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Sayed Dreams of Birds

Exploring Swarthmore’s winged inspiration

Avian and otherwise, rare birds abound at Swarthmore. 

Among the many roosting in the College’s Peace Collection is Horace Gundry Alexander, a world-famous pacifist, Quaker, and adviser to Mahatma Gandhi.

Nowhere in the 14 boxes of papers by the Englishman who eventually moved to Swarthmore is there more passion than in the slim folder, “Writings re: birds.” 

“The sight of a scarlet tanager,” he writes, “a bird that only spends a few summer months in this part of the States, always makes me tingle with excitement.”

Birds mean something almost indescribable to humanity, he says, who “must sometimes escape from himself, from his problems, his accomplishments, his sins and even his loves; he must forget himself.

“That is what birds have meant to my Quaker ancestors. That, at bottom, is what birds mean to me,” he writes. “They are something ‘different’—‘wholly other’ they sometimes seem. And so they help to redeem man from the sin, the bondage of self.”

Losing himself in them, Alexander finds that “life and death, time and space slip away,” yielding “an immortal moment.”

For countless Swarthmoreans, birds have been the perfect vessel for their own immortal moments.



Growing up in Virginia, Sayed Malawi ’18 was 8 when the stunning photo of an indigo bunting on a library copy of The National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America caught his eye. 

“When I found out there are over 700 kinds of birds in North America alone, the diversity grabbed me,” he says. “I knew I had to see them all.”

By the time he came to Swarthmore, Malawi had acquired an incredible amount of bird-related experience and knowledge. Eager to share it and to build a community, he launched Bird Club at the beginning of last year.

In addition to bird walks through the Crum Woods several times each week, the Bird Club has also hosted guest speakers and sponsored a bird-banding trip where members got to see—and even touch—two northern saw-whet owls.

“Starting the Bird Club has been a great opportunity to reacquaint myself with why I love birding,” Malawi says. “The beginning’s the best part, because every time you go out, you’re seeing birds you’ve never seen before. Being able to share that joy with new people is really rewarding.”    



Swarthmore is an institution unafraid to see the world from a bird’s-eye view. In 2004, the College installed fritted glass on the science center to make the structure more bird friendly. (Up to a billion birds die each year when they fly into glass windows, according to the American Bird Conservancy.) 

That approach, of course, doesn’t end at architecture.

“Our students are intrinsically interested in birds,” says Alex Baugh, an assistant professor of biology who is wrapping up an international study of the hormonal mechanisms that give rise to songbird personality.

Rebecca Senft ’15, one of his students who participated in this research, ended up making it her honors thesis. In fact, her paper on songbird brains and stress was recently published by leading scientific journal PLOS ONE. The winner of last year’s Oak Leaf Award, Senft is a first-year student at Harvard’s Ph.D. program in neuroscience.

“My bird work with Alex helped me realize what I wanted to do,” she says. “I am incredibly thankful to have had this opportunity—it was my introduction to neuroscience research.”

Their work has helped increase our overall understanding and appreciation of avifauna, including why “birdbrain” isn’t a pejorative.

“The attitude about birds as though they’re not very intelligent has really shifted,” Baugh says. 

“Bird brains are so interesting and unique,” Senft adds. “Instead of having a brain with a layered cortex, many of the cortical functions are found in distinct neuronal clusters called nuclei.”

“Yes, birds behave differently than mammals,” says Baugh, “but we see now they’re doing all kinds of very complex and interesting behaviors that we didn’t know about until recently.”

Currently, Baugh’s students work with tufted titmice and Carolina chickadees in the Crum, studying how they physiologically and behaviorally cope with stress. The highlight of this research, he says, is that it’s exciting for students to participate in discovery—especially when it occurs in their own backyard.

“Swarthmore has a huge asset with the Crum Woods and I’m really thrilled Sayed and the Bird Club are so enthusiastic and engaged in that,” Baugh says. “It really benefits our students to have experiences in nature, and what’s beautiful is that they’ve done it on their own.” 



Every bird walk is an opportunity to get hooked—it only takes one exhilarating experience. Malawi’s came when he saw his favorite bird, an owl, hunting at dusk. 

“Owls are so secretive and we know so little about their world,” he says. “Whenever you see an owl, it feels like it’s letting you—it’s a privilege.”

Out of the world’s more than 10,000 species, Malawi’s birding life list is in the 500s. Although he began his career poring over that fateful guidebook, eager to see a variety of birds, he’s now more philosophical, inspired by a similar journey.

No discussion of birds and Swarthmore—of birds, period—is complete without Phoebe Snetsinger ’53, considered by many to be the world’s all-time greatest birder. 

Memorialized by classmates in The Halcyon as the “Gal from chicawgo [sic] with curly hair and curly eyebrows … shy smile and warm friendliness … keen scientific mind … unselfish as they come … invaluable friend,” Snetsinger came to birding late.

In 1965, she was a 34-year-old housewife who’d dreamed of becoming a chemist but had put aside her ambitions to raise a family.

When her neighbor—a fellow housewife intellectual—lent her a Peterson field guide and a pair of binoculars, Snetsinger’s world changed.

“What an incredible gift!” she wrote in her memoir, Birding on Borrowed Time. “The first bird I really saw through those binoculars was a fiery-orange male Blackburnian Warbler that nearly knocked me over with astonishment—and quite simply hooked me forever.” 

Birding became her dearest hobby and, after a terminal cancer diagnosis in 1981, her self-prescribed treatment—ultimately an effective one, since her cancer went into remission. Throughout cancer recurrences, Snetsinger refused to slow down.

Traveling around the world on special birding trips that ranged from arduous to dangerous—she survived shipwrecks, physical assault, and earthquakes—Snetsinger saw birds on every continent, becoming the first person ever to view 8,000 species and her field’s biggest, best-loved celebrity. 

As she wished, she died in her sleep on a birding trip—in 1999 at age 68 in Madagascar.

“Birding is the best and most exciting pursuit in the world, a gloriously never-ending one,” she wrote earlier that year, warning readers not to “let [this opportunity] pass without considering taking part in the greatest avian celebration ever witnessed.”



“Celebration” is an apt descriptor, Malawi says as he talks about the infinite variety of birds, from the familiarity of the robin to the otherworldliness of the scarlet ibis.

“There are so many kind of birds, so many colors,” he says. “Everyone wants to have a connection with the natural world, and it’s easy with birds.”

For a long time, he’s considered turning his passion into his profession. Malawi has analyzed thermal imagery of Galapagos finches at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center in Washington, D.C., and created enrichment activities for a captive family of keas (alpine New Zealand parrots) at the Al Wabra Wildlife Preservation in Qatar. 

Malawi’s favorite experience was when he coaxed the shy kea father out of hiding with a new-wave medley of Duran Duran, a-ha, and Depeche Mode.

“He really got into that,” he says with a laugh. 

That cross-species connection—true human/avian communion—has long fueled spirituality, art, and even our dreams, according to Mark Wallace, professor of religion.

He’s still haunted by an experience he and his students had one summer, sitting in a circle at Crumhenge when a great blue heron flew overhead and landed on the creek’s edge.

“We just watched its movement as it hunted, and then it took off again. Herons are like pterodactyls—huge—and watching that bird was magical,” he says. “It was like being in the presence of a deity, something ancient, unknowable. I don’t know if there really is a God, but if there is such a being, maybe that’s it.”

Along those lines, he’s working on a book tentatively titled A Beaked and Feathered God or When God Was a Bird, about animism, the belief of primordial people that everything is alive and sacred.

“That’s my entry point—birds open us up to the world of the divine,” he says, citing the familiar Christian depiction of the Holy Spirit as a dove. “For me, these spectacular creatures have both a theological as well as a local resonance.”

Wallace’s interest was further piqued when he and his wife moved into a house overlooking the Crum Woods and daily witnessed displays of extraordinary beauty (rose-breasted grosbeaks singing), tenderness (pileated woodpeckers parenting), and violence (red-tailed hawks hunting).

“In a world that seems dead much of the time—shopping malls, parking lots, freeway traffic—the riot and exuberance of birds is an antidote to banality and tedium,” he says. “Watching them is meditation itself: an exercise in mindfulness and soulfulness. I try to harmonize my inner life with the outer life of birds.”



It’s a Swarthmorean sentiment echoed across decades and disciplines—with their ability to sing and soar, birds fascinate and inspire us. And, regardless of whether our interest in them is scientific or spiritual, poetic or prosaic, they always will.

“Birds are awesome,” Malawi says. “I want everyone to get excited about them.”

And so he continues to make plans for the Bird Club by bringing in more guest speakers, connecting with avian-loving alumni, and leading countless walks—anything to spark and stoke the delight he feels at all things feathered.

Tall and thin in green jeans and flared-tongue hiking boots, Malawi pauses in the middle of the Crum Woods. Behind him in a line, the inaugural members of Swarthmore’s Bird Club freeze.

There it is, a staccato succession: “ha! ha! ha!” machine-gunning overhead.

With a practiced sweep, Malawi lifts his perfectly calibrated binoculars to search the branches overhead; again, the club members follow suit. 

Straining to look upward, they don’t see him raise his iPhone. They hear it, though, when Malawi launches an app that plays a throaty, rolling response.

The wind rustles through the trees. They hold their breath. They wait.

Something flashes far above and—magically, miraculously—answers back.

“Red-bellied woodpecker,” Malawi says with a grin.

Only then do the club members exhale, one by one, grinning at each other and all around them with wonder, like so many of their fellow Swatties: eyes and ears—and maybe even hearts—palpably open to beauty, to boundless potential, to birds. 


+ BROWSE an aviary of bird-inspired Swarthmore student publications available online.

I Dream of Birds

Sayed Malawi ’18 chats about some of his favorite photos he’s taken of birds.