Peter W. Oehlkers
Path along the northern edge of Ada Govan's Woodland Bird Sanctuary, Lexington, Massachusetts. Photograph by the author.
…In a low shrub near a lane sits a dear little chestnut-sided warbler in her nest of four eggs. They are a dainty bird and not too shy. Then, too, a tiny chebec…is sitting on her downy soft nest in a small apple tree…Who else in this column are interested in birds?...Won't those who are interested write some of their experiences? Or perhaps describe those they have seen, but do not know. Some of us may be able to answer questions…. ("Troubadour" 1932, 27)
On June 30, 1932, "Troubadour," a writer from New Hampshire in the Boston Globe's "Confidential Chat," proposed a new column. The "Chat," a pseudonymous correspondence feature in the Household section dating back to 1912, already had special columns for letters about gardening and pets. Why not add one for letters about wild birds? On August 22, 1932, "Troubadour" had her wish. The "Chat" published six letters under the header "Birds I Know." "Meadowford" talked about the chickadees and Blue Jays she had tamed, "Among the Hills" wrote about an albino robin she had seen, "Rose Marie" talked about the Baltimore Oriole nest she had observed, "G.S." wrote about the American Redstart she saw trying to teach her young, "Nature Lover" complained about the cats that interfered with nesting in her yard, and "The Mourning Warbler" recounted the best of the 90 birds on her list for the year, including her namesake, a "very rare one for this part of the country." For the next thirty-plus years "Birds I Know" would be a Boston Globe institution, publishing more than 5000 letters from women (and a handful of men) writing to one another about their experiences with wild birds.
"Birds I Know" was never a regular column. Whether it appeared in a given issue of the Boston Globe depended on the space available in the Household section and the number of letters that had been received. During winter feeding months it could appear every day; during the late summer and fall it might appear once a month. The typical "bird column" would feature one to five letters, each responding to a previous writer, comparing lists of sightings, asking for advice about feeder arrangements, sharing recipes for bird food, or making identification queries. Perennial themes included excitement about the arrival of Evening Grosbeaks, the mistaken attribution of the "fee-bee" song to the Eastern Phoebe instead of the Black-capped Chickadee, and concern about dwindling numbers of birds due to spraying and habitat loss. There was great interest in the still uncommon experience of encountering Northern Mockingbirds, Northern Cardinals, and Tufted Titmice. Some Chat sisters adopted bird species pseudonyms, including "Scarlet Tanager," "Meadowlark," "Brown Creeper," "Wood Thrush," and "Saddleback" (Great Black-backed Gull). Among the column writers that can be identified are the photographer and prolific bander Elaine Martin Drew, who wrote under the name "Warped Halo," the author Hattie Blossom Fritze, who wrote as "Woodsie One," and Myrtle McLellan ("Wren of Wrentham"), who organized face-to-face "Birds I Know" clubs in Massachusetts and New Hampshire during the 1930s and early 1940s. The undisputed star of the column, however, was "Of Thee I Sing"—Ada Clapham Govan, of Lexington, Massachusetts.
Ada Govan had written to the Globe's Household pages since 1911. Her earliest letters recounted her personal tragedy, the loss of two young daughters, and consoled other mothers with similar experiences; she initially used the signature "Redeemed," but changed her name to "Disillusioned" after her second daughter died. Her frank and engaging style had already made her a favorite among "Chat sisters," but her stories about the birds at her feeders as "Of Thee I Sing," would place her among the most celebrated writers at the Boston Globe in general, and would supply material for her popular 1940 book Wings at my Window.
Wings at my Window is framed as a story about overcoming depression and physical disability by caring for birds. In a 1936 letter, "Of Thee I Sing" dramatized the encounter with a chickadee that stimulated her birdfeeding and changed her life, recounting "that December day, almost six years ago,"
when I first saw him clinging to the railing, storm-battered and hungry, but blithely caroling "Things could be heaps worse!" Every motion was agony till I heard that voice, but somehow I threw him some crumbs which he barely sampled before he was swept away by the blizzard, leaving me in such a mental turmoil as rivaled the storm without.
For I had just resigned myself to an invalid's life—I'd be the happiest invalid that ever could be—but a burden, nevertheless. And then I heard their voices—saw them coming—Chicky! And all the relatives and friends he could scrape together on such short notice. He had only gone to call to the feast others less fortunate that they might share his bit of good fortune. ("Of Thee I Sing" 1936, 21)
She decided to write and sell stories about the birds at her feeder after her husband lost his job.
I took my troubles where I had so often found sweet comfort—to the little feathered friends, now so dear. The sun shone down on a purple finch, one of several on my window sill, and in its radiance, the silky, wine-colored feathers of his crested head, glowed with a jewel-like luster that he wore like a diadem. A pang shot through my heart: my birds! With no money, how could I feed them when they came to me for sanctuary this Winter? ("Of Thee I Sing" 1933, A42)
Govan would end up selling several stories to Nature Magazine and writing others for "Birds I Know." Readers loved these stories and asked for more, and she complied, offering real-life tales about the tragic end of "Limpy" the goldfinch, the domestic problems of "Poppa Grosbeak," and the shrike attack-scarred American Tree Sparrow "Henry the Eighth." Many would later testify that these stories, which portrayed birds as "little personalities," had inspired them to study and feed birds, and that their own care for the birds had been therapeutic.
"Confidential Chat" was a print-mediated social support community. "Birds I Know" writers were especially attentive to readers who were confined to their homes or beds. When "Thru the Window Pane" was hospitalized, for example, writers took turns sharing the views from their own windows. "Scarlet Tanager," for example, wrote:
Dear Thru the Window Pane—The outside world is so lovely now at Tanager's Nest, perhaps it would interest you to take a look at it by proxy…I hope you will not mind coming into the kitchen with me…The east window is, of course, most interesting at this time…Over the green field, which is still partly shaded by the hill, the tree swallows are busily getting their breakfast, their light breasts flashing as they dart from the shadows into the golden light… ("Scarlet Tanager" 1936, 26)
The fact that "Birds I Know" was part of a women's social support feature (Oehlkers and Oehlkers 2021) also affected the way writers interacted with each other. Identification corrections were made gently and novices were enthusiastically encouraged. "Of Thee I Sing" was one of the column experts, contributing long species accounts and detailed identification guides, in addition to her lively stories.
Dear Wing Flashes—…Will you join me in a talk-fest about a lovely and little known warbler with a highly romantic background? The Lawrence warbler has twice been mentioned lately in the bird column, and his is a very different story from that of most wild creatures whose parents "love outside their own class." For little Lawrence is a mongrel child—a hybrid—whose parentage for years remained more or less wrapped in mystery….Where hybrids are concerned, Old Mother Nature puts her foot down hard: "Thus far you may go—but no further!" she declares to most mis-mated bird parents, and allows them to produce mongrel offspring to their hearts' content. But in her determination to keep the stock pure, she brands the hybrid youngsters with sterility. Not so, our little Lawrence, who beat Mother Nature at her own game… ("Of Thee I Sing" 1940, 36)
Although self-educated in the ornithological literature, Ada Govan was a prolific birdbander and a careful observer, and even before the success of her book had deep connections in the larger birding community. In the 1940s and 1950s, she was a contributing editor for the Bulletin of the Massachusetts Audubon Society, listed on the masthead alongside such luminaries as Arthur C. Bent, Thornton W. Burgess, and Ludlow Griscom. In her writing for "Birds I Know," however, she always denied her expert status, choosing to work together with "Chat sisters" to solve identification challenges.
If conflict appeared in the column, it tended to be over the pros and cons of particular bird species:
Dear Woodsie One…Right now the feeders are very busy, with chickadees, nuthatches, downy and hairy woodpeckers, brown creepers, sparrows, juncos, flickers and even a beautiful little golden crowned kinglet. Then of course the miserable and inevitable jays. How I detest these loud-mouthed, thieving birds! I have seen them kill young songbirds in the spring and break eggs. They are arrogant and fiendish and, to me, loathsome. I never feel sorry when I see a hawk demolish one. In fact, I cheer a little, for with me, they rank lowest of all birds we have here. ("Nature Boy" 1953, 14)
During the column's run, writers, including "Of Thee I Sing," frequently wrote about the shotgun blasts they used against hawks and shrikes in order to protect birds at their feeders. Though it might be shocking to readers today, this was usually not controversial in the column because it was based on the official "useful bird" framework that regarded songbirds as having higher value than predators. Opinions were much more divided when it came to the Blue Jay, which occasionally produced prolonged disputes. "Of Thee I Sing," for her part, tried to manage Blue Jays by providing them with a separate feeding area, but showed no mercy when they threatened the birds closer to her house. Opinions were also divided, though less vociferously, about European Starlings and House Sparrows, and even Whip-poor-wills (too noisy) and Evening Grosbeaks (gluttons) were the source of lively disputes. Overall, balance-of-nature perspectives dominated, though "Of Thee I Sing," among others, maintained that the natural world of birds had been disrupted by humans in a way that only humans could mitigate.
While the column was generally not concerned with larger environmental issues, habitat loss due to development was a common observation. This became personal for Ada Govan in 1937 when developers began cutting the woods behind her house.
People had assured me the woods would be safe for years to come, but last Fall I knew some danger threatened. That day of crashing trees was an unforgettable nightmare! Impossible for me to stay here listening, day after day, while my ideal went down in ruins. For those woods have long been my church, and the trees have taught me peace and understanding. They are the only religion that satisfies my needs. (Of Thee I Sing 1937, 26)
While she chose the pages of Nature Magazine (writing as "Of Thee I Sing") to make her appeal to protect the land, column "sisters" were quick to show their sympathy and support. Eventually anonymous donors emerged with the funding to protect a small parcel of woods as "Woodland Bird Sanctuary" in perpetuity.
By the mid-1950s, the high volume of letters to "Confidential Chat" meant that the publication of letters could be delayed by months. For a topic as seasonal as wild birds, such delays were frustrating. Energy devoted to the column waned. Even though the column endured until 1966, practically speaking, it was on its last legs by 1960. Recognizing Ada Govan's contributions to the paper, The Boston Globe printed a tribute to "Of Thee I Sing" in January 1959 and reprinted some of her classic letters from the 1930s. After Govan retired to Florida in 1960, she continued to send occasional letters to the Globe, often with an explicit environmentalist tone, aghast at the unrestrained development and habitat loss there. Her last letter to the Globe was a story about the passing of her seventeen-year-old, hand-raised Rose-breasted Grosbeak "Zekie," published on April 14, 1964, three days after her death.
Except for a recent mention in a history of birdfeeding (Barker, Henderson & Baicich 2015), "Birds I Know" has been largely forgotten. Ada Govan, while cited by Linda Lear (1998) as an important influence on Rachel Carson, has also largely receded from the memory of the birding community. "Woodland Bird Sanctuary", sometimes labeled "Ada Govan Bird Sanctuary" on area maps—beware Apple's map, which places it in the wrong neighborhood—persists as a small unmarked forest between Fiske Elementary School and Woodland Road in Lexington. Amid the growing recognition of the therapeutic value of birding during Covid-19, and increased recognition of women's contributions to the history of nature writing, it is worth returning to the "sisters" of "Birds I Know" to see what else they might have to teach us. This article is intended as an introduction. Readers interested in learning more are encouraged to sample the column and "Of Thee I Sing's" contributions via online digital archives such as Proquest's Historical Boston Globe (available at a number of public libraries). As an aid to this research I've posted a 220-page log of the column letters I've been able to find at <https://sites.google.com/view/birds-i-know/home>.
- Barker, M. A., C. L. Henderson, P. J. Baicich. 2015. Feeding Wild Birds in America: Culture, Commerce, and Conservation. College Station, Texas: Texas A&M University Press.
- Lear, Linda. 1998. Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature. New York: Henry Holt & Company.
- "Nature Boy." 1953. Birds I Know, Boston Globe March 2, 1953: 14.
- Oehlkers, P.W and Anna Ijiri Oehlkers. 2021. Ada Clapham Govan and Birds I Know: Ecological Intimacy in a Mass-Mediated Sisterhood. In Intimate Relations: Communicating (in) the Anthropocene, edited by Vail Fletcher and Alexa Dare. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books.
- "Of Thee I Sing." 1933. Wrote stories about birds in her backyard and made money, Boston Globe January 15, 1933: A42.
- "Of Thee I Sing." 1936. Birds I Know, Boston Globe October 24, 1936: 21.
- "Of Thee I Sing." 1937. Birds I Know, Boston Globe June 17, 1937: 26.
- "Of Thee I Sing." 1940. Birds I Know, Boston Globe February 22, 1940: 36.
- "Scarlet Tanager." 1936. Birds I Know, Boston Globe May 19, 1936: 26.
- "Troubadour." 1932. Confidential Chat, Boston Globe June 30, 1932: 27.
Peter W. Oehlkers is an associate professor in the Media and Communication Department at Salem State University and Vice Chair of the Needham Conservation Commission. He is production editor for Bird Observer.