Eclipse: When the Moon Fooled the Birds

A couple things to know before you read this post:

First of all, thanks to Eugen Kamenew for permission to use his eclipse photo above. You can find some of his astrophotography  here or on Instagram @kamenewphotography

This is a slightly modified post from April 2017. The eclipse is on Monday, August 21.

Q: How long will it take me to read this post?

A: About eight minutes.

Q: What’s in it for me?

A: You’ll get a new perspective on the eclipse—a touchstone that can help you (and all of us) move past unproductive habits. Call it a reset button.

Q: Can I let you know if it was (or wasn’t) worth my time?

A: Yes. You can vote anonymously at the end, or leave a comment if you’d like. I encourage you to do both.

On to the eclipse . . .


Are you ready for the eclipse? I’ve heard that question a dozen times just this week. Yes, I’m ready. It’ll be over in two minutes. Life will go on as usual.

Or maybe it won’t. What if the eclipse could change us?

February 26, 1979 – Eclipse #1

I observed my first solar eclipse near the shores of Lake Erie. Mrs. Stiegel brought us into the schoolyard to observe the eclipse through our school-sanctioned eclipse projectors: a closed shoe box with two small holes in the same end—one to look through, one for sunlight to project a miniature eclipse onto the inside of the box. We stood with our backs to the fading sun, looking through one hole. Then we saw it; the moon begin her transit across the sun.

Except we knew this was only a projection, an uninspiring reproduction. And against strict policy of the West Geauga School District—accompanied by shouts of protest from Mrs. Stiegel, the principal and the superintendent—we dropped our boxes and looked straight into the eye of the sun. Of course, that’s where the fun is.

At the point of maximum eclipse, several kids started howling. Others broke from the well-ordered groups and ran into the woods beyond the schoolyard. We had never known darkness at midday, and some took this signal as permission to be naughty and disobedient. Mrs. Stiegel was frantic.

I was captivated by the eclipse, by the otherworldly darkness. But I was awestruck by this other phenomenon: our collective response to the eclipse, the mayhem that ensued—the capering, the yelling, the running off school grounds, the cursing—all seemingly justified by the untimely darkness. This was my first informal lesson in operant conditioning: when darkness falls at noon, humans do strange things. And so do birds.

July 21, 1990 – Eclipse #2

Southeast Alaska. I lived in the attic of a tool shop on the edge of a mile-wide tidal flat. My friends had a small farm there, where they grew blue-ribbon lettuce and carrots and snow peas and whatever else could be grown in five feet of rain each year. They also kept several species of land and water birds. Among them was a gaggle of brant, geese of this latitude.

The near-wild brant came in to roost each evening at sunset. I would watch them arrive from the tidal flats, from their wild day-places. Brant and ducks and other geese would fly toward the chicken-wire enclosure, beating their way over the fence and into the nighttime refuge. They didn’t have to return. They could fly off and live in the wilds. And some did. This was the whole purpose for keeping a few adults with clipped wings: brood stock to generate brant goslings and reestablish a stronger colony in this part of North America.

The birds sent us a signal each evening: the day was closing and the time had arrived to read a book or visit in the living room. They marked the hour of gathering for their own species and for ours. On cloudy evenings some birds arrived earlier, some later.

For half an hour they squabbled and pecked, reestablishing their order in the confines of the yard. They pressed against each other and preened. Then they became quiet. They closed their eyes and tucked their heads under their wings.

Each evening was the same, the same unbroken circadian ritual all year long. The time of their arrival varied with the length of days, but they always arrived very near sunset.

Except when the moon fooled them. On that day, in the late afternoon, I had set up a telescope to watch the moon make her transit across the sun. Every few minutes I peered through the eyepiece and adjusted the telescope along the ecliptic. Then I configured the telescope to project an image onto the wall. I had erected Mrs. Stiegel’s second-generation shoe box projector.

We gathered to watch a small dimple appear on the bright disk on the wall. Then the disk became a crescent. Sunset was still two hours away, but the sky darkened. And as we went outside to observe the waning light on the tidal flats, we heard the heavy beating of wings. The brant and other birds were arriving in the yard. Early. Honking, quacking, squabbling, pecking, preening. Some tucked their heads under their wings. Some remained alert, looking across the darkening tidal flats, perhaps suspicious of a trick.

And just as they quieted—as they had for the last twenty thousand years in this part of the world—the sun began to emerge. The sky appeared as it does at early dawn. The brant let out low and gentle honks, as if questioning the untimely arrival of the day. The ducks quacked, as though protesting some cosmic joke.

When the moon moved on, and the sun cast only slightly mitigated light across the tidal flats, the brant and ducks craned their necks, stood, and began to fly in great circles around the yard. The sun appeared in full, and the birds returned to the tidal flats and to their daylight quarters.

They came back that evening, at sunset. They squabbled and pecked and preened. They became calm and tucked their heads under their wings. The rest of us gathered in the living room.

August 21, 2017 – Eclipse #3

I’ll be in the moon’s shadow on Monday. I may even find a place where birds usually gather at night, just to watch them fall for this cosmic joke again, to see them behave strangely in the midday darkness.

In this matter, birds and humans are the same.

But what if birds and humans weren’t the same?

During a solar eclipse, birds needlessly expend energy that could otherwise be spent on productive pursuits: foraging, courting, nesting, mating, feeding young, building the bird community. But they know no better, and so they fly to their night places in the middle of the day.

What if, when we see the eclipse, we not waste our energy this time? What if, when we are faced with an interval of darkness, we instead recognize an opportunity to pursue more productive endeavors? Not howl and run away. Not fly to our night places—but push through the darkness, and know the sun will appear again, and soon.

An eclipse can reveal a lifetime of conditioning—a lifetime of automatically flying back to our night places. It can elucidate our own long-established responses to the darkness. Just like the birds, we see darkness and often respond in a conditioned way—a response formed by so many previous events, years, maybe the collective influence of more than our own generation.

But is it the right response? Does it augment what I need, what my community needs? And does it suppress or eliminate what I don’t need, what the community should be rid of.

I was once fooled by an eclipse, tricked into an automatic response that was the result of so much conditioning. I was walking along a busy street in a large western city. I had my gym bag in hand, with gym clothes and an extra pair of shoes. I noticed an unshod homeless man walking toward me. We passed. He said nothing. I said nothing. We never even looked in the other’s eyes. I had looked down at his feet and seen they were the size of my own. We both walked on.

I had seen so many homeless people before; I was inured to them. My self-conditioned response was apathy.

That moment of passing this man was my eclipse, my moment of darkness. I did what I had done so many times before, what I had conditioned myself to do. He hadn’t asked for anything, so I hadn’t offered.

A few minutes later, as I walked on, the sun came out again, and I remembered the extra shoes in my bag. I turned and ran back, looking for him. He was gone. I cursed my own darkness.

But I had seen, for a moment, that I could break my own broken rhythm, ungrasp my own uninformed grasping, change the direction of my inertia, leave the darkness, and walk by the light of the sun.

On Monday the sun will go dark at midday. The moon will fool the birds. Again. She always does. But the eclipse is short, the darkness is temporary, and I won’t be fooled again.

May 10, 1994 – Eclipse #4

I was driving along a two-lane city street, more slowly than I wanted. Posted speed limit: 35 miles per hour. The car in front of me was doing fifteen. Maybe.

I moved up on the car. The morning sky darkened. The driver glanced in his rearview mirror. He was old. The car was old.

Can’t this guy go any faster?

For a moment, I considered honking or flashing the headlights—conditioned responses. But instead, I backed away, and the sun emerged a little. I took a deep breath and just followed. I would turn in a few blocks. No reason to honk, no need to pass.

As this old man and I made our way along the narrow street, I had time to observe something I might have otherwise missed: his license plate was not standard issue. On the left side I noticed a small insignia: a purple and gold heart-shaped medal suspended below a purple ribbon. This man had been wounded in action against the enemy—likely in the Second World War, by his age—and was the recipient of the Purple Heart Award.

I slowed to turn. The old man drove on. The eclipse passed, and the sun came out again, full and brilliant on that morning.


One thought on “Eclipse: When the Moon Fooled the Birds

  1. Awesome post Paul. Really enjoyed the descriptions of the various eclipses and where you were at for each one. I’ve honestly never paid that close attention to them but plan on it this year!


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