The air fills with similar songs, in different dialects

An American transplant to Switzerland longs for familiar birds and bird songs – and embraces new ones. 

What do I miss most about life in the United States? I’ve often been asked this by friends back home since we bade goodbye a year and a half ago and I began a new life in Switzerland. 

Besides those friends, and my son and grandson, the answer comes easily: birds. I miss the mourning doves at first light and the Carolina wrens, black-capped chickadees, and little gray titmice that crowded the cabin feeder in winter on our farm in Indiana. Chimney swifts would rustle to roost above the hearth we dared not light at certain times of the year. Swallows faithfully arrived each April at their old nests in the barn – then abruptly left in mid-August with the new generation they’d raised. I miss the bright company of Baltimore orioles and cardinals by day, and the dark shadows of turkey vultures settling to roost in our giant firs at dusk.

Above all, I miss the call of the wood thrush from the forest as night deepened – the final birdsong of the day before owls broke the hush. 

The birds kept such faithful time for me. As poet Pablo Neruda put it, “the whole gift of the day” was “passed from one bird to another.”

I appreciate all avian species, even the dark, harshly cawing crows that greet me in the early morning at my new home near Basel, Switzerland. Up before dawn, as always, I watch them blending in and out of the pines along a stream. The crows – raucous, and oblivious to human travails and pandemics – are wholly focused on their own business as I pass beneath them, their cries a raw challenge to each new day. 

There are songbirds here, too, but I’m still getting used to them. I am learning their habits and songs in much the way I am learning the impossibly abbreviated but wonderfully musical cadences of the local dialect. The wild bird population here includes different varieties of warblers, finches, flycatchers, and wrens, along with some familiar species. I’ll never see an Alpine tit in Indiana. And perhaps nowhere will I come so close to the vivid blue presence of a kingfisher, as I did along the Birs River in Laufen.

I’ve seen storks feeding by the dozens in just-harvested fields surrounding my home. One majestic pair nests on a purpose-built platform high on the roof of a local church, apparently not minding the bells tolling regularly at their bedside. So beloved are they that repairs to the church roof were planned carefully around their migration and daily habits.

But yes, I still miss the songbirds of Indiana. Travelers to the United States from Europe have felt a similar sense of loss at the absence of old avian friends. In 1842, German naturalist and explorer Prince Maximilian du Wied wistfully described the American continent as “a land without nightingales.”

I hope that soon I will feel comfortable traveling home to see my son and grandson. Then I will walk the farm I formerly called home, hoping to spot old friends in flight, or nesting in the boxes, rafters, and hollow trees on those 80 acres. “‘Hope,’” wrote Emily Dickinson, “is the thing with feathers.”

Spring has arrived here, and I’m finding my footing and my own wings more and more – with the help of renewed avian songs and rhythms, reinvigorating my love affair with birds.

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