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Of Birds and Words

March 27, 2010

I never thought — not in a million years — that I’d develop an interest in birds. Actually, it snuck up on me. Well, not quire. I suppose I was looking for a hobby. And then, I happened to read an essay by Jonathan Franzen in the Discomfort Zone on the topic of birds, and I wanted to see what they actually looked like up close. The essay, called “My Bird Problem,” captivated me immediately, and I found myself desperately wanting to develop a “bird problem” of my own. And I figured that if Franzen could render the experience so literary, then surely it was something I had to try first hand.

I’ve had many reservations about becoming (not that I’m there yet, not even close) a birder. First, the binoculars. No matter how you wear them, they’re dorky. And heavy. Second, the early starts. I must admit that I’m not so coherent before 8 am, and birding forces you out of bed much earlier than that. Especially during migration season (which I’m about to experience). Third, the idea of being a birder. The sound of the word felt geriatric to me.

And then, I saw this:

My first red winged blackbird. Before I went out birding, I proceeded to buy at least ten books about birds — from picture books to memoirs to personal narratives about the process of birding. The one thing everybody agreed on seemed to be that you never forget your first bird. I thought that was ridiculous because I’d already seen hundreds of birds in my life, including all those hideous pigeons that my sister and I used to run after near Queens Park years ago.

And then it happened. Last April, on a cold morning (long before 8 am), on the shores of Lake Ontario right near Humber College, I looked through my binoculars and came face to face with the red winged blackbird. I had found a birding group near Toronto, and they graciously took me along on their trips. (The Red Winged blackbird remains the only bird I can identify on my own, but the sight of the bird excites me every single time.) I wasn’t expecting to find myself entranced by this bird — by the bright red and yellow on its epaulets — but I couldn’t get it out of my mind. Even now, almost a year later, whenever I see the bird, it feels like recognizing an old friend. I’ll admit, I get a little over excited every time I’m with friends or family and we happen to run into a red-winged blackbird. Just last week, I jumped up and down at the sight of one and (gasp!) regretted not having my binoculars nearby.

Maybe that’s what appeals to me about meeting new birds. It feels like you’re developing a friendship of some sort. I’m going to use this blog to try to figure it out. There’s no way I’ll bore you with technical details, because I myself am incapable of remembering them! Instead, I’ll tell you what it is I’m learning how to see. Because that’s just it: birding is a new form of seeing.

So…I’m the proud owner of binoculars (gift from a dear friend), 12 books about birds, and I’ve now been out three times. And yes, like all my hobbies, birding is on the geriatric end of the spectrum, and it’s just as well. Today, we ended up in Grimsby — searching for hawks — and after admiring a few from a far, I focused my binoculars on a group of birders staring at hawks and saw the most fabulous moustache I’ve seen in a while: thick, coiffed, gleaming white, almost crispy. How often do you get to stare at people shamelessly through binoculars and examine moustache follicles up close?

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Fireweed permalink
    March 29, 2010 12:19 pm

    Lovely! I’m listening to a chorus of red-winged blackbirds, their song drifting in through the open window, as I write this. They are down at the bond staking out the best nesting sites among the reeds. Two mallards arrived three days ago, who appear set to stay for the season, and are drifting along through the channels of open water that have opened up in the ice over the past week. The geese are circling and making a lot of noise, but I haven’t seen them land yet. And finally, finally, saw my first Robin two days ago. Birds make this an exciting time of year.

    Birding is definitely about a new, different way of seeing, but I for me it is also about a new way of hearing. I find myself even more impressed by the sound than the sight, and learning to distinguish which birds are making which sounds and why is fascinating to me. At this time of year the grouse do a strage drumming to attract a mate – my husband thought someone was trying to start up their tractor the first time he heard it! And the male flickers hammer their beaks on the metal roof of our shed (at dawn, thank you) for the same reason.

    I’m looking forward to hearing more of your discoveries.

    • March 29, 2010 2:59 pm

      Yay! My first comment! Thanks so much for reading. Speaking of geese, I accidentally mis-identified a flock of geese for a flock of cranes. Much to learn, you see. In many ways, it’s similar to learning a new language, but somehow more relaxing, since I don’t really have any expectations 🙂

  2. March 31, 2010 2:56 pm

    This is fantastic.

  3. April 8, 2010 2:49 pm

    You’ve got to love a bird so straightforwardly named. Just last week I ran into a couple here at Jericho Beach who stopped me to ask what “those black birds with the red wings” were. I’m not sure they believed my answer–how could anything be so simple in the world of b i r d i n g ?–but the delight in their eyes every time a male sang was far and away the best sighting of the morning.


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