Maine author Phillip Hoose always manages to dig up the compelling stories that haven't yet been told — but should be. He did so in his 2009 National Book Award-winning Claudette Colvin, which introduced readers to an oft-overlooked civil-rights heroine, and he's done so again in Moonbird: A Year on the Wind with the Great Survivor B95 (Farrar Straus Giroux), which shines a spotlight on one extremely tenacious bird.
The tiny orange band around his thin leg reads "B95," but lots of people call him Moonbird; he has flown more than 325,000 miles in his long lifetime, the distance to the moon and halfway back. He is a rufa red knot, a shorebird that migrates from the southern tip of Argentina to the northern reaches of Canada — and back again — every year. At 9000 miles each way, that's quite a commute.
Of the hundreds of red knots caught and "banded" on February 20, 1995, Moonbird is the only one whom scientists know is still alive (he was most recently sighted in May of this year). The typical life expectancy for this species of shorebird is approximately six years. At 20 (at least), Moonbird is unique. As Hoose writes, "Something about this bird was exceptional; he seemed to possess some extraordinary combination of physical toughness, navigational skill, judgement, and luck."
Moonbird is a study of biology and ecology (including short profiles of expert scientists based on Hoose's personal interviews), but it is also a well-spun tale. Hoose uses research and imagination to sketch B95's intrepid journey: "B95 lingers with the flock for several weeks in Lagoa do Peixe [Argentina], snatching up snails by day and dozing in the lagoon at night, moving around very little. He converts protein to fat until, by the first of May, he is chubby and restless and his hormones are telling him to fly again . . . His inner clock pushes him to get going."
So why should we care about this single bird, or his rufa red knot descendants? Because shorebird species — including the rufa — are in decline, no doubt due at least in part to the fact that their stopover sites, along the coastlines of two continents, "are being littered with trash, crowded with much bigger creatures and machines, raced over, dug up, polluted, poisoned, and otherwise degraded." The shorebird is something of an environmental indicator and if it dies off, it means we haven't taken good enough care of our coasts.
But there's more to it than that. Moonbird's story is inspiring, despite the fact that he is "just a bird." There are deeper lessons to learn from this supercreature.
"Each species with which we share the earth is a success story," writes Hoose, who has worked with the Canadian branch of the Nature Conservancy for years. "Each of our cohabitants has evolved an ingenious set of life strategies, and made them work. To live on an earth without fascinating, often beautiful creatures would be to live on a lesser earth. The trick is not to let them slip away, but to understand and help them on their terms."
Phillip Hoose MOONBIRD book launch | Thursday, September 27 @ 6 pm | Portland Public Library, 5 Monument Square, Portland | Free | portlandlibrary.com