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A visit to the Cornell Lab of O

As a fabulous birthday gift this June I was surprised with a trip to the Cornell Lab of O(rniothology) in Ithaca, New York. I didn’t put it together that while visiting with Margaret’s parents in Skaneateles we were less than an hour away from the world-renowned sapsucker woods!

The Lab is, ‘dedicated to advancing the understanding and protection of the natural world, the Cornell Lab joins with people from all walks of life to make new scientific discoveries, share insights, and galvanize conservation action.’ Though I don’t use them most of the days when I go out looking for birds, I certainly I have eBird and the Merlin apps on my phone. Both now provide platforms for ground-breaking citizen science initiatives. Headlines from recent stories about some of the findings read ‘California Protects Tricolored Blackbird After eBird Data Help Show 34% Decline’ and ‘Powered by Data from eBird and NASA, These Maps Are a Game-Changer for Conservation.

The four of us (me, Margaret and Margaret's mom and dad) took off into the woods. Immediately I heard the unmistakeable red-winged black birds calls from the reeds, and within a few minutes on the trail saw sprightly wrens, a woodpecker in the distant mist, and pair of goldfinches flitting about in the tress overhead. Further down the trail we were serenaded by cat birds, who comfortably sat near the walking paths, looking silky and sultry.

During our walk I was charmed to see this bench dedicated to the beloved Cincinnati-based artist Charley Harper whose art I’ve long loved. His renditions of birds have so much character and life. Harper's work always reminds me of Cincinnati where I spent so many afternoons in parks with my dad as in these pictures from 2015 where we visited the Krohn Conservatory and took a pair of bins to look out over the Ohio River from nearby Eden Park.

Back in Ithaca, after our walk in the woods, we stopped into the Visitor Center. I’ve long followed the Cornell Lab online, including watching the many Bird Cams including the Cornell Feeder, a video of one of the feeders outside the Visitor Center.

I popped into the sound studio to hear some of the 150 founds of different birds. I looked at the Wall of Birds, which is not only gorgeous to look at but also includes an online interactive feature where I could explore the birds in even more detail.

I also stopped into the on-site Wild Birds Unlimited Store to grab a pin with the logo from the Lab as well as a snazzy new strap for my binoculars. I spent some time looking at the books on offer, making notes of books to check out from the library in the future. So far, I’ve read Birding Without Borders, the Genius of Birds and A Most Remarkable Creature: The Hidden Life of the World’s Smartest Birds of Prey. Each book led me down the path of additional books to read, so it has really proven a great jumping off point to continue learning more about birds and birding.

It was a splendid afternoon, truly a treat! I’d love to go back, spend more time looking at the birds (always!) and get a Behind-the-Scenes tour too. The space is at the perfect intersection of research, nature and public engagement. I left thinking about what future work I might do related to conflict, public policy, birding and nature. Grateful for my visit this summer, looking forward to my next.

I leave you with the poem, May a transsexual hear a bird? by Harry Josephine Giles from the new poetry collection of 100 queer poems, 100 Queer Poems by Mary Jean Chan and Andrew McMillan (Vintage Publishing, £12.99), published this summer.

May a transsexual hear a bird? by Harry Josephine Giles

May a transsexual hear a bird? When I, a transsexual, hear a bird, I am a transsexual hearing a bird, when you hear a bird you are a person hearing a bird, that is, I am specific, you are general. When a bird sounds in a poem it is a symbol of hearing a bird, a symbol of a person being in relation to nature. Only a person may hear this. Only a person may hear a bird and write a poem about hearing a bird and in so doing praise the gentle dissolution of personhood or elsewise strive towards the clear and questionless presence of an unworded bird, being. Were I to attempt such a poem again, I would be a transsexual writing a poem on hearing a bird – I note now that “transsexual” is the legal adjective for a person with the protected characteristic of “gender reassignment” under the Equality Act (2010), Section 7, which applies to any person at any stage of changing any aspect of sex, and so to make a claim of work discrimination I must both have the socioeconomic capital to bring such a claim and also be a transsexual – and so be unable to dissolve without first addressing my transsexuality to the bird. Even were I to fail to sound out my transsexuality, it would remain in the title and byline, unsilent, a framing device, regardless, and so once again you would be hearing a transsexual hearing a bird. But now I am too preoccupied with how to source testosterone – a Class C Controlled Substance under the Misuse of Drugs Act (1971) carrying, for supply, a maximum penalty of 14 years’ imprisonment, and/or a heavy fine – to give to my friend, and how to publish a zine detailing how to negotiate and circumvent the Gender Identity Clinic system, given that waiting lists for first appointments now range from 3 to 6 years, without attracting the critical social media attention that would shut down any explicit alternative routes, and whether the fact I have not heard from my trans sister in over a month means she is in severe mental health crisis or merely working, and whether I have the strength and love to call her, to remember to hear a bird. If I cannot remember to hear a bird I cannot write a poem. How can I not have the strength and love to call her? Because I have not heard enough birds. Because I am scared of what it will mean if she does not answer. Because I am scared of what it will mean if she does. Because I have been working in too many political meetings scolding Parliamentarians to call or hear a bird. In the morning I open the window before the sun rises so I, a transsexual, may hear the birds singing. If I may hear the birds singing the sound may lift me from myself and my working conditions. Then the sun, the conditions, and the working day.

The poem, along with several others, were published in this Guardian piece.

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