Birding the Border
The Aztec thrush isn’t much to look at. Neither big nor small, purportedly. Nor does it possess any curious anatomical features (bill, check; tail, check; wings, check—but nothing to get excited over). It’s a fairly drab specimen, by almost any criterion, lacking even the sunset breast of its close cousin, the American robin. “Male is sooty-brown above,” says the National Geographic Society in the second edition of its Field Guide to the Birds of North America. The thrush would strike the layperson, I imagine, as pretty much a generic bird.
What the Aztec thrush has going for it is its scarcity, at least north of the U.S.-Mexico border. The first reliable U.S. sighting of an Aztec thrush was in 1977, in Texas’s Big Bend National Park. There have been a handful of additional U.S. sightings since then, mostly in southeastern Arizona’s Huachuca Mountains, whose steep precipices and yawning canyons form abrupt interruptions of the desert floor below. Here the thrushes have appeared sporadically, and only for a mid-August week or two each sighting year. They have typically been spotted in small flocks, foraging amid chokecherry branches. Birders worldwide, hoping to fortify their North American life lists, flock to these mountains along the border yearly, armed with binoculars, hiking boots, sunscreen, and mosquito repellent. They come to welcome this tiny avian immigrant, hoping to avoid—or simply oblivious to—other immigrants from the south, the thrushes’ human counterparts.
I refer, of course, to the thousands of undocumented Mexican immigrants who attempt, at great peril, to cross the border into the United States each year. The odds are stacked against them from the start. Unscrupulous human coyotes in Mexico strip them of their life savings with a promise of guiding them across the border, typically under inhumane conditions (e.g., the strenuousness of a clandestine march made worse by the brutal desert heat and nighttime cold and the meager allotment of food and water). If these immigrants are lucky enough to survive the crossing, they face likely capture by U.S. Border Patrol agents and local authorities, who monitor the border with sophisticated surveillance equipment and great resolve. Beyond the licensed authorities, undocumented immigrants must also now evade members of the Minuteman Project, an armed band of private U.S. citizens who organized in 2005 to monitor the border and defend it against illegal immigration. Finally, should undocumented immigrants from Mexico overcome all of these cumbrances, they face an increasingly unsympathetic, post-9/11 U.S. populace swept up by the nativist rhetoric of these minutemen and an increasing number of mainstream media hosts, most notably CNN’s Lou Dobbs.

I’ve birded the border in Texas and Arizona several times, and like countless other birders, I suspect, I haven’t given much thought to these non-avian immigrants. I go on these birding trips in large part to escape the confusions of the social realm, to immerse myself, if only for a brief time, in the more essential and animal rhythms of place. However, my recent trip to the Arizona-Mexico border, to find the Aztec thrush, exposed the fatuousness of this pursuit and shattered my complacence.
Photo: Andrew Furman

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