Excerpt from "Two ways of looking at a Red-winged blackbird"

This essay was first published in full by Ted Floyd and Birding magazine - Mar/April 2014


Spring, 1981
Today we are headed to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Oregon. Birders have checked off more than 300 species in the marshes, lakes, and fields within Malheur’s protected borders. Which is why we’re here. My grandmother is hoping to add a couple of shorebirds to her life-list. She writes down every bird she sees in a voluminous pink binder. She has made a chart of the most common 100 or so birds near her house so that she can just place a check mark next to those each day. On days with unusual birds, like today, she writes out their names on a separate page in small, careful cursive.

Before the binder, she checked off birds in her guide books. I like looking through the Peterson and Audubon editions best. They are well worn with folded corners and scribbling in the margins. I can’t match the paintings in these books to the blurry bundles of feathers that perch on fence posts and utility lines as we drive by, though I enjoy the orderly pages of bird types, and I ask questions about the differences between male and female varieties, juveniles, and adults. I learn what molt means and how to pronounce “ptarmigan.”

“Grandma, look! Red-winged Blackbirds!” Their surprising flash of color has always enchanted me.

“Yes they are, good job.”

Now that we have seen them, they are checked off her list. She has no more need for blackbirds today.

§§§

Many serious birders can tell you the exact moment they fell in love with birds. For the undisputed king of birding guide books, Roger Tory Peterson, it was a flicker, exploding from the brush at his feet that started him on the path to his life’s work. John James Audubon is said to have been transfixed by the song of a Wood Thrush at a young age. And one of the most successful birders in recent years, Phoebe Snetsinger, was impressed with the sight of a visiting Blackburnian Warbler, a sighting that would be the first of 8,000+ different birds she would document worldwide.

I’m not anywhere near the level of my grandmother and those other birding greats, but, like each of them, I remember a few key meetings that would eventually inform my birding habits.

Once, in my grandparents’ driveway, I strayed closer than usual to the large oak bordered by blackberry brambles. The septic tank was buried not far from the tree, and that part of the yard was considered dangerous. But this day, my grandfather didn’t have his volunteer fire truck parked under the tree, so I was poking around when suddenly a small bird flopped onto the ground in front of me. It was smallish and brownish, with black and white stripes across its breast. It seemed to have broken a leg or wing, and was spinning and thrashing at the ground near my feet. I knew not to touch it, but I crouched down to get a better look. The bird began to writhe and flutter toward the dirt of the driveway. I crab-stepped toward it. It seemed to be so crippled, yet managed to stay just out of reach. I followed it nearly to the end of the driveway, and was so worried about it flapping around like that in the street that I ran back into the house to tell my grandmother. She didn’t even look up from her crossword.

“It’s probably a Killdeer. You were messing around under that tree, and I think she has a nest near there.”

What does the nest have to do with a broken wing? I was exasperated at my grandmother’s lack of concern.

“She’s just pretending. She lured you away from the nest by acting hurt.”

This act of deliberate treachery on the part of a bird was a revelation. For the rest of my weekend visit, I would sneak out to the tree to try and find her nest. Although I understood that she was faking her injury, I didn’t quite understand that she was in little danger of being caught.

At seven, I was hooked. It was the manner of that bird, her deceit and cunning, which captivated me. In that moment, she became more than a brown bird in the grass like any other. She became a combination of protective behaviors that were unique to the foot of the oak tree on that particular morning.

§§§

Fall, 2004
Years later, and as far from home as I can get, I will find myself on a similar drive, this time by choice. I have chipped in with a small group of nature lovers to pay a naturalist to drive us through a salt marsh in Delaware. We’re moving at the pace of molasses as our guide points out Snow Geese on their migration south. The birds float on the water in “rafts” made up of a thousand individuals or more.

On this day, the birds are incidental. That I am an imposter and the wrong kind of birder altogether is confirmed by my lack of binoculars. After spending weeks in the city, it’s just that I crave country roads, blown-over barns, brambles. I know that this young woman from the parks and recreation department will take me to a scenic spot. That’s her job. My job is to listen, and to try to remember what I’ve seen. But it is also true that it has been a long time since my grandmother took me out on a drive; her birding is confined to her front window and a worn easy chair these days. I miss the quiet that descends when a whole car full of people is looking out the windows, searching a row of trees.

The naturalist parks the van, and we, her charges, walk through the dirt paths of Bombay Hook. November is all over it in a spectrum of browns. The sweet musty smell of decay drifts up from the leaves, bent and broken beneath our hiking boots.

Our guide asks if there are any particular birds anyone is hoping to see. This is when the proper birders bring out their notebooks and rattle off two or three or seven birds that they are hoping to add to their life lists.

I don’t have a list, the lower halves of my pants do not zip off, and I’ve left my Peterson Eastern at home with the binoculars. When I go out, it is with intention, but it is an intention to take in, rather than accrete. I might look a bird up later, in one of my guide books at home, yet the trip is more about being outside, with and among them. Like a fan who comes to every baseball game and never brings a score card, I don’t need to know who’s winning to decide whether the game is a good one or not. And if, on occasion, I worry that I might miss something important, there are usually people around me writing everything down.

The greatest day out for me is a mix of birds that I already recognize and those that take figuring out. Solving the puzzle of an unknown bird can be rewarding, but so is seeing a familiar silhouette, adding to what I know about its habits already. I will forget all of the other birds that fluttered in the shadow of the Snow Geese, except for one Great Blue Heron that glided along the marsh for a quarter mile at the same speed as the tour van.

Today, the geese are the definition of majesty: When startled, the great rafts lift off the water in a glittering of black-tipped white wings. I can’t get a single picture that captures their flickering quality.

§§§

My early birding techniques did not impress my grandmother. She would ask me what birds we had seen after a weekend drive and I would rarely fail to disappoint. I couldn’t recall many of the birds’ names, and instead would remember “that one with the long tail on the fence by the red barn.” A poor scientist, indeed. Though she no longer keeps her list, my grandmother still thinks in terms of the birds that are on it and those that are not, whereas I am as likely to ever keep a life list as I am to remember both my guide book and my binoculars on any given day in the field.

I don’t look at the birds as some way to connect with my grandmother; we are too different. To her, I am not driven enough; I’m not serious about it. I will never move past what she would call a “beginner.” In the back seat, I kept one finger between the pages of my book, marking my spot, waiting to get back to the story. And her structured lists seem to me to organize away all of the wonder of a bird flushing out of a tree at your feet in artful agony. I am satisfied knowing that most of the birds I see will be birds I’ve never seen before. But it would be a lie to say that I don’t think of her while I thumb through a guide book, trying to recall if the wingtips that just dashed by were white or gray, if the beak was stubbed or slender.

Roger Tory Peterson could still be found out on the trails long after his guide books made him a household name among the world’s birders. Though in his last years, not as often. He never enjoyed being asked if he’d seen any “good birds” lately; while he did keep a life list, to Peterson and many non-list birders, any bird could be a good bird— not just the new or rare species.

As I walk from the train station to my apartment each evening, the same sparrows, mockingbirds, and starlings fill the city landscape. I watch the mockingbirds monitor traffic from the top of the signal lights; I try to pick out the stolen bird songs in the mimicry of the starlings. Even the audacity of the sparrows as they investigate my food-bearing potential can make me laugh out loud. My grandmother, missing a crucial check mark and frustrated with common “robber jays” and an unending supply of finches, has been spotted at dusk crouched behind her car in her pajamas luring Evening Grosbeaks to her yard by kissing her wrist. But as for me, birding habits feed my curiosity, not my score card.

And in that, we each have our own birding integrity.