With several other people, I spent yesterday morning walking through a National Park Service meadow near my Virginia home. It was a glorious day, sunny with low humidity, and as we walked, we swished the grasses—knee high in most places, waist high in some—with bamboo poles, hoping to flush out the Eastern Meadowlarks nesting there.
Mottled brown on its back, the Meadowlark blends easily into its surroundings when it is on the ground. Its throat and breast, however, are a bright yellow with a jaunty black chevron below the neck. To see that part of a Meadowlark, as when it is perching high on a green tree top against the blue of a clear June sky, is to see a piece of feathered sun.
But what we were really looking for yesterday was the ground nests Meadowlarks weave into the grasses. Our hope was to count the nests, to pinpoint their locations, and to learn how many eggs have been laid and whether any have hatched—information to inform the mowing schedules for those fields. While the Eastern Meadowlark is not yet listed as endangered, its numbers have been decreasing. We hope to ensure that the Meadowlarks nesting here will not be disturbed until the eggs have hatched and the chicks have gotten strong and agile enough to move out of the way of an oncoming tractor.
We did see Meadowlarks fly up and away from us several times. We watched them go to the top of an oak on one edge of the field and to the top of a pine on another edge, from which points they watched us. We heard their song, described variously as “sweet, lazy whistles” (allaboutbirds.org) or “simple, clear, slurred whistles” (Sibley) or a “clear mellow whistle, see-you see-yeeeer” (Audubon). But we never found their nests, which are hidden even better than we expected.
Because I live near the park, I promised to follow up today’s outing by going back every few days over the next several weeks to observe and record whatever I can about the Meadowlarks and their behavior. From that, perhaps we can discern how their breeding is progressing.
Some might ask, Why spend time in one field in one park watching one particular kind of bird when the world has so many problems? Will helping a few Meadowlarks stop wars? Create jobs? Solve climate change problems? If not, why bother?
An early Emily Dickinson poem begins, “For every Bird a Nest — ”. That same poem ends with these two stanzas.
The Lark is not ashamed
to build upon the ground
Her modest home –
Yet who of all the throng
Dancing around the sun
Does so rejoice?
Like Dickinson, I cannot help but admire this rejoicing bird and its “modest” (and well hidden) home. Doing the little I can do to try to ensure its well-being is also a “modest” thing—small, completely unremarkable really. So too is my answer to the “Why bother?” question: Because small things matter. Tending to small things is something I feel called to do. Doing so often gives me occasion to rejoice.
What about you? Is there something in your life that, in the great scheme of things, might seem modest or inconsequential? Something that you however recognize as worthwhile and, like the Meadowlark, in need of watchfulness in order for it to have space and time to grow? If so, may you be faithful to that call—and find yourself, like the Dickinson’s Meadowlark, rejoicing.