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Henry David Thoreau's 200th birthday

Henry David Thoreau’s Birds - 200 Years Later

By Andy McCormick

July 12 marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of Henry David Thoreau, an American essayist, transcendental philosopher, abolitionist, tax resister, surveyor, and naturalist. He traveled extensively around New England, mostly on foot, and chronicled these travels in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Cape Cod, The Maine Woods, and Early Spring in Massachusetts. He is probably best known for his book Walden, a chronicle of his two-year stint living in a cabin he built near Walden Pond in Concord, MA.  Red-winged Blackbird by Mick Thompson

Walden Pond, Concord, MA

Birds were not the primary topic of his writings, but he reflected on them and his feelings for them. In Walden, first published in 1854, Thoreau observed birds from his cabin. “As I sit at my window this summer afternoon, hawks are circling about my clearing; the tantivy [rapid ride] of wild pigeons, flying by twos and threes athwart my view, or perching restless on the white pine boughs behind my house, gives a voice to the air; a fish hawk dimples the glassy surface of the pond and brings up a fish; … the sedge is bending under the weight of the reed-birds flitting hither and thither….” The hawks may have been Red-tails or Broadwing hawks among others. The pigeons could have been Passenger Pigeons which were documented in Massachusetts until 1894 (Passenger Pigeon Project).

“Regularly at half-past seven, on one part of the summer, after the evening train had gone by, the 

whip-poor-wills chanted their vespers for half an hour, sitting on a stump by my door, or upon a ridge-pole of the house. …When other birds are still the screech-owls take up the strain…. I was also serenaded by a hooting owl. …One answers from far woods in a strain made more melodious by distance, - Hoo, hoo, hoo, hoorer hoo; and indeed for the most part it suggested only pleasing associations, whether heard by day or night, summer or winter.” This call is most likely that of a Great Horned Owl. 

Cape Cod, Massachusetts

In Cape Cod he wrote in 1849 of the blackbirds still molesting the corn, even nearly two hundred years after orders were passed in 1667 for every household to kill twelve blackbirds and three crows. Rusty Blackbirds and Red-wing Blackbirds are both common on the Cape. He commented on how gulls were hunted for food, and seemed to use the word “gull” to describe a variety of seabirds including one that the Norwegians called harvest. He remarked that a translator said it was probably a bird we call a booby. In New England this would likely have been a Northern Gannet. 

Thoreau described, “the sound of remembrance which most perfectly revives the impression which the beach has made, it would be the dreary peep of the piping plover (Charadrius melodus) which haunts there.”

He walked the beaches for miles noting everything he could. “Sometimes we sat on the wet beach and watched the beach birds, sand-pipers, and others trotting along close to each wave, and waiting for the sea to cast up their breakfast.” These could have been Sanderlings and Semipalmated Sandpipers among other species. “One little bird not larger than a sparrow, - it may have been a Phalarope, - would alight on the turbulent surface where the breakers were five or six feet high, and float buoyantly there like a duck, cunningly taking to its wings and lifting itself a few feet through the air over the foaming crest of each breaker.” A phalarope would have to have been seen in migration and the Red-necked Phalarope would be the most likely one to be seen on the Massachusetts coast.

“There was also an almost uninterrupted line of coots [American Coot] rising and falling with the waves, a few rods from shore, the whole length of the Cape. He also quoted from a passage that described the feeding habits of the Storm Petrel (Thalassidroma Wilsonii).” It is now known as Wilson’s Storm Petrel.  

Inland and Songbirds

Thoreau also commented on birds he located on Cape Cod which are “not located in the interior of the State, - at least in my neighborhood, - I heard, in the summer, the Black-throated Bunting (Fringilla Americana) amid the shrubbery.” This bird is now known as the Dickcissal (Spiza americana). Also, “in the open land the Upland Plover (Totanus Bartramius) whose quivering notes were ever and anon prolonged into a clear, somewhat plaintive, yet hawk-like scream, which sounded at a very indefinite distance.” 


Thoreau’s writing and speaking inspired others to consider his dictum, “In wilderness is the preservation of the world.” His work inspired Theodore Roosevelt and his success in preserving national wildlife refuges, John Muir and the fight to save Yosemite National Park, Rachel Carson and her writing to protect the world from pesticides, Terry Tempest Williams and her writing to save the Red Rocks area of the American Southwest, Bill McKibben of and his work to stop global warming, Henry Beston and his book The Outermost House, which inspired John F. Kennedy to save the Cape Cod National Seashore, where “A [person] may stand there and put all American behind him [or her] (Thoreau).

 Photo of Red-winged Blackbird by Mick Thompson
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