Campus Birds: Making American Renaissance Poetry Accessible through Birdwatching

I am lucky enough to teach on a small campus in upstate New York where the wooded areas, shrubbery, and native plant and flower species attract a wide variety of birds, especially in the spring.  These avian neighbors aren’t shy either.  When living, foraging, and breeding in campus environments, they become accustomed to seeing and hearing people around. The birds on my campus are a visible and audible presence.

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Black-capped Chickadee

Once the snow melts, it’s common to see American Robins hopping across the quad, White-throated Sparrows, Chipping Sparrows, and Black-capped Chickadees foraging around bushes, House Sparrows nesting on the ledges of buildings, Blue Jays and Red-winged Blackbirds calling down from tree branches, and Northern Mockingbirds gliding from perch to perch. Recently, I was pleasantly surprised to discover a huge Pileated Woodpecker tapping away in the tree right outside of my office.

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White-throated Sparrow

So how does observing these “campus” birds help my students understand American Renaissance poetry?

One of the most common obstacles that I encounter when teaching American literature before 1900 is the student struggle to connect or identify with literature produced in such a drastically different cultural context from their own.  I can easily understand why students might have trouble engaging with and relating to what seems to them to be a totally alien culture.  However, despite all of the socio-cultural differences, the birds that fascinated American writers in the 1800s are the same birds with the same personalities that zip through the trees and forage outside our classroom windows today.

Reading some “bird poems” by canonical American Renaissance writers helps students bridge the cultural gap between American in the 1800s and America today because birds are dependable.  As the nation rapidly changes over time, birds remain consistent…well, for the most part. The populations and ranges may change, but each species looks and behaves the same way that it did in the 1800s.  So, when we read Emily Dickinson’s poems about American Robins, there is no “I can’t relate to what she’s talking about here” or “This is too weird and unfamiliar for me to visualize” because Dickinson wrote about the same American Robins that students see hopping around campus each day from dawn until dusk.

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American Robin

Dickinson’s “bird poems” are an ideal place to start when exposing students to American Renaissance poetry since she was, as Jo Miles Schuman and Joanna Bailey Hodgman explain, a “bird watcher” and a “bird lover” (xii).  Schuman and Hodgman tally that in her collected poems, Dickinson references birds 222 times (xvi) with reference to 26 different species observable around her Amherst, Massachusetts home (xiii).  Dickinson’s poems reference a number of birds that my students are likely to see daily on campus, including robins, jays, blackbirds, and sparrows.

Furthermore, Schuman and Hodgman acknowledge that Dickinson “knew their [birds’] habitats” and “was aware of their seasonal comings and goings” (xvi).  During spring migration, birds are likely to revisit the very same areas in which they foraged and nested in previous years.  Dickinson describes such dependability in American Robins in “I have a Bird in spring.” She writes:

Yet I do not repine
Knowing that Bird of mine
Though flown—
Learneth beyond the sea
Melody new for me
And will return. (181)

The American Robin was a personal favorite for Dickinson, which works out well because they’re so populous on my campus from daybreak to nightfall, especially in the spring. Whenever possible, it is helpful to pair “bird poems” with famed nineteenth-century ornithologist John James Audubon’s bird commentaries.  He writes, “The American Robin must be the hardiest of the whole genus.  I hear it at this moment, eight o’clock at night, singing most joyously ‘Good Night!’ and ‘All’s well!’” (398).

In “No Brigadier throughout the Year,” Emily Dickinson describes the Blue Jay as a confident “warrior”:

The Pillow of this daring Head
Is pungent Evergreens—
His Larder—terse and Militant—
Unknown—refreshing things—
His character—a Tonic—
His Future—a Dispute—
Unfair an Immortality
That leaves this Neighbor out— (23)

Since students can hold Dickinson’s description against their personal observations of the Blue Jays on campus, close reading comes more naturally even when there might be some tricky language.  I make my students download the free Merriam-Webster Dictionary app on their phones, which they may use during class when close reading and annotating poems. When students look up the word “tonic,” for example, they discover an interesting contrast of definitions. On one hand, a “tonic” is a type of musical tone. On another hand, a “tonic” is something that refreshes or invigorates. So, when Dickinson describes the Blue Jay’s “character” as “a Tonic,” students immediately reference their individual observations: the Blue Jay’s loud, unmistakable call and the vigorous, energetic, and rapid ways that he moves around.

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Blue Jay

Of course, not all of my students are observant of avian life while walking around campus, which is why it is essential to present images, videos, and audio tracks of bird songs and calls alongside of the poetry in class. This is particularly important when reading poems about birds that students are less likely to encounter on campus. For example, I’ve spotted an Eastern Bluebird, our state bird, in a field nearby campus, but I’ve never seen one on the campus proper, so I rely on supplemental media as well as Audubon’s commentary as aides when discussing a poem like Henry David Thoreau’s “The Bluebirds.”

We start with Audubon’s commentary on Eastern Bluebirds: “Full of innocent vivacity, warbling its ever-pleasing notes and familiar as any bird can be in its natural freedom, it is one of the most agreeable of our feathered favorites.  The pure azure of its mantle and the beautiful glow of its breast render it conspicuous as it flits though the orchards and gardens, crosses the fields or meadows or hops along by the roadside” (494). We then compare Audubon’s commentary as well as short videos and audio tracks to the poem.

Some videos reveal that today Eastern Bluebirds rely heavily on man-made nesting boxes during the breeding season. Students then instantly latch on to the opening lines of Thoreau’s poem, which reveal that “bluebird boxes” were common practice even in the 1800s:

In the midst of the poplar that stands by our door,
We planted a bluebird box,
And we hoped before the summer was o’er
A transient pair to coax. (173)

When a bluebird pair moves into the nesting box for the “transient” breeding season, the poem’s narrator claims, “Methinks I had never seen them before, nor indeed had they seen me” (174). Despite this initial unfamiliarity, a powerful bond between the narrator and the birds forms by the next spring when the narrator hears a familiar “sound” of which he claims:

It thrilled but startled not my soul;
Across my mind strange mem’ries gleamed,
As often distant scenes unroll
When we have lately dreamed.
The bluebird had come from the distant South
To his box in the poplar tree,
And he opened wide his slender mouth,
On purpose to sing to me. (176)

Here, the narrator views the bluebird, very likely the same bluebird as the previous year, directly addressing him, acknowledging that the bluebird remembers him in the same way that he remembers the bluebird.

This type of human-bird bond or kinship is pervasive in “bird poetry.” In American Renaissance poetry, it is common to see birds personified and described as “brothers,” “sisters,” and “neighbors.”  Shuman and Hodgman explain that when it comes to birds, “their behavior defines them and suggests similar aspects of human behavior” (xvi). The human parallel is why birds have always been—and will always continue to be—popular literary subject matter around the world.  The diversity of birds and their personalities reflects the diversity of humans and their personalities, and the dynamics of avian relationships often parallel the dynamics of human relationships.

For example, Walt Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” demonstrates both the human-bird bond as well as the human-bird relationship parallels. The narrator recalls childhood memories of his “sad brother” (236), the Northern Mockingbird, who mourns the loss of his beloved mate when she fails to return to their nest containing “four light-green eggs spotted with brown” (237). The narrator, as a child, is keenly observant and describes himself as “peering, absorbing, [and] translating” (237) as the he-bird’s tragic tale unfolds.  The narrator states:

He called on his mate,
He pour’d forth the meanings of which I of all men know
Yes my brother I know,
The rest might not, but I have treasured every note,

[…]

I, with bare feet, a child, the wind wafting in my hair,
Listen’d long and long.
Listen’d to keep, to sing, now translating the notes,
Following you my brother. (239)

Italicized stanzas throughout the poem represent the narrator’s English language “translation” of the Northern Mockingbird’s lonely “aria”:

O past! O happy life! O songs of joy!
In the air, in the woods, over fields,
Loved! loved! loved! loved! loved!
But my mate no more, no more with me!
We two altogether no more. (241)

Audubon Northern Mockingbird

The ultimate goal is for my students to be as observant and thoughtful as Whitman’s narrator when examining the poetry, which, of course, requires its own form of “translation.” When it comes to interpreting “bird poems,” I encourage my students to get outside and watch birds. I encourage them to compare bird species that they see around campus and think about the differences in the ways they behave and interact. I encourage them to search for parallels between bird personalities and human personalities.

As an aide for my novice student birdwatchers, there are several user-friendly free apps that I recommend. The Audubon Birds app offers comprehensive descriptions of North American birds. The Merlin Bird ID app, developed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, offers a more localized package. Students can download bird packages specific to a region. The app allows students who spot an unfamiliar bird species to plug in information such as size, color, and location to determine the specific species. This app also includes useful images, range maps, and audio recordings for each species. Additionally, students can search for birds they are “most likely” to encounter on any day of the year in a particular location.

Works Cited

Audubon, John James. The Audubon Reader. Edited by Richard Rhodes, Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.

Collins, Billy. Bright Wings: An Illustrated Anthology of Poems about Birds. Columbia UP, 2010.

Dickinson, Emily. A Spicing of Birds. Edited by Jo Miles Shuman and Joanna Bailey Hodgman, Wesleyan UP, 2010.

Dickinson, Emily. “I have a Bird in spring.” Collins, pp. 181.

McClatchy, J. D. On Wings of Song: Poems about Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, 2000.

Schuman, Jo Miles and Joanna Bailey Hodgman. Introduction. A Spicing of Birds, by Emily Dickinson, Wesleyan UP, 2010, pp. xiii-xxiv.

Thoreau, Henry David. “The Bluebirds.” Collins, pp. 173-6.

Whitman, Walt. “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” McClatchy, pp. 236-42.

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