A Wing and a Prayer

Birdsong That Was There All Along

August 6, 2021

From the sweeping vistas we see to the taste of blueberries straight off the shrub, the Appalachian Trail (A.T.) engages our senses completely. But what about sound? Birdsong filled with chirps, warbles and even the stilling sound of a loon’s wail, form the soundtrack to our A.T. adventures.

Like almost every aspect of the A.T. experience, birdsong requires protection. Case in point: the recent and mysterious bird disease that has been moving across parts of the Mid-Atlantic and Southeastern United States. It began with isolated incidents. Birds with crusty or swollen eyes were noticed by people enjoying the outdoors. These same birds became disoriented and started twitching. Then they died. These incidents were noticed in a few Trail states: Maryland, West Virginia, and Virginia. And then the illness expanded to New Jersey, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania.  The number of reports climbed to 1,200 a month ago and continues to climb today. Blue jays, grackles, starlings and robins — among others — are the most commonly infected.

The potential causes are numerous and will take time to isolate. In the meantime, state conservation agencies have issued advisories for people to cease feeding birds, clean feeders and bird baths, avoid handling birds, and keep pets away from sick or dead wild birds.

How do we, as Trail lovers, understand and process this tragedy? While we tend to think of the A.T. as a hiking path, the sky above it forms an essential migratory route for numerous bird species, and their habitats are found all along the A.T. landscape. The protection of the A.T. and its landscape, in short, protects the life of birds, and their birdsong. When these things are under threat— whether from loss of habitat or a mysterious disease – it only compels us to advance our mission of protecting the Trail and its landscape even further.

Beth Ann Fennelly, Poet Laureate of Mississippi, captures the essence of what birdsong means to us, why we yearn for its sweet sound, and why it is important now, more than ever, to protect the soundtrack of the A.T. experience.

Shalin Desai
ATC Vice President of Advancement


A Wing and a Prayer

By Beth Ann Fennelly

We thought the birds were singing louder. We were almost certain they
were. We spoke of this, when we spoke, if we spoke, on our zoom screens
or in the backyard with our podfolk. Dang, you hear those birds? Don’t
they sound loud? We shouted to the neighbor, and from behind her mask
she agreed. The birds are louder this spring. This summer. I’ve never
heard such loud birds. Listen to ’em sing. But the birds aren’t singing
louder. In fact, the opposite. Ornithologists have recorded lowered
decibel levels of bird song. In the absence of noise pollution—our planes
overhead, our cars rushing past with their motors and horns, our bars
leaking music onto the street corners—the birds don’t need to shout.
So why are we hearing birdsong now, when it is quieter? Because we
need it more. Poetry in the pandemic: birdsong that was there all along.

(First appeared in Poetry, July/August 2021)

Beth Ann Fennelly, Poet Laureate of Mississippi, teaches in the MFA Program at the University of Mississippi, where she was named Outstanding Teacher of the Year. She’s won grants and awards from the N.E.A., the United States Artists, a Pushcart, and a Fulbright to Brazil. Fennelly has published three poetry books: Open House, Tender Hooks, and Unmentionables, a book of nonfiction, Great with Child, and The Tilted World, a novel she co-authored with her husband, Tom Franklin. Her newest book is Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs (W.W. Norton, Oct. ’17) Fennelly and Franklin live in Oxford with their three children. To find more of Beth Ann’s work, visit bethannfennelly.com.