I never paid much mind to birds as a kid. Alfred Hitchcock altered that view for a time, but after seeing no real attitude change among the feathered denizens of the neighborhood, birds remained a minor part of growing up in the city. A springtime robin’s nest always got attention, especially if a nestling had fledged. Pigeons were fun for testing youthful speed and reflexes, and starlings and sparrows were just unadorned beggars. Nighthawks were probably the most fascinating as they would sweep the evening sky for a meal, peenting above the flat roofed buildings where they would roost, but for the most part, birds were overlooked background.
In time, however, the flight of birds in my life gradually ascended to a loftier perch. If modern day analytics searched my brain today, key word birds, it would discover a mass of tightly connected, intertwined memories and events; portions of my life that can be described through an association to birds. And while I never really got into making a personal bird list, I have a mental flip-book packed with recollections.
My first serious introduction to birds was though hunting. Geese, ducks, and pheasants opened my eyes to their beauty, exposed me to the delight of their sounds and unexpected appearances, and of course, their place on the table as food. Today, goose music of any kind always turns my head skyward, the crowing of a distant pheasant reminds me of boyhood hunts near snowy cornfields and cattails, and wild duck is a frequent menu item for as long as the seasonal stockpile holds out.
As my bird hunting expanded, so did my general awareness and curiosity, and gradually, binoculars and field guides became as important to me as shotguns. And thus, the lessons commenced, and it is a rarity when a bird does not punctuate my day in some way. A sampling of entries from the pages my life journal reveals a wealth of experiences courtesy of the avian community.
Ruffed grouse – King of the game birds. Difficult to hunt, harder to shoot. Will stop your heart with an explosive flush from the brush, and are exquisite fare for the table. Hear grouse drumming in the spring and you become privy to a secret of the forest; a sub-sonic serenade. In the deep of winter, I found a snow roost and witnessed an explosion of white powder when the bird emerged, a small hole with feathery prints on either side the only evidence remaining. For two hunting seasons I stalked a bird that could be found on the southern slope of wooded rise. It had the high ground and always evaded my tactical approaches, and I think it enjoyed the game as much as I did.
Woodcock – The timberdoodle’s springtime peenting and aerial acrobatics is a grand performance. I once had a college wildlife course that was intended to instill an appreciation of critters beyond what the gun could teach us. I chose to collect audio recordings of woodcock. I found a spot where woodcock would linger, waited for song and flight, and rushed into the center of the arena. Laying on my back, I pointed a parabolic reflector skyward, following the bird’s trajectory and twittering until it returned to earth landing a few feet from my head. Later I would find the elusive bird on an imperceptible nest among the twigs and leaves, and soon thereafter, the fuzz ball young.
Prairie chickens – A work-study job took me to the ancient booming grounds of Wisconsin where I would witness the springtime dance of chickens. Stomping, booms, and cackles with bright orange inflated air sacs, raised plumes, open fans. Hunkered down inside a green canvas luxury box with flaps for viewing, I once had a bird booming directly atop my blind. Traveling country roads early in the morning, I would stop along my route and attempt to discern the sound of chickens on the wind from a cacophony of earthly morning sounds. Thanks to Tympanuchus cupido, I would meet Frederick and Frances Hamerstrom, champions of the chicken and rock star equivalents in the world of wildlife biology.
Loons – A couple summers working in northern Wisconsin was my first extensive introduction to loons. An ancient bird that will exhibit caution and curiosity in equal quantities, hearing their mournful call anytime during the day would cause pause. But hear them in the extreme darkness of night on the shore of a northern lake, with aurora borealis in the background and you may question your own relevance and the intentions of the planet on which you live. However, finding a rescued loon in my bathtub removed some of the romance previously described. The hazards of sharing summer quarters with a loon biologist.
Sandhill cranes – despite their regular presence in the area where I grew up, I never really noticed sandhills much until a field trip in my early twenties. Hearing that prehistoric call from a sedge of cranes in flight over the marsh, I was certain I discovered a new species. I had a stunning moment during a summer job on a wetland when I watched and listened to a couple dozen birds in a field, silhouettes emerging and fading, with heads poking above a mystical early morning ground fog, their call echoing across the marsh. On another occasion, I was fortunate to see a group of sandhills feeding in stubble with two whooping cranes as nearby companions. One often hears that the sandhill crane is the ribeye in the sky, a disappointing reduction in character. I’ll never raise a gun to a sandhill.
Wild Turkeys – Most every Missouri hunter knows the magic of turkeys. The thrill of listening to and watching a hen pick bugs walking a few feet from your extended legs as you sit on the ground. The goofy demonstration of a cluster of jakes at 20 yards, fidgety, curious, and unwise. That booming gobble throughout landscape in the spring that triggers excitement and a feeling of hope. I’ll never forget a long morning I spent working a bird for my wife. The bird called incessantly for an hour and took his time coming off a distant ridge at 300 yards. The grand finale was a walk and talk all the way to the decoy at 30 yards, and the smile on my wife’s face when she retrieved the bird from the field; her first turkey.
Flipping further through the pages of my journal I see images of climbing a pine tree to take pictures of a Great Blue Heron rookery, watching adults feed nestlings at eye level, listening to the squawking and racket, and seeing the dangling remains of a few unfortunate young that had fallen from their nest. A few miles further away I would climb an old tree leaning over a tag-alder swamp to take pictures of a pair of white, fuzzy, newly hatched Broad-winged Hawks, an adult nearby trying its best to threaten me. I remember the red flagging I placed around a Killdeer nest found after viewing the adult’s melodramatic feign of injury to lure me away. Later I witnessed speedy precocial balls of downy feathers dart from their nest after hatch. I remember Puffins and Marbled Murrelets residing on deep sea rookeries out from Resurrection Bay, and an encounter with my first harlequin duck on a little creek at Ninilchik, highlights of a trip to Alaska. And I remember the Warbler and countless other birds we have rescued after collisions with a window.
Recent entries to my journal express concerns. Our feeder was ominously quiet in the winter of 2019, but a cold snap in early 2021 saw scores of birds congregate for a week as food for survival became essential. For the first time in 25 years, no Bluebirds are nesting around my house, presumably due to mortality from the same cold snap and winter storms. As my neighborhood grows more houses, it grows fewer birds. Buntings, Tanagers, and Towhees hang on, but the Chat is gone along with the Whip-poor-will. A new nearby development assures me that I’ll not see the Scissor-tailed flycatcher again. Yet I am hopeful. When I watch a wedge of Trumpeter Swans fly overhead or see the shorebirds enjoying the marsh where I will sit and watch migrations, I am reminded of the resilience of birds and the well spring of hope that conservation provides. May your life list of birds be long, your memories be longer, and may we always live in the company of birds.
Originally Published, CFM, September 2021 - Vol.82/No.5