Katie Fallon, the author of "Cerulean Blues, A Personal Search for A Vanishing Songbird" and a professor of Creative Writing at West Virginia University, spoke recently at the Canaan Valley Wildlife Refuge about the increasingly serious plight of the cerulean warbler, North America's fastest declining neotropical song bird.
During the July 21 lecture, Fallon interwove information about the cerulean's characteristics and the challenges it faces as a species, with reflections on the personal journey that culminated in the formation of her book.
Fallon, a Pennsylvania native and self identified "bird-kisser," said she always has been greatly interested in birds.
The Inter-Mountain photo by Joe Hoover
The July Valley Vibes event series at the Canaan Valley Wildlife Refuge features Katie Fallon speaking about the diminishing presence of the cerulean warbler.
"Actually, my first word was 'bird,'" Fallon said. "My obsession has even worn off on other people in my family. Now, my mom keeps a record of the birds she sees."
So, being a bird lover and Appalachian native, her attention naturally was peaked when she heard a biologist lecture on cerulean warblers, an entrancing, hard-to-spot species that breeds primarily in Appalachian hardwood forests.
When the species was denied threatened status by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service in 2006 - despite the cerulean's well-documented population decrease, which has averaged 3 percent since 1962 - her interest became a passion.
This passion led her through extensive research, field studies conducted throughout Appalachia and a trip to the cerulean's non-breeding habitat in Columbia. Through her experience, Fallon became something of an amateur expert on ceruleans and an advocate for their preservation.
Fallon opened her lecture with a heart-warming description of the cerulean warbler, a diminutive, dark blue bird with white markings and a dark necklace, wings that span an average of 2.5 inches each and a body that weighs between 9 and 10 grams.
Ceruleans breed and raise their young high in the canopies of North American forests, where the female of a mated pair builds and maintains a nest and stays with her eggs, Fallon said. The male hunts for food and brings it to the nest for his mate and their offspring.
When a season's new generation of ceruleans are mature enough, sometimes only a month after they are born, the birds migrate thousands of miles to South America, their small bodies borne over the Gulf of Mexico on wings the size of a large butterfly's.
There, predominantly in the Andes, they spend the winter until the time comes for their return flight to the North America.
Juxtaposing the vulnerability suggested by the cerulean's size against its epic migratory journey, Fallon drew attendees into a shared ethos of concern and admiration.
Her talk also included wry humor.
"Ceruleans are noted for for contributing to forest health," Fallon said. "They consume harmful insects, especially caterpillars, that can cause serious problems when their populations are unchecked. In fact," she noted, "a particularly passionate fondness for caterpillars in ceruleans has been observed by researches.
"In a study on the habits of mated pairs of ceruleans, scientists noticed that whenever a male brought a caterpillar to his mate, copulation almost always followed," she said.
Unfortunately, Fallon said the cerulean is facing significant habitat loss in both its breeding areas in North America and in its non-breeding areas in South America.
Development and environmentally destructive mining practices in North America, particularly mountaintop-removal coal mining, are contributing to the shrinkage of their breeding areas, Fallon said. In South America, environmentally destructive agricultural practices, particularly the growing sprawl of coffee plantations, similarly are decreasing cerulean habitat.
Fallon said individuals who want to help preserve cerulean habitat can do several things to make a difference.
They can purchase shade-grown coffee, which is certified for being grown in natural forest settings instead of clear-cut fields. They also can support alternative forms of energy and conserve electricity in order to help limit the demand for coal, Fallon said.
Fallon's presentation at the Wildlife Refuge was part of the refuge's monthly Valley Vibes event series, which features an event at 7 p.m. the third Saturday of every month, except December.