Love of Home

Artwork by Philip Hua (March/April 2017)

A RASPY, emphatic proclamation—“phoebe!”—bursts from the hemlocks Sunday morning, announcing the return of our birds. No need for an alarm clock now. At first light, the male declares his workday has begun; we rise and begin ours. When I return in the afternoon, he is circling our house, winking through my peripheral vision as he streaks past windows. He alights atop a wobbly rod of rebar, flicks his tail, states his name.

Foraging flights will soon dominate the action. Stationed on the feeder pole, our phoebes conjure moths, then sally and snatch them from the air. Garden-fresh caterpillars, proffered on the perch, are also accepted. Each year we relish this homecoming, a tradition that John James Audubon sleuthed by winding bits of thread around the legs of individual birds and confirming their philopatry — a tendency to return to or remain in a place — when they reappeared at his Pennsylvania estate the following spring.

Phoebes are icons of resilient adaptability in human-altered landscapes. Reaching beyond an ancestral tendency to shelter their nests under rocky outcrops, phoebes now appropriate protected nooks on buildings and bridges. Our hunt is on — where is this season’s nest?

Sunday evening, a clackety racket announces another homecoming: the arrival of an explosive, synchronous spring migration of wood frogs at the breeding site up our way. Earlier in the week, persuasive males wooed a few females in a sun-warmed roadside depression. But Sunday is the main happening, a cacophonous yearly one-nighter for the species, staged in the customary pool. Males wrestle over each incoming female until a lucky contender breaks free with her from the writhing knot of frogs and seeks a spot for a long night of amplexus.

Yet the annual copulatory commotion has bypassed our campus pond this year. Each spring I have slyly directed my students to the established spawning site and awaited their wide-eyed tales of a wild spectacle. Monday morning I check my inbox for their accounts of the action. Nothing. A Tuesday site inspection uncovers no wood frog egg masses, although other frogs peep, croak, and trill a formidable din. A colleague shares news of a long-standing project surveying wood frog spring egg masses at regional spawning sites. “Really low numbers this year,” he reports.

This volatile spring has sent mixed signals. A warm spell made an early case for flowering and courtship, but was followed by late, heavy snow. Gravid does, primed for fresh shoots, instead teeter on hind legs, straining for remnant branch tips. Now fields, sodden from an unusual spate of spring storms, lie fallow as farmers reevaluate planting plans. How should local frogs and seasonal migrants like phoebes interpret these cues? The neighborhood encompassing the wood frogs’ campus breeding ground, in addition to experiencing ambiguous seasonal signals, is in anthropogenic transition. A new path altered the pond margins and increased traffic; lights were installed for safety. Does it still suit for spawning?

In these turbulent times, when storms inundate homes and land, we philopatric humans negotiate the pull of place. Pictures aching with devastation entwine with narratives of resolve to return and rebuild. Philopatry binds us to familiar habitat and offers opportunities for collaboration with kin and community. But in a pond or on a planet in transition, with shifting seasonality, more frequent and intense storms, how do we balance connection to a place with increased risk, or with growing mismatch between organisms and habitat? When do we stay, mine our resilience, and develop a different relationship with a changing place? When is it time to seek new neighborhoods, cultivate new alliances?

Neighbors of frogs and phoebes, farmers Justine and Brian Denison have, for the last fifteen years, engaged in community supported agriculture on their parcel of land, traversed by the meanders of Tomhannock Creek. In late August of 2011, Hurricane Irene spawned unprecedented flooding that transformed the farm’s peak-of-harvest bottomland fields into a rock-strewn mudscape. A fluke? When the churning waters receded, work commenced to repair and fortify damaged structures, till in the flooded crops, no longer suitable for food, and plant cover crops, launching restoration of the soil that underpins crop production.

Six years later, an early summer flood hit the farm. Justine observed, “The resiliency was miraculous. Totally submerged and flattened by floodwater, this corn stood up, straight and strong, within three days.” And the farmers? Momentarily blindsided, they rebounded, for now embracing the long view: assessing, restoring, strengthening, and recalibrating in light of new contingencies. A resourceful countermove — mid-July planting on higher ground, untouched by the flood — yielded an October harvest of Huckleberry Gold potatoes, somewhat mitigating losses from flood-ravaged crops.

What do these floods signal? In the long history of productive farming of these rich creekside soils, are they anomalies? Portents of a new climate regime? How do the farmers decide whether to remain and adapt to changing conditions or to leave off farming these fields, gauging the land, assailed by forces from beyond its borders, no longer suited to provision the community it long sustained?

This morning at 5:57 a.m., our phoebe alarm sounds. His territory is firmly centered on our home; his mate is at work constructing a moss-spackled nest underneath our rain gutter, snug in a crook atop the drainpipe. He aims to keep our perimeter secure. 

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Monica Raveret Richter is a behavioral ecologist whose work focuses on food choice and its consequences. She teaches in the biology department at Skidmore College in upstate New York.