I became a birder years and years back, working at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. As a secretary in the Public Relations office, I came to know many of the scientists - anthropologists, biologists, geologists - who worked away in tiny cubicles tucked under the eaves of the Field. My special favorite of all of them was Dr. Emmet R. Blake, Curator of Birds.
I spent hours - whenever I could find an excuse to escape the office - going through his collections. We became friends, and when Manual of Neotropical Birds, Volume 1 was published, I was offered a "family price" for it. Unfortunately, even at that it was too rich for my blood. But my time spent perusing drawer after drawer of - let's face it - dead birds, inspired me to want to see live ones. Really see them.
So I joined my local Audubon Society (meeting in the basement of the Field), and became a birder.
The thing about birding - or about any similar endeavor, like photographing wildflowers, collecting insects, identifying ferns, grasses, trees - is that it forces one to focus. It makes you look. It makes you remember.
Anyone can wander the hills and valleys, mountains and plains, and "appreciate nature." But until you start birding, or any other form of identifying your fellow inhabitants of the planets, it's all too easy not to notice them. Really notice them. They remain flashes of yellow, a swoop of wing, a pretty song - and maybe that's enough for some folks. Birding takes you deeper.
Birding takes you to to a world of eye-rings, lores and coverts. Look, it's a chickadee. And it probably is a Black-Capped? But look closer. Where do you live? Maybe it's a Chestnut-backed Chickadee. Or a Boreal Chickadee.
This last weekend, I watched The Big Year. The only movie I know made specifically for my particular subset of humans. I can't say it was the best movie I ever saw, or even the best movie that can ever be made for birding, but it was good enough for me. Good enough for now. Because the characters - and through them, the writers - got it. Jack Black's love for the Golden Plover was right on the money. Nothing flashy, that bird. But what it achieves against all odds? Amazing!
But just sitting here, at my computer, in front of a big window on a yard of bird feeders, here is a partial list of what I see each year: Stellar's Jay, Junco's (both Slate-Colored and Oregon). Red-breasted Nuthatch. House Finch. Bewick's Wren. Bushtits, (and yes, I've had them scrambling over my suet feeder just as illustrated). Varied Thrush. Sooty Fox Sparrow. Downy Woodpecker. Spotted Towhee. Song Sparrow. Red-shafted Northern Flicker. And, of course, my all time favorite and personally adopted totem animal, Crow.
Birding makes me ask of every living thing, with or without wings, "Who are you?" Which is the question we ask of everyone we meet. We get to know them, to recognize their faces, their voices, their place in our world. We get to know whether we like them or not. After all, not that many people are that crazy about Starlings. They're big and noisy and messy. And it's okay not to be overly thrilled when they invade your feeders.
But even a Starling has an iridescent beauty of its own. Just like those people you can't stand. Who also deserve their place at the table.
Birds are people too.