Posted by: atowhee | August 30, 2021


Click here for youtube of disabled but highly capable House Sparrow. Bad beak, great life.

Thebn from Garrison Keillor’s daily postings comes this bit of birdy finery [I agree about the visual awareness of birders]:

Garrison —

A while back, you made some disparaging comments on birdwatching. At the time, I wondered why on earth you wanted to bait birdwatchers and thought, “I’m not going to be the one to rise to the bait.”

But the comments kept niggling at me, and so here I am, rising after all, though bearing in mind Aldo Leopold’s observation that, “It is an axiom that no hobby should either seek nor need rational justification.”

I have been a birdwatcher for over 60 years. I can’t say when I began, but my parents gave me a little field guide for my seventh birthday. They were not birders. I arose de novo; this is often true — we come out of nowhere and can’t say why we bend that way. I also keep a life list and a few others (yard, cabin) but I am not in it for the numbers. My earliest sightings do not have a date, only a “Roseville,” stemming from my childhood before I kept a life list. One of the Roseville birds is the Black-Crowned Night Heron. When I was researching my third book, I learned that T.S. Roberts took his university ornithology classes to a night heron rookery in Roseville in the 1920s. The herons I saw in my childhood must have been remnants from that rookery. Made the hair prickle on the nape of my neck to realize that.

1. Birding sharpens the eye to detail. Most people see in only a coarse-grained way. Birders by necessity are fine-grained lookers. What color legs? Yellow or pink? Do the wings extend beyond the tail? Does the beak curve downward? How sad to move through this beautiful world and not clearly see it. Furthermore, this looking not only takes in separate details, but also the entirely at once, behavior and movement. Birders see the whole picture.

2. But I rely far more on my ears than my eyes for bird identification. Having learned the songs of most Minnesota birds long ago, I now am continuously and unconsciously aware of what is around me at any moment outside. I hear the chimney swifts zipping across Minneapolis skies and the unending songs of red-eyed vireos. I know exactly when the predatory Cooper’s Hawk is in our yard, eying my songbirds.

3. Because birds are extremely local in their choice of nest site, watching them is one way to develop a sense of place. This is an excellent skill for a writer to have, but it seems to me to be essential for anyone to be fully in this world, to know exactly where you are on the face of the planet. The oak savannah. The maple/ basswood forest. At our cabin, we have had an eastern Phoebe family nesting in the same nest for 33 years. I am sure the occupants have been descendants of the original pair.

4. When one is so aware of birds around one, one develops a certain empathy for a life lived on earth that is not human. How many humans do you know that would be improved by this characteristic? The human population is vast, but the nonhuman population is vaster. Perhaps we would not be in the trouble we are in if we were more in tune with our fellow creatures.

5. As a hobby, birding is most satisfying to me because I cannot exhaust it. There is always more to know, (those darn fall warblers … and shorebirds!). There is more to learn from birders better than you. Unfamiliar songs to add to the repertoire. I recently heard a song unfamiliar to me, but which I believed to be a Tufted Titmouse. It’s a southern species, pushing northward with climate change. I am happy to see tufted titmice, but unhappy about seeing them in my back yard.

I could go on, but that’s enough.

Let me also add a thank you for stocking my second book at Common Good Books when the store was in that underground spot below Nina’s. I was thrilled to find it on the shelf and felt like I had really made it! I also did a reading there (I realized only later that this was because it was up for a Minnesota Book Award) and I was given a book bag that I use to this day. It’s my carry-on for my European vacations, and I may take it to Europe again one day, who knows?

Sue Leaf, Center City

You have now justified my joking about birdwatching with your excellent essay. You wouldn’t have written this for a fellow birdwatcher, you wrote it for me, an ignoramus. Case closed. GK

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