Birding: Musings on Nature through Poetry & Place

Birding: Musings on Nature through Poetry & Place

The bird populations in Western Massachusetts have inspired many poets and writers to pick up their pens and compose verses dedicated to our feathered friends, celebrating nature and the land. Cummington native William Cullen Bryant, and Amherst native Emily Dickinson, both wrote poems about the bobolink. This intriguing species migrates back to New England in the late Spring (mid-late May) where it prefers large grasslands, such as hay fields, where they can build their nests on the ground. They are impressive birds, with a curious and clownish fluttering that is a joy to see in the late spring and early summer. Due to their preference to nest in hay fields often utilized by farmers, The Bobolink Project seeks to work with farmers to delay haying fields in order to protect grassland birds such as bobolinks.

Learn about bobolinks through the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website and their educational videos on different bird species.

William Cullen Bryant

After learning about their habitat, migration patterns, behavior and nesting preferences, read Bryant’s poem Robert of Lincoln. The poem is a sweet description of the bird. Notice how different the description of the bobolink is in poetic form as opposed to a scientist’s observations. Bryant’s verses decoratively describe the bobolink in a fun and lighthearted way. From this poem, you can gather what type of habitat the bird lives in, as well as a description of the bird’s plumage (“wearing a bright black wedding-coat;/White are his shoulders, and white his crest;”). Bryant also mentions the bobolink’s song (“hear him call in his merry note:/ Bob-o’-link, bob-o’-link”)

You can still visit the William Cullen Bryant Homestead in Cummington, MA, and roam the same fields where Bryant most certainly witnessed the nesting of bobolinks as a young man and later as an elderly poet when he purchased the property back in 1865.

Emily Dickinson

Another local poet inspired by this curious bird was Amherst poet Emily Dickinson. Her poem The Way to know the Bobolink describes the bird’s personality and characteristics in a beautiful and insightfully complex way. Read Dickinson’s poem closely and notice how precisely she chooses her words to pay tribute to this typical Western Massachusetts visitor. Note her description of the bird’s “attire” and personality as “too intimate with Joy.” Why do you think Dickinson describes the bobolink this way? What about the bird’s flight pattern or characteristics offer the poet interesting details to compose a more poetic rendering of the species?


Download our March/April edition of Learning Ahead: Cultural Itinerary for Western Massachusetts for embedded learning opportunities found in cultural resources that exist within the geography, history, and cultural traditions of Western Massachusetts.

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