Taking Flight

Taking Flight

Photograph by Alex Mustard / Nature PL


words by willow defebaugh

Welcome to The Overview, a weekly newsletter in which Editor-in-Chief Willow Defebaugh offers an aerial view of the latest events in climate and culture—and how they all fit together.

Photograph by Alex Mustard / Nature PL
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“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.”

Anaïs Nin

When we think of birds, we are often enamored with ideas of them as emblems of grace and the glory of gliding midair. We gaze in awe at the way they sail the sky, but rarely do we reflect on what it took for them to get there. No bird is born knowing how to soar, nor does it know when is the right time to leave the nest. The journey from fledge to flight consists of countless falls and failures, leaps and learnings—and most of all, courage.


Growing up is dangerous. In the natural world, times of transition are the most perilous. This is especially true for offspring, who easily fall prey to predators while they are still finding their footing. Parent birds know this, which is why their goal is to get their nest empty as soon as possible—a desire that is directly at odds with those of their fledglings, who want to stay in the comfort of the only world they’ve ever known. As much as we might think of nests as being safe and cozy, they are also easy targets for parasites and predators who are drawn to their noises.


So how do parents get their fledglings to fly? At such a young age, the fledglings are motivated by one thing: a need to feed. Their parents bring them food, which they quickly learn is necessary for their survival. Each time the parent returns to the nest with nourishment, they position themselves a little further away. In order to reach the food, the fledglings must eventually leave the nest. At first, they fall every time—until they discover that they can brace their descent by spreading their wings. Fall by fall, they practice learning how to fly.


Birds don’t leap into the air out of some innate sense of purpose or faith that the wind will carry them. They don’t even do it out of an evolutionary urge to take to the sky. They learn to fly by following the path laid out in front of them, by chasing what nourishes them. It’s a process that involves trial by error, falling face-first to the ground, and a willingness to get up again. Despite the glamours of the age of Instagram and the grace it suggests, our becoming is similarly clumsy. And similarly, it begins with leaving the nest.


Thankfully, birds remind us that we are not alone. Species that fly in V formations do so out of an ingenious display of evolutionary aerodynamics—and community. As a bird flaps its wings, it creates an upwash behind and to the sides of it. Other birds in the flock fly in these upwash zones, allowing them to save energy. The further back the birds are in the formation, the slower their heart rates and the fewer times they have to flap their wings, allowing them to fly longer distances. In other words: Flying in formation allows birds to lift each other up. 


Birds have quite a bit to teach us about organizing, too. Have you ever wondered how a murmuration of starlings moves with such synchronization? While hundreds to even thousands of these creatures might fly together at once, they stay in unison by focusing their attention only on the movement of the seven starlings that surround them. This has somewhat of a ripple effect, resulting in the murmuration moving as one. It’s a reminder that, while we may not be able to tend to everything and everyone, if we each focus on what we can, the whole thrives.


Our world is changing, the only one we have ever known. We can cling to what was, or we can cultivate the courage required to change with it. We can choose to leave the nest, to walk in the direction of our becoming, even if it means falling along the way. We can learn from our elders, call on the support of others, and harness the power of community to go the distance—however daunting it might seem. We can look to the sky and let our feathered friends remind us how much waits on the other side of fear.

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