Saturday, October 11, 2008

My History of Birding, Part 1

I was interested in many aspects of nature as a kid, but right into adulthood, birding remained the final frontier. Lately I got to wondering: why?

Perhaps it was their intangibility? As a kid I was most interested in whatever things I could collect or wound up keeping as pets: insects, butterflies, frogs, toads, salamanders, snakes, turtles, mushrooms, and so on. Birds? Birds are so... flitty.

Of course, completely inconsistent with this is the fact that at age 13, I nursed an injured Canada Goose, housing it (and taking it for daily walks--imagine what that looked like!) for over four months. Birds were not absent from my life. Yet I was content to possess only a tattered, hand-me-down photographic field guide to birds of eastern North America, which I can clearly remember was missing pages. I never once attempted to identify even the birds at the feeder. This is good evidence of my long, however relative, indifference to birds.

Almost inexplicably, this all changed in the spring of my 24th year. The springtime that year was probably no different than any other, but somehow I just took special notice of it. The trills of American Toads heightened my awareness and appreciation of a pond nearby my work. Soon I began admiring the striking red-orange epaulets of Red-winged Blackbirds, a bird which I had previously only known by name. Also present was a mysterious bird that seemed to fall somewhere between a duck and a chicken. These, I learned, were American Coots. (In retrospect: how in the hell could I have never noticed this species my whole life?!)

I sensed something strange was happening in me when one night I looked at my wife and declared: "I think I'm interested in birds."

Somewhat reluctantly, I subscribed to the local birding email listserv and bought a new field guide. I knew full well that birds are a diverse and complicated bunch, presenting no obvious major taxonomic distinctions to me (cf. reptiles: lizards, turtles, snakes). Getting to know them would require a great deal of my future time and effort. And worst of all, I worried, in the end it might not even pay off: identifying birds may at first satiate some mild curiosity, but I knew that in order to be truly satisfying, birds would have to demonstrate the same quirkiness and colorful life histories or behaviors that characterize the other natural objects of my interest....

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