The first migratory creature I ever knew was my mother. She was born and raised on a farm in Canada, but during her teenage years she traveled back and forth to the US to attend school in Ohio. When she eventually married my American father and settled here, she retained her Canadian citizenship and would proudly display her border crossing card when we went to visit my grandparents and cousins in the summer. Even after becoming a US citizen later in life, her identity was solidly Canadian, the maple leaf was her symbol, and snow was her element. Every March, she would tap the two maple trees that stood in our front yard, send us out to sled and play in the remaining snowdrifts, and skate with us until the ice melted on our little farm pond.
My mother also loved birds, though she clearly distinguished between those native ones that she deemed good, and those introduced ones that were pests: grackles, house sparrows, starlings. She encouraged me to find the nests of pest birds and add their eggs to my collection. A purple martin colony house sat on a high pole near the garden. Every spring before the martins returned, my father would empty out the nests of opportunistic house sparrows and starlings (while I attempted – usually unsuccessfully – to secretly rescue and raise any hatchlings). My mother set out bluebird houses, too, but these beloved birds were locally rare from years of intensive pesticide use in the orchards that surrounded us. A feeder was kept filled throughout the winter so that she could keep an eye on bird activity from a window while she did housework. She often shooed away the voracious blue jays who mobbed the feeder so that the smaller chickadees, woodpeckers and nuthatches could get their fair share. Many years later, in her assisted living apartment, my mother made grudging peace with house sparrows, the only birds that visited the small window feeder that she was given. “So messy,” she complained, but she always made sure that the aides kept the feeder filled.
Though I can’t recall them ever visiting our pond, I imagine that my mother’s favorite bird of all was the Canada goose. She called them “Canadian” geese, making sure to ally her nationality with these avian compatriots even as their increasing abundance and residential status made farmers and golf courses regard them as a nuisance. When my parents moved to a retirement center with a lovely lake surrounded by manicured lawns and gardens, my mother was delighted to find that it hosted a resident flock of geese. Complaints from residents and groundskeepers about the mess they made on the banks and sidewalks led to numerous strategies – from border collies to my father’s Model T and its klaxon horn – to drive them away. I think my mother was pleased by the geese’s stubborn persistence. Even though she might not recognize people, she could always distinguish the forms of geese on the lake from the windows of the dining room. On walks by the lake, we would bring her wheelchair as close to them as we dared. She acknowledged that these particular geese no longer migrated – but then, neither did she. They were still Canadian kinfolk at heart.
When I consider what brings biodiversity home for me, I credit my mother with instilling in me not only that first deep interest in living things, but also an appreciation for their remarkable resilience under adverse conditions. Her recent passing, just shy of 94, was followed by a late winter snowstorm that she would have enthusiastically greeted as “good Canadian weather.” With sleet and snow pelting my windows, I watched a throng of chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, sparrows, woodpeckers and juncoes work the feeders and snow beneath them, searching for seeds.
Like the geese I’ve observed feeding energetically in other March snowfalls, and the flock that sounded off as they passed over, heading north on this gusty morning, these are creatures whose hardy resourcefulness will continue to remind me of where I come from.