A Bird’s Tale

Our Intimate Relationship with Trees

Wed, 04/27/2022 - 10:30am

It may not be often that any of us think about sharing a close personal and intimate contact with a tree. Yet every minute of every day all oxygen-breathing creatures on planet Earth, including us humans, breathe deep into our lungs the oxygen that trees (and other plants) have released into the air. We, in turn, expel carbon dioxide that trees and other plants take in. They incorporate the carbon in that carbon dioxide into their very tissues (which is, by the way, why trees and other plants are so critical in the climate crisis).

How more intimate could you be?

Those trees with whom we share this incredibly intimate personal grow together in forests. Those forests provide for birds and other wildlife places to live and raise young.

The pine warblers busily trilling away in the white pines at the Boothbay Region Land Trust’s Pine Tree Preserve or Oak Point Farm are completely dependent on those pine trees for food, shelter, and nest sites. You will be hard-pressed to ever hear a pine warbler singing from anything but a pine tree. We too are dependent on that pine tree, though in our case, for the oxygen it produces. Fortunately, we also get to breathe in the wonderful piney smells that are such a part of the Maine aura.

Newly arriving yellow-rumped warblers (one of the other earliest-arriving warbler migrants here in Maine) are dependent on trees of different kinds at different times of the year. Right now, they seek out willows and maples with their early flowers that attract the insects yellow-rumps need for survival. Later-arriving yellow-rumped warblers (often the females migrate later) will search for newly leafing out oaks and ashes. Still later, when establishing breeding territories, yellow-rumps will be found almost exclusively in spruce and balsam fir, including in places like the Ocean Point Preserve and Linekin Preserve.

And it will be only a week or two before birds like the ovenbird will arrive here in Maine, announcing its presence with a loud “teacher-teacher-teacher” song. Where will that song be emanating from? You guessed it—a forest. In this case, it will very likely be a forest of maples and oaks on the more mature side. The ovenbird (which is a warbler) will sing from the lower to mid-level of the forest but spends much of its time walking around the forest floor among the dead leaves, stepping deliberately with its rather oversized feet as it searches for insects. It builds a nest on the ground with a cover like a little Dutch oven—hence its name!

Far above the ovenbird in that forest of maple and oak trees will probably be another forest-dependent bird species—the red-eyed vireo. Staying in the canopy most of the time, the red-eyed vireo will mostly be a ubiquitous voice emanating from the obscurity of the leafed-out trees, singing, “here-I-am, look-at-me, see-me” over and over, all day and throughout the summer.

The trees that sustain those wonderful birds are sharing their breath with us, too. We are all in this together. We are the land, the trees, the birds. What better reason to take care of the environment we are part of?

Jeffrey V. Wells, Ph.D., is a Fellow of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Vice President of Boreal Conservation for National Audubon. Dr. Wells is one of the nation's leading bird experts and conservation biologists and author of the “Birder’s Conservation Handbook.” His grandfather, the late John Chase, was a columnist for the Boothbay Register for many years. Allison Childs Wells, formerly of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is a senior director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, a nonprofit membership organization working statewide to protect the nature of Maine. Both are widely published natural history writers and are the authors of the popular books, “Maine’s Favorite Birds” (Tilbury House) and “Birds of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao: A Site and Field Guide,” (Cornell University Press).