Bearing witness

Colorado author chronicles climate change from her backyard in new memoir

Photo courtesy Mary Young.

A stocky Western bluebird makes his home in a nest box. 

The tenant’s glimmering blue suit, interrupted by a rusted vest, catches Mary Young’s attention, as such wonders have again and again for decades. 

Year after year, the trained zoologist and nature writer observes the flock that roosts on her parcel of land a few miles west of Trinidad. Some seasons bring lots of younglings. Other years, whether because of drought, scarce food or predation, adults won’t nest or Young will find hatchlings scattered motionless on the ground. 

But even when the nearby pond dries up and “it seems like it’s all over with,” Young says the bluebirds come back the following year. 

“I can’t tell you how many times in my life I’ve witnessed that [resilience],” Young says. “You have too. We all have, if we pay attention.”

Young filled her journal with observations of the birds, plants, invertebrates and mammals on her land. It started out of curiosity, fueled by a desire to feel closer to the land. But when she looked back on nearly 30 years of notes, Young saw changes in seasonal patterns that seemed to impact what species came back, and when. 

It turns out her diary told a bigger story than the fluctuations of species like Western bluebirds. She had chronicled the growing evidence of climate change. 

“This is the story to tell; this is the story that had to be told,” she says.

Young’s book, Bluebird Seasons: Witnessing Climate Change in My Piece of the Wild, is the story of three decades of observations on nearly 40 acres in southern Colorado. 

It’s her way of showing readers that climate change isn’t only occurring in faraway places like Antarctica, or tucked inside hundreds of pages of scientific data, but right in our own backyards — if we have the patience to see it.  

Shifting patterns

Young’s family is from Loveland, but her dad’s Army career meant she grew up all over the country.

Every summer she’d visit her grandparents’ cabin on the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park, seeding her fascination for all things living.

“I can remember watching hummingbirds buzzing around, making nectar with my grandmother and filling the feeders and putting them out,” Young says. “The chipmunks were everywhere around us and there were mule deer that would basically peek in the window. Those are the memories that set the path for my entire life.”

She draws on these recollections in her book, blending science with memoir.

Western bluebird populations are fluctuating in some areas of seemingly suitable habitat, such as Mary Young’s property in Southern Colorado. Photo courtesy Mary Young. 

Because of those summers in Estes, the Centennial State has always felt like home to Young. She says easy access to trails and open space nurtures her spirit and that she would be lost without it. When she was scouting for land to purchase in the mid-’90s, she’d tour properties looking for signs of animal activity, like elk droppings. 

Young found land only a few miles north of the New Mexico border, where  gently sloped hills are broken by sharp canyon walls, grassy meadows and piñon-juniper woodland — a perfect place to survey a variety of critters.

Bluebird Seasons pays particular attention to yearly changes in visitors to her property.

Young documented roadrunners and scaled quail, species known for hanging out at lower elevations than where her land sits around 6,500 feet. Those observations are corroborated by the Audubon Society, which predicts these two birds will move further north into Colorado as the climate warms. 

The memoiralso registers shifting patterns in bear, elk and hummingbirds, in addition to changes in water sources and wildfire frequency. 

In spite of these revelations, Young maintains a hopeful outlook. She sees energy in a rising youth-activism movement, and says humans can overcome “huge obstacles and challenges once we really decide to do it.” She wants people to share their personal climate stories to help build an understanding of what’s happening, to eventually fix what’s been altered.

“This is your future, life and world — you gotta be fighting for it,” she says. 

ON THE SHELF: Mary Taylor Young. 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 10, Boulder Book Store, 1107 Pearl St. $5.


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