When her son died, she found solace in birds

The forest, at first, was a place to cry.

She carried her sadness into swamps and meadows too, hiking beneath blue skies and charcoal clouds, always pleading to a higher power. Christy Hyman was looking for a way to live again, after the death of her son, and nature, specifically birds, showed her the way.

“When you see a bird, you focus on something seemingly pure and untouched from the worries of life, but this bird, at every single moment is trying to survive, to not be eaten. You start rooting for their survival. You buy bird seed. You care about them,” Hyman, 43, said Thursday morning at the John Heinz Wildlife Refuge. “It’s weird, but the more novel experiences I have with birds, the more stories, the more places I visit, it’s like I’m creating new, hopeful memories that counteract moments of sadness.”

Hyman recently took a leave of absence from Mississippi State University, where she taught in the department of geosciences, to embark on a postdoctoral fellowship at Cornell University. She describes herself as a historical geographer and digital humanist but when her son, Ricky Gerard Dawkins Jr., died unexpectedly on Aug. 3, 2020 in Nebraska, she also became a “griefblogger” and an accidental birder.

“In my life, it was the birds that kept me going,” Hyman wrote on her blog on the second anniversary of Ricky’s death.

Grief recalibrated Hyman’s concerns too. Little things, she said, don’t bother her. Earlier this month, for example, she was scheduled to speak at the Society of Historians of the Early American Republic’s conference in Philadelphia. Car troubles forced her back to Ithaca.

“Grateful for grace, patience, and safety!” Hyman tweeted about her car.

Hyman also planned to go birding with The Inquirer at the Heinz Refuge during the conference, and she returned, Thursday morning, with her binoculars, boots, and telephoto lens. The 1,000-acre park did not disappoint. Whitetail deer stood ankle-deep in the duckweed, pivoting their ears at approaching people. Turtles lined up on logs by the dozen to soak up the sun and spawning fish thrashed in the muck.

“Someone is saying there’s a bobcat on the trail,” a fellow hiker warned.

When Christy Hyman's son passed away, she turned to birding to find solace. She is shown here birding at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge on July 20, 2023.

Birding is more popular than ever, thanks, in part, to the COVID-19 mantra to get outside. It’s slowly become more inclusive, too, as more people of color and people with disabilities search for their space in the wild. A recent Washington Post report delved into the health benefits of birding — their songs, specifically. Even through headphones, the sounds can alleviate negative emotions.

“Try to be aware. And that’s actually all that you need to do,” one researcher told the Post.

Birdsong was unavoidable at Heinz on Thursday: the cheerful trills of red-winged blackbirds, the quirky mash-up of squeaks and gurgles catbirds make, and the occasional flycatcher that sounded like a construction worker whistling at women. Their songs helped buffer the distant sound of Philly highways and construction equipment.

“Oh, they’re swallows, ” Hyman said of the small birds swooping in and under an observation tower. “They will fly right past your head.”

While birding has its own World Series, in Cape May, Hyman is not eager to see her self-care morph into competition. She has goals, though — a great black-backed gull would be great — and she sometimes asks Ricky to show her certain birds. Still, she accepts whatever one flies her way. Often, it’s a great blue heron and there were several at Heinz to greet her Thursday, still as statues as they stalked fish and frogs in the shallows. She described the herons as “constant friends.”

In birding, the species that pulls you into the hobby is often called a “spark bird.” One tiny bird, bright as a living jewel, made a nest in Hyman’s heart. She had bought a hanging salvia plant, on a whim, at a nursery in Nebraska. She went there often, with her daughter, Chastity, after Ricky’s death, just to get out of the house. One day, in September of 2020, she noticed her cat locked in on the plant, now hanging outside. Then she saw the ruby-throated hummingbird, its iridescent reds and greens so bright they looked electrified, and it brought her to tears.

“I’m telling you, at that point, grief had broken me wide open,” she said. “But this bird was so brilliant and so small. It had these big, pretty eyes. It was something beautiful to look and it seemed like it was destiny, that my God, or whatever, said ‘here, fixate on this, so you can stop imploding.’ ”

Then she went into the woods.

When Christy Hyman's son passed away, she turned to birding to find solace. She is shown here birding at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge on July 20, 2023.
When Christy Hyman’s son passed away, she turned to birding to find solace. She is shown here birding at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge on July 20, 2023.Jessica Griffin / Staff Photographer

Birding is a daily ritual for Hyman now. She’s into the woods or fields before work, aiming her DSLR camera at whatever bird she sees. Looking at birds from a kitchen window works too. She uses an app, called eBird, that listens for birdsong and identifies the singer. In the car, she listens to birding podcasts and she’s been a guest on some too. Hyman even started another blog, focusing entirely on birding, called “Bird Lady of Turtle Island.”

The structure birding provided Hyman helped her buckle down and finish her Ph.D. in geography last year at the University of Nebraska. Her academic work includes mapping and archive research, often for environmental justice organizations, or to uncover the hidden, African American histories of places like the Great Dismal Swamp, which straddles the border of Virginia and North Carolina.

“I take trips just for birding now and I try to turn my academic trips into birding,” she said. “It’s a life now. I have to be birding, to be well.”

While caring for nature taught Hyman to care for herself, again, she says she’s got some balancing to do.

“I’m telling you, all I have to eat in my house is bird seed and suet rolls for birds in the fridge, ” she said. “Maybe a little tequila too.”

When Christy Hyman's son passed away, she turned to birding to find solace. She is shown here birding at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge on July 20, 2023.
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