Bird Watching


I’m the world’s worst bird watcher. I like watching birds every now and then, but I can rarely identify them. It seems like everyone else is aware of the difference between an oriole and a cardinal at a glance, but not me. I like listening to birds, too. Many people can identify the bird by the sound it makes, but all I can do is tell that it’s morning and time to wake up.

My and the Littlest Miss name the birds we see around our backyard. There’s Woody, Mercedes, and Belvedere. We spot them now and then, but I doubt it is the same Woody we saw yesterday, or the day before. Birds are like a river in that way. I’ve learned to recognize a woodpecker through brute force. I followed the sound of one until I finally saw him (or her?) high up in a tree.

I’ve never been a particularly avid bird-watcher. There are people I see in parks and nearby wetlands that stakeout birds with binoculars and cameras with telephoto lenses. I don’t have the patience for that. E.B. White wrote an essay entitled, “Mr. Forbush’s Friends”. In it he reviewed The Birds of Massachusetts and Other New England States. That essay made bird-watching sound like a fascinating sport. But I still think I’d be no good at it.

Bird-watchers “collect” birds, which I understand means they collect observations of birds in the wild. What does this look like, I wonder? I there journal with a checklist where you can mark off the bird and note the date, time, place, and conditions?

What I want to ask all of the bird-watchers out there is this: how do you get a bird to sit still for a photo? This morning, there was a bright red bird on the powerline outside my house when I went for a walk. It was twenty feet above me. I stood still and causally reached for my phone to take its picture. As soon as my hand moved toward my pocket, the bird took off. I’d call it a coincidence, except that this seems to happen every time I try to take a picture of a bird. Are they camera shy? Even perched twenty feet above me? Maybe this explains all those binoculars and telephoto lenses.

I’ve lost count of all of the amazing photos of birds I would have had were the birds not camera-shy. Now that I think of it, maybe it’s not the camera. Maybe it’s me.

I’m not cut out to be an ornithologist, even an amateur one. This was pointed out to me ten years ago by the (then) editor of Analog Science Fiction, Stanley Schmidt. Stan had just accepted my first story for that magazine, “Take One for the Road.” (It appeared in the June 2011 issue.) He asked for two small edits. One was so minor I’ve forgotten it. The other has stayed with me right down to the very moment. I had a sentence in the story which referred to “night owls.” Stan said, “Do you mind changing this to just ‘owls’? The ornithologists among Analog‘s readers will object to ‘night owls’ as redundant.”

I made the change, but I think it would strange to refer to someone who prefers working at night as just “an owl.”

One comment

  1. Birds are the source of more trouble than we give them credit for. Don’t believe me? Just try feeding them. They spill the seed of course, but some species are expert at off-loading lots of seed onto the ground. At first this seems okay, as the rabbits, quail, chipmunks, squirels and other small friends get to feed too. No harm, no foul, just a bit messy. Ah, but then come the other passers by. The coyotes come in search of the rabbits, and the javelina come just because they can. One of them ambled over to eat and drink, then laid down for a nap in the shade of a tree not ten feet from where I lay relaxing in my hammock. I looked at him, he looked at me, and we both went back to sleep.

    I’m no orinthologist either, but I do like viewing the 10-12 species that routinely show up to dine and drink at our backyard bird-ery. I am happy to host them, but wish they were neater eaters. Maybe I will switch to a “call ahead curb service” model for the birds. It seems to be working everywhere else these days.


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