WCAI's Vern Laux: He Helped Us Understand the Birds

Jan 21, 2016

The birds lost a friend in Vern Laux early Thursday morning, when Laux died from complications related to esophageal cancer.

Since he was 12 years old, Laux had studied birds, spending any time he could outside, admiring their flight and daydreaming about what it would be like to soar with them above the earth. He advocated for birds. He protected them. And he even saved them, when he could.

"I had a hummingbird," he said last year on WCAI's The Point, "and I wanted to see how close I could get to take its picture. And it was in a little garden, with chicken wire around the garden. And I look, and one of its toes got stuck in the wire. So I had to try and take its toe out of the chicken wire, which was really delicate. It's so delicate, I was worried I was going to hurt its toe. But I managed to get it out. And it flew off. And it made me feel really good."

Edward Vernon Laux was born on St. Patrick's Day in 1955, and for 60 years, he brought the party with him wherever he went. Across seven continents, including more than 20 trips to the Antarctic, Laux approached birding with unbridled enthusiasm, joy and respect for the natural world. This was no quiet, bookish birder. He was the gonzo ornithologist, and every birding trip was a reason to celebrate.

This was no quiet, bookish birder. He was the gonzo ornithologist, and every birding trip was a reason to celebrate.

"I think if you take sort of a Keith Richards, maybe a little bit of Belushi thrown in there, you know, an NBA basketball player, a defensive lineman, that would be Vern as a bird watcher," said fellow bird watcher Pete Trimble, one of Laux's best friends, who birded with him for more than 30 years.

"He was one of the best field birders that I’ve ever been out with," Trimble said. "He had eyes that could pick up anything in the distant sky - you know his famous, 'Keep your eyes to the sky.' Just a fabulous birder, but he knew so much about birds on the scholarly level as well. So, just a real treasure, and of course he was so happy to introduce people to birds, to lead tours, to lead bird walks and so forth."

Laux grew up in Wellesley. His family moved to the Cape when he was in high school. By that time, Laux already was an avid birder. He credits one of his 8th grade teachers with introducing him to birding. And for much of his life, Laux took on the role of educator himself, leading birding expeditions, both internationally and on Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket, where he lived for many years. He penned columns for local newspapers, and he wrote and voiced Bird News on WCAI each week, while also appearing live on The Point with Mindy Todd each month to answer birding questions.

"I think part of the magic about Vern is that listeners were really engaged with him," Todd said. "And these people, some of whom were not birders, I cannot tell you how many listeners would say, 'I love listening to Vern Laux. I don't know anything about birds, I don't really care about birds. But he's so entertaining and so educating at the same time.' He had an amazing fan base."

In 2004, Laux found himself featured on the front page of the New York Times after spotting an unusual bird near Katama airfield on the Vineyard. It was a vagrant bird. A bird that had no business being on this side of the world somehow made its way into Laux's line of sight - a red-footed falcon, a bird of prey thousands of miles away from its home territory in Europe and Africa. Laux was the first person to see one in the Americas. WCAI's Jay Allison remembers Laux coming on the WCAI's airwaves to discuss his discovery.

"And our All Things Considered host, it was Naomi Arenberg at the time, called Vern’s cell phone," Allison remembered. "He was racing in his car to where this falcon was and giving a play by play of where he was driving on the Vineyard, and you could hear him just shouting with glee and frustration at other drivers. It was the most immediate moment of radio, and it’s just because of his personality. He just filled up the speakers with his pleasure."

Laux respected education and learning. He was proud of his children -- Lily and Edward. And he loved the Cape and Islands, where he lived beneath one of the world's great bird migration flyways.

When it came down to it, Laux was a man who wanted to fly. He daydreamed about having wings, and, as he sometimes told callers to The Point, he constantly wondered what birds were thinking about as they soared and swooped and did bird things.

"What are they doing up there? I mean is it for the sheer joy of it?" a caller once asked Laux. And he replied, "I always wish I could fly up and ask them. [Laughing] You know, it certainly looks like they’re having an awful lot of fun and I’m very jealous. I wish! Imagine spending the afternoon soaring around."

The bird man, Vern Laux, died early Thursday morning at Nantucket Cottage Hospital. He was 60 years old. And while there are perhaps a millions ways to write a story about someone who has passed away, particularly someone as worldly and as admired as Laux, there is only one way to end this story, with Vern's very own words, the ones he used at the end of every essay he wrote for WCAI: until next time, "Keep your eyes to the sky."

We welcome listeners to leave a message or a story about Vern in the comments below. Or, call our listener line: 508.548.9600, and press 4.
WCAI is planning a tribute to Vern on The Point on his birthday, March 17.