When the news is too much, burrow under soft covers; burrow into a novel with a happy ending; or curl up like our sweet labrador Pepper denning under my desk–her nose on paw and dreaming in soft sighs. I admit that a cave sounds frightening and claustrophobic, but a burrow? The word evokes safety, snuggling, and protection from the elements.

I have burrows on my mind this week as a presenter for the Deschutes Public Library for their March theme of “Underground.” My topic? “Birds of Burrows.” My story? On one level I’m simply offering a tour of the secret lives of birds found in Oregon that nest in burrows. I begin with my beloved Belted Kingfisher and then move to seabirds clamoring from islands along the coast: Tufted Puffins, Cassin’s Auklets, Pigeon Guillemots, and Leach’s Storm-Petrels. Then, I head east to the sagebrush-steppe to delve into Burrowing Owls, and wind up with Bank Swallows and Northern Rough-winged Swallows on vertical earthen banks near water–often shared with kingfishers. And so I return full circle.

Interpretive panel at Ecola State Park for the Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge: (art by Ram Papish, design by Maja Smith, writing by Marina Richie, and guidance from Dawn Harris, Mike Graybill, Sandra Murphy, and Brian Fowler; part of an award-winning series.)

Dig deeper–like kingfishers kicking the soil out of their long tunnels with their tiny shovel feet (two toes fused)–and I arrive at a theme. Every bird that excavates or moves into a borrowed burrow seeks what we all want either for ourselves or for others: safe shelter to nourish, nurture, and raise a family. Not one bird tunnels for greed or works at the behest of someone seeking power and money.

To live as a bird is not to be free of danger. Nature is not the peaceable kingdom as I can attest from the pile of quail feathers in our yard from a Cooper’s Hawk eating her meal. But during our short human time on this Earth, some of us two-legged ones (too many, sadly) are focusing not on the plentiful examples of cooperation, but on competition in the worst of ways. As a writer, I am drawn to exploring gentler pathways that offer a simpler and happier way of being present in our short lives.

Female Belted Kingfisher digging a nest burrow. Both parents take turns! (by Ram Papish-illustrator for my forthcoming book, Halcyon Journey in Search of the Belted Kingfisher).

This time? Nest Burrows. The challenge of envisioning life inside a burrow is that everything is out of view for us. When I focused my attention on a kingfisher nest hole on Rattlesnake Creek in Montana for many hours at a time from within a camouflaged blind, I could only imagine the chicks clustered inside in a companionable heap, and the way they must have lined up one at a time to open their beaks for fish. Yet, there’s a certain appeal to observing with imagination, like reading a book and conjuring the characters rather than watching a movie.

Imagination. Another word to honor in this time. Whenever there is war and horrible tragedy like what’s happening in Ukraine, I’m hearing John Lennon singing “Imagine”–his song for peace that ends in these haunting lines:

“You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one.”

March is the month for dreamers–the Pisces astrological sign and the birthday month of my father Dave Richie, when he would have turned 90 (March 8th). My Dad–who was a naturalist, a humble environmental leader, and most definitely a dreamer–has not been physically here since his passing at age 70. Yet, like gazing at the nest hole of a kingfisher, I can imagine his comforting presence.

What would he have advised on this morning waking to fresh snow, sunshine, and the three-syllable calls of the California Quail? Listen. The quail are saying…”Come out SIDE.” That’s where my Dad would be at this moment: immersed in the beauty.

Burrows are wonderful places to nestle and sometimes hard to leave, but emergence offers the promise of convergence and possibility. What will that look like today? I will not know until I blink my eyes in the sunshine and ruffle my wings like the fledgling kingfisher on the lip of the nest hole ready to glide into the rush, hush, and hum of living with grace.


My book Halcyon Journey: In Search of the Belted Kingfisher will be published in late May/early June.

Photo of Belted Kingfisher about to fledge from the nest hole, copyright by Kate Davis