The subject lines filling my email inbox have been spooky indeed. “Scary Movie Season,” “‘A Coast-Nightmare’ by Christina Rossetti,” and “Death Be Unto You.”

Of course they are. Halloween and the Day of the Dead have meant faux spiderwebs draping lilac bushes throughout town. Witches on broomsticks dodging oak branches. A black cat visiting our porch at two a.m.

(Really he was a neighbor’s orange cat. Backlit by a waning moon, though, he looked as dark as a coal-miner’s shadow at midnight.)

As always in October, I reread Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s full of ghosts—”haints,” “hot steams,” and “boo hags,” to name a few. It’s crammed with birds, too, not only mockingbirds, but also blue jays, finches, Jim Crow, and robin’s-son. And more I’m sure I have missed.

I always pause when Atticus Finch instructs his kids Jem and Scout about their air rifles: “Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

Miss Maudie, who lives across the street from the Finches, clarifies. Mockingbirds “don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us,” she tells her young neighbors.

[H2O link: Is it a sin to kill a mockingbird? Or “simply” a crime?]

Curious, because mockers do plenty besides “make music for us to enjoy,” as Atticus and Miss Maudie believe. Mockers look for food or mates or hideouts from predators pretty much from sunrise to sundown. And both species, blue jays and mockingbirds, are passerines. They have enjoyed the protection of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act since 1918. A federal law nearly twenty years older than Mockingbird‘s courthouse scene endeavors to keep both land birds safe.

Either the Atticus (and Lee) of Mockingbird didn’t know that killing blue jays is illegal, or Lee didn’t let Atticus let us know he knew.

All birds have to work for a living. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act makes it possible for them to live and eat. Among other protections, the act makes it unlawful for industrial polluters to cause the “incidental take” of bird life through the destruction of viable natural habitat.

[H2O link: In 2016, the Trump Administration gutted the Clean Water Act of its industrial-pollution aspects. In 2021, President Biden and team restored the protections.]

That same protected water and habitat help human life, too. Clean water and wild lands buffer us from environmental illnesses, climate-change consequences, and mental health disorders.

[H2O link: My article on the healing power of nature in Aeon Magazine.]

Therefore the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (when not rolled back) also helped protect waters of the United States (and Canada, followed by other participating nations including Russia).

Many who came of age with Mockingbird remember the 1969 Cuyahoga River Fire. That fiery incident helped spawn the 1972 Clean Water Act but never would have without the efforts of the first African-American mayor of a U.S. city, Carl B. Stokes, and a woman environmental reporter, Betty Klaric.

The Cuyahoga River on fire in 1948. | No picture of the 1969 river fire “is known to exist.” | Source: Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections | Creator: Fred Bottomer

Similarly Harper Lee’s Mockingbird helped launch the civil rights movement by calling attention to the Montgomery bus boycott in 1956.

So to do Atticus’s words call attention to lives protected by Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The legislation was enacted decades before the federal Clean Water Act. Both are hard-won and critical laws it would be a sin to kill.


Find my award-winning books, including Swimming Grand Canyon and Other Poems (Finishing Line Press, 2021), at Bookshop.org and in other fine bookstores.

Read my articles and stories here.


Join me on a Literary Bird Walk, Ellis Creek Water Recycling Facility, Petaluma, CA. November 12, 9 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. Free. We’ll stroll the easy terrain at the facility ponds, chat about characters, birds, and themes in Harper Lee’s 1960 novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, while we look for wild birds and sights, including the northern mockingbird (who often hangs around the parking lot there).

Rain and other inclemencies may cancel. Group size will be limited. Bring water, a snack, and binoculars and bird book if you have them. Also bring along a copy of Mockingbird, if you’d like it on hand. Email me to reserve a spot.

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