Monday, August 3, 2020

Book Review: A Season on the Wind

Kenn Kaufman does something ingenious in A Season on the Wind: Inside the World of Spring Migration (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019). He compares and contrasts the way migratory birds harness the wind to propel them northward versus the bumbling attempts of our own species to capture the wind to meet our energy needs. He and his wife, Kimberly Kaufman, live in a unique location where these powerful phenomena clash head on, quite literally. To his credit, Kaufman exercises remarkable restraint in addressing the downside of renewable wind energy, while exhorting the miracle that is spring migration at Magee Marsh in northwest Ohio, U.S.A.

The book is a brilliant and colorful chronology of the history of tracking bird migration in the Americas, and northwest Ohio specifically. While many birders recoil at the notion that anything good can come from hunting, the author reminds us that the first major strides in bird conservation came about as a result of preservation of wetlands by waterfowl hunters. The organization of hunters into a cohesive unit of persuasion and legislation is something birders should take note of and emulate to achieve more widespread measures to preserve and protect our avian fauna.

From the almost primitive practice of bird banding, to next generation radar, citizen science initiatives, and birding festivals like the Biggest Week in American Birding right there at Magee Marsh, we are constantly improving our collective and individual understanding of spring migration. Kaufman deftly walks the line between what is often seemingly dispassionate formal scientific research and the nearly anthropomorphic appreciation of birds by non-scientists. The book, like the author himself, delivers fact, humor, emotion, and honesty in its appraisal of our constantly-changing, nearly schizophrenic relationship to the natural world, with birds at the center.

It would be easy to write effusively about the spectacle of bird migration as if it exists in a vacuum, a historical constant, a changeless exercise that goes on relentlessly regardless of our own existence. Most writers would simply paint a rosy picture that serves to recruit new birders and birdwatchers, and entertain readers without ever hinting at the negative impacts our species can have on migrant fauna.

Likewise, it would be easy to write a downer of a narrative that focuses solely on the perils birds face during their aerial journey north. There is certainly enough material for one to take a full manuscript in either direction. Balancing the joys with the sorrows, anger, and frustration is no easy task, but that is clearly what Kaufman set out to do, and he executes it flawlessly. When you think you cannot recover from the devastation of the previous chapter, the next one renews your enthusiasm and optimism.

One of the most significant points illustrated in A Season on the Wind is the growth of birding as a social activity. Thanks to advances in communication, formerly isolated naturalists and leisure birders can connect with each other to any degree they wish. Some still prefer “alone time” communing with the nature, but that no longer has to be the default setting. The speed of learning about birds has increased by several orders of magnitude, and the diversity of the birding community has the potential to explode as well.

Kaufman, his wife, and their contemporaries in the ornithological community are as relentless in their pursuit of justice for birds and birders as the birds are committed to their instinctive drive to move seasonally. The birds must navigate both the constant starlit sky above and the radically shifting landscape below. Climate change is a force we are attempting to mitigate for ourselves and other species, yet it is also the driving force behind wind turbine technologies that are cutting birds out of the sky.

This conundrum forces us to confront problems of scale. Bird migration is not a stream of birds like a river in the sky. The birds are widely dispersed and the grand scale of migration guarantees that migrants will confront lethal obstacles wherever they exist. The scale of wind farms, in both height and breadth, is the problem. Bird-safe technologies exist, but offer little profit for utility companies, so they remain neglected. By now we should have reciprocal power grids, mostly localized, where individual households and businesses can feed a centralized source with surplus energy in sunny, breezy times and draw from it on cooler, calmer days.

I am already anxious for a sequel to A Season on the Wind, as the emerging discipline of aeroecology recognizes the complex web of organisms that exists overhead, and seeks to unravel those aerial interactions. Meanwhile, you will find this current book a thoughtful, stimulating, and optimistic read.

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