A Lesson From a Fallen Star: How a Warbler Taught Me to Give Back

Tennessee Warbler. Photo: Mark Peck

By Michal Zhitomirsky

“It’s like Pokémon GO, but in real life!”

The above is my standard attempt to explain my enthusiasm for bird watching to my loved ones, who typically respond with a polite smile and vacant eyes.

Bird watching has been my favourite activity for three years, and is especially rewarding during the pandemic because it allows me to rediscover the city by meeting my feathered neighbours. From noticing the saucy gait of a Rock Pigeon’s strut, to the House Sparrow’s counterintuitive dust baths, to the warrior-like cries of the Red-winged Blackbird as he punishes a jogger for encroaching on his territory, I’ve come to appreciate the unique personalities of my neighborhood birds.

Learning about birds during the pandemic felt like putting on magic glasses– the world around me came alive in an entirely unexpected way. Instead of ambient chirping, I could suddenly hear the maniacal laugh of the Red-breasted Nuthatch, the staccato squeaks of the Downy Woodpecker, and the flute-like song of the Swainson’s Thrush. Everywhere I went, I could hear an invisible choir above me. And to see the origins of this mysterious music, all I had to do was be willing to look up. I spotted the bright red plumage of the male Northern Cardinal and his wife in her red lipstick closely behind. I watched the Black-capped Chickadees proudly calling each other by name, and marvelled at their hospitality as they guided visiting warblers to local food sources. Through careful observation, I was exposed to a complicated new society, governed by unique rules and norms, with its own music and language. I discovered a completely new world that was above me the entire time. 

Black-capped Chickadees. Photo: Raffaele Camasta

I’ve learned that bird watching is not about finding new or rare birds; it’s about observing and understanding the birds you know.

Noticing what birds do has helped me understand what birds need. What environments do they tolerate? What food do they like? A corpulent pigeon would love to indulge in some discarded bread and take a few refreshing sips from the mysterious puddles on Yonge Street. Meanwhile a White-breasted Nuthatch would turn her beak up at this and remain in a nearby cemetery clinging on the sides of the tree in search of nuts and seeds.

I first asked myself what birds need during spring migration in 2020 and was ultimately led to FLAP. On a May morning during peak migration, I was walking up Yonge Street to visit Mount Pleasant cemetery when I noticed a warbler who had been crushed into the sidewalk, likely after hitting one of the windows of the many tall buildings lining the street. I didn’t know what I could do at the time, or that I even had any responsibility to do something, so I continued walking towards my destination. I saw nearly 40 species at Mount Pleasant, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the Tennessee Warbler on the sidewalk– a beautiful creature who spent his life sharing his music with all who were willing to listen, asking for nothing in return.

As I walked home, I imagined the astonishing journey of the 10 gram warbler who flew thousands of kilometers from Central America to visit us, and I thought to myself: I love birds.

But as we all know, loving something or someone is never just about taking; it’s about giving.

On my walk home, I came up with an extensive list of how birds had enriched my life but couldn’t think of a single example of what I had done for them. What could I have done for the Tennessee Warbler, and others like him, whose lives are cut short because of barriers we have put in their way?

I wanted to give back, and that’s how I found FLAP. This year, I am proud to say that I will be combining my spring migration birding with patrolling. When I reached out to FLAP, I was immediately welcomed into a community of volunteers who not only gave me the opportunity to share my story through this post but are also training me to patrol and help birds during this migration. I am looking forward to the upcoming training sessions that will provide me with knowledge about how to make buildings bird-safe so that there are more birds in the sky, where they belong.

I love birds, and I’m ready to show it. I’m ready to give something back, and I would love for you to join me.

Interested in volunteering with FLAP? Check out our volunteer page for more information.

Author Biography

Michal is a stand-up comedian by night, government worker by day, and bird enthusiast around the clock. She formerly volunteered at the Friends of the Aviary in Hamilton where she helped take care of rescued birds, provided educational tours for the public, and led two comedy charity shows to raise money for the aviary.