As a kid, though I spent a lot of time outdoors in woods and swamps, I ignored birds. They required patience and binoculars. Toadstools and salamanders did not.
But I wasn’t completely oblivious. There were Robins in the side yard and, when the Mountain Ash was full of berries, Cedar Waxwings in the back yard. The rest were sparrows or pigeons.
My first direct avian encounter did not go well. It was a parakeet. It lived in the kitchen, screeching and shitting and chewing the wallpaper. Even my parents, who had bought it, grew to hate it, and we all wished it an early, painful death, which, after three months of terrorism, it met, possibly out the window, perhaps in the trash can, with no We gave it to a nice farm family cover-up.
The first time birds really drew my attention was in Northern Nigeria, in the Peace Corps, especially the Pied Crows, with their tuxedo outfits and their click-click-click telephone-dial imitations; and Black Kites in fighter squadrons mowing down locusts fleeing the annual burning of the farm fields.
After that, Dad, who had taken up bird-watching as a retirement pastime, got me started in the woods across the street, with Pewees, Scarlet Tanagers (we called them Scarlet Managers, my sister’s invention), and Veeries. Mom, who was emphatically not a birdwatcher, hit on what really matters — the aesthetics of birds — with her description of the Veery’s flutey, downward spiraling song as a sterling silver corkscrew.
All fascinating to a learner, but it was Warblers — small, exuberant flashes of color and song — that tested my beginner skills and hooked me for life; and it was Nighthawks (not actual hawks, but related to Whippoorwills) — rising at dusk, calling plaintively, making right-angles in the sky with their long, thin wings — that symbolized the grace and beauty of birds.
Of course, birds are more than just a pretty picture or an enchanting song:
In London, I’ve been shat upon by a Starling and menaced by an angry Swan. In Singapore, I’ve chased a Blue Winged Pitta around a bush to add to our team’s sighting-list in the Great Millennium Bird Race (we didn’t win).
In Strasbourg, I’ve rescued a baby Blackbird (the European, not the American, kind) that flew into the hotel breakfast room and landed on the ham tray. In Lugano, I’ve mistakenly assumed that what was actually an aggressive Chaffinch, hurling itself at its reflection in our curtained hotel window, was naughty kids dropping marbles, at 6 am, on the floor above.
In Colorado, while fishing, I’ve watched an Osprey steal a trout that might have been my catch. But, then, I’ve had the consolation of hosting a bold and quizzical hummingbird on my fishing rod for a nice rest.
Even Mom has her tale: While she was getting ready for work, she saw two Pileated Woodpeckers in the side yard, doing an elaborate and athletic mating dance. She was so transfixed that she got to work late, with an excuse that was too implausible to be doubted.
End Note: While I was writing this, the New York Times (October 24, 2017) published an article about an art gallery owner, Avi Gitler, and his crew of artists who (with permission) are painting murals of endangered bird species on buildings, in alleyways, and even on the rolldown shutters of local shops. The work is in honor of John James Audubon, who lived and died on W. 155th St. in Manhattan. The story gives hope and the paintings glow. Check it out at: https://nyti.ms/2zAUfiq