Poetry Sunday: The Birds of America by Billy Collins

Over the years, as I have consulted my various field guides to try to identify some new bird, I have pondered what the life of a birder would be without those wonderful guides. What a debt we owe to those artist/conservationists who were able to bring those lifelike illustrations - and in many of the more recent guides, pictures - to us so that even if we don't hold the bird, either dead or alive, in our hands, we can key in on specific field marks and know the name of the bird that we are viewing. 

And I think particularly of John J. Audubon and his passion for the birds of America and his determination to capture them in his art so that others could see them as he did. Billy Collins thinks about that, too.  

The Birds of America

by Billy Collins

Early this morning
in a rumpled bed,
listening to birdsong
through the propped-open windows,

I saw on the ceiling
the figure of John J. Audubon
kneeling before
the pliant body of an expired duck.

I could see its slender, limp neck, 
rich chestnut crown,
and soft grey throat,
and bright red bill,

even the strange pink legs.
And when I closed my eyes again
I could hear him whisper 
in his hybrid Creole accent

I have taken your life
so that some night a man
might open a book
and run his hand over your feathers,

so that he could come close enough
to study your pale brown flecks,
your white chin patch,
and the electric green of your neck,

so that he might approach
without frightening you into the sky,
and wonder how strange
to the earth he has become,

so that he might see by his lamp light
the glistening in your eye
then take to the air
and fly alongside you.


  1. I've never been a birder. I would personally feel bad knowing how the scientist got his or her subjects for field guides except that, sadly, it does make sense.

    1. Fortunately, these days the compilers of bird field guides no long have to kill their subjects to get a close look at them, but in Audubon's day, there was not a viable option. At least those birds that died may have served the purpose of saving countless other birds and arousing a conservationist ethic among a considerable segment of the population.

  2. Replies
    1. I love Billy Collins' poetry. It all seems to speak directly to me and sometimes for me.

  3. Having gone through my adventure with the peacock, I can completely understand this poem. Lovely.

    1. At least you didn't need a field guide to tell you what that bird was!

  4. Collins notes,"how strange to the earth he has become". And isn't that a truth about our western world-dominating culture? Hasn't it led us to become aliens on our planet? Perhaps we're changing that now, which may be why we have a culture war.

    1. Let us hope that our alienness is changing and leading us to accept that we are part of this Earth, the only home we have.

  5. I am thinking the author might have been referring to the countless species of birds that were shotgunned to extinction during that era when he says, "how strange to the earth he has become."


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