The warbler, the Phoebe, and the mysterious nests

For our final project in Scientific Illustration, we were allowed to pick anything to focus on for four weeks. I spent two weeks on these little warblers

and two weeks on this redwing blackbird

and of course, I was also looking at nests.

I picked the Blackburnian warbler first, because I think he has mythical powers. Luke, Alexis and I saw one last year during the spring migration on Montrose Point; he was chewing on something under a very green leaf on a tree that was closer to the ground than most leaves are. First, this bird was not shy. We stood underneath him for like half an hour, and it wasn’t like we were that quiet or anything; I am sure he noticed us, but he was unfazed. (I remember thinking, "This bird is so hip! He gives less of a damn than Norman Mailer.") Second, he just didn’t look like a real thing from nature. Years and years ago I saw a painted bunting somewhere in the middle of America while driving across the country, and the feeling was similar: there's no way this little creature is constructed correctly, because nothing that makes decisions should be allowed to be that beautiful.

In June last year, there was a Google Doodle of this woman named Phoebe Snetsinger, whom I never would have recognized, nor would I have ever known anything about had Luke not clicked through to her Wikipedia page. Phoebe — who, in a tongue-in-cheek twist appropriate for a children’s book, was named after a bird — was the first birder to list having seen more than 8,000 species of bird.* (She listed 8,400, actually — that’s 85 percent of all the known species of bird in the world.) 

Just to be clear, Phoebe’s parents weren’t birders; she didn’t go on her first birdwatching trip until she was 34. But when she was 50, she was diagnosed with an aggressive strain of melanoma, and her reaction to the news was unconventional: against the recommendation of every doctor, she forewent treatment, and took a long birdwatching trip to Alaska instead. When she returned, inexplicably, her cancer was in remission. 

And the bird that convinced Phoebe Snetsinger to pursue birding in the first place? A Blackburnian warbler.

I don’t know what there is to be learned from this story, except that we are all lost and wandering, and that every once in a while — often — what we consider logical doesn’t apply to our messy and complicated lives. I don’t know that Phoebe Snetsinger is a role model, exactly; while she shattered records in a traditionally (aggressively) male-dominated field, she also missed her mother’s funeral and her daughter’s wedding because she was so obsessed with seeing birds. I do know that the Blackburnian warbler is a particularly special little bird. I think he must be pure magic.

I painted the nests because nests are literally** miracles of architecture. I mean, humans really don’t have the instinct to build anything as strong and simple as a nest is; nests can survive winters that spirits can’t. Last year, I went for a walk through the park on the lakefront in winter. There had been a wind storm the day before and whole limbs of trees had been ripped clean off; garbage cans rolled around on the street. That day, I counted 13 nests in the highest reaches of the bare-bones oaks and honey locusts. Thirteen nests! Thirteen nests that used some kind of crazy invisible glue, and survived — flourished inside — an impossible storm.

Nests are not homes. They are constructed to protect an animal’s babies; and sometimes they are constructed as part of a mating ritual. We want to compare nests to homes because we make homes and accumulate things and we want to believe we are not alone in this. It is an arrogance we apply to everything: as though we could possibly understand what it is to be a bird. But birds’ homes are not mapped the way ours are; they are everywhere and nowhere and not places that can be pinned down.

This is just one of the ways in which birds explode the dimensions of human life. I believe that’s why we can’t stop staring at them: we want them to tell us what they know. Or, maybe more accurately, there is a deep comfort that comes from staring and knowing that, actually, there are some things we can never know. Where there is one eternal mystery, there must be many more.


*Phoebe’s record wasn’t broken until 2012, by Tom Gullick, who actually led Phoebe on birdwatching tours while she was compiling her list. 

**Yes, I mean LITERALLY.


was an American birder famous for having seen and documented birds of over 9,000! different species,