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Sunday, April 27, 2014

Why I Started Birdwatching. Why I Stopped Birdwatching. Why I Started Birdwatching Again.

Part I: Why I started birdwatching.

I mentioned in a previous post about the snowy owl irruption of winter, 2013-2014 why I started birdwatching. I'll repost that here:

I guess I must have been about three or four or five years old. I was sitting next to my mother. We were near the window in the front bedroom. She said something about the sparrows outside.

I was tremendously impressed that my mother used the word "sparrow." It is the first time I am conscious of someone using the word "sparrow."

I wondered what a sparrow was. Which of the birds in our yard, some of which were blue, some red, some yellow, some black, some grey and some brown, were "sparrows."

I wonder how my mother knew.

I was amazed that she knew, and could differentiate. Others knew "bird." My mother knew "sparrow."

I was determined to crack this code.

Ten years later. I was 14. My sister and I were driving along the Wanaque Reservoir. It is a beautiful road. Rolling hills surround the large, placid body of water.

On this day, there were dozens of vultures overhead. Something about their silhouettes against the sky looked prehistoric. They were not flapping their wings. They were merely spreading their wings tip to tip, soaring effortlessly, as if the sky were a ceiling and they were flat wallpaper affixed to it.

I was amazed then, and I remain amazed to this day, that birds can be so exotic, so present, and no one mentions them. It was as if my sister did not see these dozens of large birds. Again, I wanted to crack the code. I was better equipped at 14 than I had been at four or five, and, without ever saying that I was doing it, I requisitioned my oldest brother's binoculars. Somehow they stopped being his binoculars and became my binoculars. And I bought my first copy of Roger Tory Peterson.

I am still amazed by people who don't notice birds. One day I stood on a street corner in Bloomington, Indiana, as an accipiter – a hawk – chased a songbird through hedges. The songbird skulked, feinted, dodged. The hawk remained tight on its trail. This life-and-death struggle occurred even as pedestrians ate burritos, crossed the street, used the ATM. No one but me saw it at all.

Part II: Why I Stopped Birdwatching.

I have some obsessive compulsive qualities. I love my obsessive compulsive qualities. My house is always clean. If I research something, I research it beyond the range of normal human curiosity, and I am never afraid to debate, because I always have more factoids than anyone else. (Test drive me. I'll debate you into the ground and have you screaming for mercy. And, no, this quality has not won me ANY friends.)

I became obsessive about seeing new species of birds. Birdwatchers become excited when we see new species. With every new species we see, our "life lists" of birds seen gets longer.

For me it wasn't enough to see even something as splendid as a wood duck, aix sponsa, "waterfowl in wedding raiment," in breeding plumage. I obsessively scanned every bird I saw to discover some unfamiliar wing bar or lore coloration – the lore is the tiny area between eye and beak – that would signal a new species. I was tipping from love into a greed that numbed my appreciation.

A bigger reason I stopped birdwatching: I entered grad school, and academia, and my life turned upside down. I've written about that in other places so I don't have to belabor it here.

Academia impoverished me. I had no money for a car and you really can't scream "STOP! THE! CAR! !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I see a bird!!!!!!!!!!!" when you are a passenger in other's cars.

I was devoting every minute to my attempt to becoming a tenured, published professor, and doing that on no money. I had no time to watch birds.

The biggest reason I stopped birding, and this is hard to write about.

When I was a kid, we used to let our family dog, Tramp, run free for an hour or so each night.

Dog lovers, homeowners, pedestrians, please don't jump down my throat about this. If I had a dog now, I would not let him run free at all, ever.

I grew up in a different world.

My parents were immigrants and I guess that's how it was done in the Old Country.

I grew up in the kind of town where no one locked his door … ever. I never had a key to the house I grew up in. Neighbors walked in when they felt like it; they didn't knock. Once they reached the kitchen they would call out my mother's name, "Paaaah leen?"

If you were walking down the street and saw that your neighbor left his car headlights on, you would open your neighbor's car and turn off his headlights. I have done that.

If a siren went off, and a fire truck arrived, every kid for miles would mount his bicycle and ride to the fire truck and surround it and stand and stare.

So, yeah, we used to let Tramp run free for an hour or so every night. If Tramp was slow in returning home – he was the Frank Sinatra of dogs – I would go out to find him and drag him home. If this were a summer night, I would have to step carefully, because the ground was covered with frogs.

When I helped my mother in the garden, every time I overturned a big slab of rock, there would be a toad underneath.

At a certain point, and I don't remember when it was, exactly, I realized I would walk out at night and not worry about stepping on frogs. The frogs were just gone. I could turn over slab after slab, and find no toads hiding beneath.

One autumn day, my sister Antoinette and I were emerging from a walk in the woods. Suddenly we were stopped in our tracks. Something massive, sun obliterating, was moving over our heads. We were riveted to the ground, our bodies trembling in awe. It was the biggest flock of birds I have ever seen.

I've never seen a flock of birds that size since.

When I was a kid, I'd walk in the woods and if I happened across one bottle, I'd be outraged, deeply troubled. ONE piece of human trash in the woods would overwhelm me.

I cannot express in this blog post how deeply I bonded to the natural world as a child who grew up with four older brothers who hunted and fished and trapped and hiked and found arrowheads and watched stars, and parents who gardened and told tales of the Old Country, including how grandpa was saved from death by a flower my grandmother sliced at its fat hip and milked for its thick, gluey juice, and a sister who once wove a necklace of flowers and posed for a photograph I still have of her, looking every bit the Rusalka, the nature sprite, in a patch of New Jersey woodland, a sister who picked apples with me from wild trees on late Autumn afternoons; we'd tote them home in paper bags and roll them out on the kitchen table and there would be strudel before midnight. "Pull the dough," my mother would say, "till you could read a newspaper through it." We did.

I cannot express in this blog post that love for nature.

Someone has expressed it. My brother Phil bought a book, "Sand County Almanac," and then my brother Phil was killed; he never read the book. I read it in his honor. There is a quote on the cover of Phil's copy of "Sand County Almanac": "There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot. These essays are the delights and dilemmas of one who cannot." Aldo Leopold expresses my love for nature. Read his book.

I stopped birdwatching because I couldn't take the pain of what we are doing to the natural world. I wanted to preserve my memories of watching spotted sandpipers teeter along the banks of the Wanaque River. I did not want to return to see empty plastic bottles and strip malls and housing developments.

Part III: Why I started birdwatching again.

I was diagnosed with cancer. I realized after pounding my cranium into a cement wall of hate for twenty years that I would never, ever overcome academia's disdain for my kind (more about that at this blog post) and get a tenure track job. I stopped doing what I had been doing: constantly applying for jobs, writing for publication … that freed up a lot of time.

I took my binoculars out of storage.

One day, March 25, 2014, I went shopping at Corrado's, a produce store. There is a reservoir nearby and I walked along a four lane road, traffic at my back. That gray day the reservoir was still ninety percent frozen over. In isolated, puddle-sized pockets of water, dozens common mergansers swam. Common mergansers were not a new species to me; I did not receive the electric thrill of a fresh check mark on my life list. I just stood there, and looked at them.

Common mergansers have black heads and black backs, red bills and white bellies.

They sky was gray; the ice whitish; the water dark.

Traffic moved at my back.

I stood and gazed at the birds. I walked some more, a few miles. I watched a muskrat dive into the water, and emerge with something that looked like a snake in its mouth. I startled a turkey vulture feeding on a deer carcass.

After some time, I realized I needed to move on in order to get home before nightfall.

I also realized that that hour I spend walking along the reservoir and looking at the common mergansers was the happiest hour I'd spent in some time. I didn't see any new birds. I didn't fatten my life list. I did not forestall environmental catastrophe. All I did was look at mergansers – and I lost all sense of time. I forgot that I was on a four-lane road with cars whizzing past my back. I totally forgot about my health and money woes.

So I am, once again, a birdwatcher.


Please remember my upcoming Shroud of Turin talk. Details here.



  1. Yes. Birdwatching is uncovering the layers of wildness you never imagined, but always hoped were there - especially urban birdwatching. Check out this link which you may enjoy - I really connected with a few of these TED Talks because they hit that deep need for an engulfing wildness:

  2. I can't imagine how people can be near birds and not notice them. In my yard, I've never seen an exotic bird, but they are all welcome, from the little guys like finches to the hulking crows. They way you put words together makes your posts a pleasure to read. Do you write fiction?

    1. Carol, thank you for reading and commenting.