If there are birds, things are okay.
Since I’ve been thinking about eagles and Ohio quite a bit recently, I thought I’d share this excerpt from one of my thesis essays, titled “I Put My Faith In Birds.”
This section was originally written many years ago, before I discovered the Environmental Studies program at the University of Montana, or even entertained the thought of moving to Montana. It has changed a bit since then, as have many things.
“Let’s go find an eagle,” my dad said.
It was one of those spirit-and-heat-sapping gray Ohio Saturdays in early January, and my family and I sat in the kitchen, lingering over coffee and the newspaper. My dad read an article about bald eagles in nearby Cuyahoga Valley National Park, and on a whim we decided to go see for ourselves. My younger brother was also conscripted for the venture, primarily to prevent him from spending yet another day inside watching television.
We grabbed our wool hats and binoculars, jumped in the truck, and drove to one of our usual starting points along the river trail. Out the window, the bleakness of the sky, snow-covered ground, and woods blended together. In the winter, it’s easy to forget that the world is not always varying shades of gray and cold. There was one other car in the parking lot when we arrived, and we followed the trail south, towards a sewage treatment plant.
Within five minutes we saw our first bald eagle, perched on a bare oak branch over the Cuyahoga River. The water was brown and sluggish-looking, the white foam along the edges frozen. The water no longer catches on fire, but I’ve never been tempted to wade in. I assume the presence of eagles indicates the water is healthy enough to support the wildlife here, so it must not be heavily polluted. Birds are biological indicators, winged barometers of an ecosystem’s ability to function. If there are birds, things are okay.
We watched for a few minutes, passing the two pairs of binoculars between the three of us, before the eagle flew downriver. We decided to follow along the trail. Dad and my brother trudged on ahead as I paused near a pile of sunflower seeds someone had thrown onto the path. Black-capped chickadees pressed delicate footprints in the snow, and a nearly Techni-colored northern cardinal, bright red against the gray woods, watched warily. I followed in Dad’s tracks, stepping in each footprint like I did when I was little. His feet are slightly pigeon-toed, and I rotated my boots a few degrees to fit exactly within his prints.