Today, after walking the dog, Elsa came in and discussed a bird she observed. “It was bigger than a kestrel, it had a mask like it, and a straight tail. At first, I thought the kestrel was its baby.” Paul takes out his bird guide and they look at the pictures of sharp-shinned hawks, Cooper’s hawks, and merlins trying to decipher which bird it is. Finally, they grab a pair of binoculars and venture out again to observe more closely what Elsa saw — looking for specific features: black spots at the base of the wings, peach on the chest, or the shape of the mask.
I am studying for the Spanish test on Tuesday and I feel jealous as I watch them saunter out into the pale, December sunshine, the sun glittering on the icy snowpatches gripping tightly to the shady spots under the junipers. But I am proud to see my daughter interested.
I was introduced to birding while studying in Costa Rica for a semester. My fellow students and I were traveling in a hot, dusty bus, over pot-holed roads winding through banana plantations. My friend, Scott Smithson, handed me a bird guide and said, “Test me.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, flipping through the guide, staring at the drawn birds. My mind was blank.
He repeated, “Test me. You say the common name of a bird, I’ll give you the scientific name.” He rarely made a mistake. He became a bird expert, eventually — his research going into the guides we buy at the store.
A few years later, Paul was given a challenge in his ornithology class to identify the most birds during the semester. For Paul, that was all the excuse he needed to neglect all his studies and spend most of his time outside seeking new identifications. Soon, I found myself driving along and glancing at the telephone lines, tree tops, and open fields, helping him identify a new bird.
When we visited Paul’s family in Texas, we detoured to a wildlife refuge on a birding expedition. Within ten minutes we had seen every type of heron. We glanced up at the sky. Two giant, pink spoonbills, with their wings tipped in black, flapped languidly by. We dropped our eyes to the marsh in front of us. A black Anhinga stood on a rock, drying its wings in the sun. It looked exactly like the picture in our bird guide. Paul and I were addicted from those ten minutes on.
Sometimes we have sighting games of naming the birds we see, Elsa keeping a tally. Destination ideas are birthed from wanting to see the Green Kingfisher or the Elegant Trogan. For experts like Scott, who rarely sees a new bird anymore, travels may extend to view the only nesting pair of Black-capped Gnatcatchers in the United States. We may have never gone to the Arizona-Mexican border or Padre Island in Texas had we not been birders. And places like Costa Rica or Guatemala with the beautiful quetzal to behold adds a whole new enticement to its other qualities.
From as soon as they learned to talk, the girls knew not to call anything a “birdie.” It was an American Robin or a European Starling (the only bird they’re allowed to shoot). Favorites are the nuthatches and chickadees. Before long, the girls were glancing at telephone wires and open fields from their car-seat with interest. Road trips had another distraction to keep them busy. Before we had kids, Paul and I would call the rare bird alert, and consider driving three hours to see whatever bird was not on our list.
Why bird? Maybe it’s in rebellion to the constant “uuuhhhs” and “likes” and other mundane fillers I hear everywhere I go. Birding doesn’t allow for descriptions like “a middle-sized grayish bird that has a funny call.” Birding forces you to be precise. Is an eye-ring present? Is the entire beak dark? Or just the mandible? And the call — pin it down now — what does it say?
By the time you’ve figured this out, you really have made an acquaintance you won’t forget. The next time you see your new friend, the bird is recognized sooner, with pleasure, and you remember all of the places you’ve met. It helps to anchor the settings into your memory.
With the distancing ourselves from nature, we’ve become more and more vague in our knowledge of it. Beeches, elms, and firs are just “trees.” Lillies, violets, and roses are just “flowers.” Grebes, cranes, and phoebes are just “birds.” Individuals are bunched into groups and dismissed — sometimes as “pretty” and sometimes as a thing that is in the way of our car.
It’s a shame. The only way I know to fight it is to keep having personal relationships with the outdoors. To smell the vanilla in the cracked bark of a Ponderosa, to identify a Prairie Mission Bell bobbing it’s pretty pink head along a forest trail, or to notice the black stipe down the blue bill of a Pied-bill Grebe and to laugh at its ruffled appearance from always having its head upside down. Knowing usually begets loving and the converse is also true.