I decided to get serious about bird identification when the son and the daughter were about 5 and 3, respectively. We took daily walks all over paths and dirt roads through the woods and along the creek on whose edge we lived. The son loved searching for little lizards. Birds and their songs were everywhere; they were what caught the daughter’s attention. She would ask, “Mum, what’s that bird?” and I would answer something to the effect of, “Oh, it’s some kind of sparrow.” After practically an entire summer of sparrow sightings, one day she replied, “That’s what you always say.” Evidently not all sparrows look alike, the 3-year-old had observed.
So I ordered a copy of the Peterson Field Guides: Western Birds by Roger Tory Peterson, who lived not far from where my husband had grown up in rural Connecticut. My father-in-law knew Mr. Peterson; he was an artist, and from stories my husband told, his father knew practically everyone. I have an autographed flyer for a Ben Shahn exhibit; “Oh yeah, Pop knew Ben Shahn,” my husband said when I came across it. A couple of years ago, my sister gave me for Christmas a copy of his – Mr. Peterson’s, not my father-in-law’s or Ben Shahn’s – autobiography: All Things Reconsidered: My Birding Adventures. Most of my favorite books have been gifts from my sister. He was as eloquent a writer as he was observer of the natural world. I digress.
It became my bible. I’ve added to my collection of guides to birds over the years, though not until after my husband died; I fully suspect he’d have considered me a traitor for straying from the One True Guide. I ordered it from a remainderer’s catalog, whose business ironically is located right in the area where my husband’s family and Mr. Peterson lived. This was before the internet was even a gleam in someone’s eye. I ordered it by mail on the basis of probably a 6-word description. To this day it remains my favorite. It is perfectly organized for someone like me, a visual learner in many respects. In the center are pages of illustrations (called “plates”) of birds by category or family: Woodpeckers; Flycatchers; Jays, Magpies, and Kingfishers; Sparrows. Facing pages give a one-sentence description and list the page where full information can be found.
From the day it arrived in the mail, it became my constant companion. While
the kids were napping, I’d be poring over it. It went everywhere with us: on walks, on road trips, camping. It has bounced in backpacks, and fallen in lakes. On the day it arrived, I discovered on Plate 55, Finches, that one of our many “some kind of sparrow” was in fact a pine siskin. From Plate 57, Sparrows, I realized that another of them was in fact a sparrow: a song sparrow that has the stripy chest of a pine siskin, though with a center spot and no yellow in its wings. I was hooked.
In the front of the book is a list of every bird in it with spaces for a check-marks. Serious birders call it a Life List and can get nuttily competitive about them. Did you see the movie The Big Year? I’m not that bad. I honestly don’t know how many birds I’ve checked off. But when I look back over it, I can remember where I saw each and every bird on it, and who I was with. And for me, that’s the point.
I’ve wondered often, why birds? What is it about bird watching that is so absorbing, so satisfying, so calming? People talk about how free they are, how in the moment. Sort of like dogs with wings. In fact, I believe my dogs wish they had wings so they could zoom up and catch the squirrel who lurks in one of the ash trees in the back yard, sneaks down to raid the sunflower seed feeder, then chatters at the dogs when they get snarky about it. Sorry, again I digress.
It came to me at some point that birds make me look up. Literally. Up. Whether I’m walking the dogs here in town, hiking a trail, or roaming the bison ranch (where, a couple of weeks ago, I added a Sprague’s Pipit to my list), my gaze is on winged movement through the trees or across the sky. If birds hadn’t attracted my attention, rather if my daughter hadn’t forced me to furnish her with better information about her world, who knows if I’d have become as devoted to spending as much time as possible outdoors, out of town, off the trail. And even if I had, I can promise you that while walking, hiking, riding a bike, my head would have been aimed squarely at the ground so as to better focus on that hamster on the wheel running and running and running in my brain. So you could say that birds have to some degree saved me from myself.
I had a rotten few days recently. I’d had a couple of crappy experiences with people from whom I didn’t expect such. I was sick on Saturday, hurt my back terribly on Sunday, and the week started with such a bang that everything I did I did horribly. By the time I woke up this morning after a nightmare that felt like it had gone on all night, my tank was flat empty. Even the hamster was exhausted. I couldn’t face one more day of feeling worthless and bereft. So I took my morning coffee outside and sat on the back porch as the early sun began to warm it. The chickadees were dee-dee-deeing to 911 about Basil, whom I’d let out the front door. The house sparrows and house finches were taking turns at the feeders in the ash trees out back. Doves were whistling up to the telephone wires. The house finches were singing so beautifully and loudly that the parakeets in the kitchen were answering them. And I had a front-row seat to it all. The day began to look up.