in Ottawa, “The State of the Birds” report said that declining bird populations around the world provide evidence of a “rapid deterioration in the global environment” that affects all life on earth.

I’ll share that article, “These Birds Are America”, tomorrow, now that you know a little bit about Virginia Eifert and her life.

Punk Rock Birder’s “World’s Best Birdwatching Shirts”

PRBYApparelPunk Rock Birder Paul Riss has a new Indiegogo (crowd sourcing) project: the World’s Best Birdwatching Shirts. I’m in — are you?

Paul’s goal is $3,000, and he’s at $1,605, with 42 days left. November 8 is the deadline. The shirts are a Fixed Funding campaign, which means payments will be refunded if the campaign doesn’t reach its goal. For a $35 contribution, you’ll get a limited edition RWBL (Red-winged Blackbird) t-shirt. Paul picked the RWBL because “for me that bird specifies the arrival of spring. … To me they are the beginning and so are very fitting to start what I hope becomes something as exciting for me as spring migration.”

Paul explains his campaign:

These shirts are designed specifically to appeal to birdwatchers. Why? Because let’s face it, nobody really takes time to relate to us with apparel. It’s always just some picture of a bird. The ‘design’ of the images is never considered. That’s about to change. …

:: You can finally be a birder AND fashion forward.

:: It will raise the bar for birdwatching apparel and make people more interested in birding in general.

:: Imagine yourself wearing this shirt and people asking, “What does RWBL mean?” All of a sudden you have a chance to talk about birding and how awesome it is. We all love doing that, right?

:: We don’t have to look like fuddy-duddy freak-show bird people in our poorly designed, ill-fitting t-shirts anymore. We can still be bird-freaks but with style!

If you’re interested in a neat, and pretty uncommon, t-shirt or helping another birder with a new project, you can find out more here.

Feathers on Friday

If you would like to join me for my Feathers on Friday meme, please put the link to your blog post in the comments and I’ll add the link to my post.

Sanderlings on the beach at the Tip of Long Point in August,


More Feathers on Friday Posts:

From babsje at Great Blue HeronsJuliette, Juliette, Wherefore Art Thou, Juliette

From Bird Boy: Feathers on Friday

Crowdsourcing Bird Science, from Canadian Geographic

Canadian Geographic‘s new issue has an online article by Nick Walker, “Crowdsourcing bird science: Canada’s birdwatchers are making big contributions to science research and conservation”, all about Bird Studies Canada‘s many citizen science programs; read the article here.

Nick writes that BSC’s 20 main programs

every year boast the eager participation of more than 30,000 Canadian birders — mostly regular civilians, not ornithologists or biologists like [BSC biologist and science educator Jody] Allair. They’re the ones gathering the bulk of the data that’s essential to the “real” scientists, and to organizations that make official decisions about which species should be declared threatened or endangered, which land should be designated as conservation areas.

One of the programs included in the article is the Young Ornithologists’ Workshop, which Nick interviewed me about last week just after I returned from Long Point. I’m very happy to be part of the article and also BSC’s programs, since I’m a big supporter of all of their important work in this country. Project FeederWatch, which is detailed in the article, is what really turned me from a kid sort of interested in birds into a birder — a program my mother thought would be a nice add-on for my science studies turned into a wonderful opportunity to observe more, and learn more, from the many birds visiting our yard between November and April, and helped me see how interesting birds really are.

By the way, the current issue of Canadian Geographic (October 2013) features the following articles:

:: An interview with artist and photographer Edward Burtynsky about his latest project, “Water”

:: A look at this summer’s mystery of the paralyzed ravens and crows in B.C.

:: The dramatic population rise of the Ross’s Goose in the Arctic

:: Concerning news about the Common Loon, and the health of Canada’s lakes

And many more…