Bird Whisperer: Reflections on the Magnificent Otherness of Avian Beings



Tom McGuire


 
© Copyright 2020 by Tom McGuire



Photo of Lazuli Bunting.

This story grew out of a day camping on the river several years ago with friends, who noticed my bird-obsessed behavior over the course of several days, but desired a deeper explanation and a more nuanced context for my extreme love and passion for Mother Earth's most fascinating creations.

One day, camping on the South Fork Yuba River, I'm roused at dawn by a flurry of bird activity - a phenomenon not wholly unexpected of a mid-summer quiet morn on the Be-Yuba-Ful!
Great Blue Heron gracefully soaring high above. Steller's Jay perched leerily on a rock seeking crumbs from the previous night's meal. Merry family of Mergansers bobbing along in the mellow current. John Muir's favorite bird, the Water Ouzel, foraging in a burbling rapid in her inimitable style. Plaintive trill notes pitching off a rock wall of another favorite, the Canyon Wren. Flock of noisy Goldfinches competing with chipping Chickadees for dominance in a cluster of willows. Or maybe they're just playing.

Meanwhile, a trout breaks limpid water's surface to snag swarming gnats; bold-colored dragonflies patrol the canyon like miniature Sikorskys; and - sightings of sightings! - a mink appears on the opposite bank, foraging for crawdads in the sand. The beautiful and amazing wild animal gives me a once-over from afar, a curious nonchalant glance before scampering away to the safety of a hidden rock den.

The pristine dawning of a new day. An hour passes before breakfast even crosses my mind. The fascinating flurry of sightings sets the tone for an all-day birding and wildlife viewing marathon. My binoculars go everywhere with me, so attached am I to them - or they to me - it's a veritable Borg-like integration of biology and technology, my cold, hard binoculars an extension of my warm soft being.

From the moment I arise in the chill dawn on the sandy banks of the river, to the moment I crash under a starry firmament in my sleeping bag, from morning noon to dusk, my trusty 8.5 x 45 Endeavor EDs are my constant companion, accompanying me up and down the rocky river bank, to and fro on ridge top hikes, even while just sitting around the sandy campsite, always, and forever, on the lookout for . . .

Birds in action!

Birds bein' birds!

My camping mates are intrigued. Not being birders, they grapple to understand the compelling nature of "bird watching," an activity which (to them) must appear to be little more than endless moments of standing around craning one's neck, peering up into trees, scanning environs, or reconnoitering water's edge.

As the sun begins to warm things up that morning to an eventual 108 degree day, I carry on in full rhapsody mode explaining to my friends my intense scrutiny and illimitable devotion. What, after all, drives this obsession (passionate hobby), this peculiar yearning to plumb mysteries and secrets, to want to know and understand birds, their every behavioral nuance and individualized quirks.

When pressed for more specific information about my relationship to, interest in, and knowledge of birds, a barrage of thoughts, impressions, and opinions spill out.

Well, my friends, they asked for it, didn't they? But first, I want them to know:

I'm no expert in avian biology and behavior.

I'm terrible at identification, except maybe for the usual suspects, but even they can have a befuddling optics about them more often than not.

I'm completely remiss in hapless efforts to identify distinct vocalizations, even those of the usual suspects, who might have multiple sonorous expressions and variable tweeting songs, cries, screeches, and croaks based on different communication needs.

During my impassioned spiel, it dawns on me that everything I know (moreso, what I don't know) is informed (or muddled) through daily observation, honed by an intuitive sensibility born of sheer curiosity about nature's infinite variety of animate phenomena, and characterized, mystically so, by an ineffable spiritual connection to birds.

(My wife, Ms. Corbin, is of the Raven Tribe.)

Thus, my love of birds is less a scholarly pursuit or focus of academic inquiry than it is a curiosity-driven passion, a naturalist-oriented approach, a poetic narrative, a sense and appreciation of birds' magnificent otherness.

Birds are arguably the planet's most highly evolved life form - quite a claim! - endowed with super / natural physical prowess and herculean stamina, and armed (winged) with ingenious survival strategies to ensure genetic propagation of individual species and their collective avian kingdom, for over a quarter of a billion years.

Birds are the planet's most hardy, widely dispersed and adaptable life form . . . but also among the most endangered and vulnerable of living beings. Despite their numbers, ten billion or more in total, they teeter on the brink of quick extinction and annihilation at the hands of the planet's other hardy, widely dispersed and adaptable life form . . . ecce Homo.

Because birds are masters of evolutionary adaptation and variation, they've been able to exploit resources and occupy niches other animals can't. Through age-old evolutionary selection processes and deeply imprinted memories of migration / homing patterns, birds reliably take up residence and frequently visit the planet's propitious and not so propitious environs, roving thousand plus mile journeys to make their temporary or permanent home any and everywhere they can find food and a mate, build a nest, and lay, hatch eggs, and nurture their brood to fledglinghood.

Birds are nonesuch creatures endowed with infinite variation and expression, capable of accomplishing seemingly impossible aerial feats of navigation, of hunting prowess, and, with their astounding size to power ratio, birds are blessed with superior technical construction acumen, such as a 6 ounce bird being able to build a stronger and more durable nest than a 200 pound man. (Saw this on a Nova special!)

Birds are - surprise! surprise! - living descendants of dinosaurs, who, of course, never went extinct, but figured out a way to transform and take to the skies to survive. This extraordinary evolutionary heritage of taxonomic complexity and species biodiversity, guided by tremendous stamina and cellular memory, unmatched survival strategies, and internal GPS systems that put human technology to shame, has propelled birds to global dominance.

Featuring prominently in human culture and art since the Stone Age, birds reside in our collective subconscious as auspicious and mythopoeic beings, as iconic symbols of freedom and independence, and tantalize us with their mysterious ways, elusive existence, and unfettered freedom.

Birds stand apart as ancient beings, here to teach us earthbound humans a thing or two about the wondrous nature of existence, the existence of nature's wonders. About their magnificent otherness.

(Here, I break rhythm to point up to a bough in a gnarled Oak tree on the other side of the river for a fleeting glimpse of a Western Tanager. Seconds later, I shout excitedly, "Look! A Goshawk alighting on a jagged tree snag!" And, then, unbelievable, a Belted Kingfisher whooshes downstream and disappears around a bend in the river.)

My camping mates seem genuinely excited over the sightings. (But they were all snoozing when I spotted the mink at dawn!)

So, see, you don't have to be a die-hard birder to be into birds, for birds are found everywhere, in case you haven't noticed. Which, sadly, most haven't.

With the exception of town square Pigeons, unruly mobs of neighborhood Crows, or gansta Geese on the green, non-birder people pass the test with flying colors - ignoring birds, that is, because . . . well, they're just flighty little balls of fluff, aren't they. Barely noticeable blurs of fat and feathers in their quotidian comings and goings (doing what, exactly?). Mere tiny animations in the busy backdrop of life, right.

Wrong.

Hans Christian Andersen, who knew a thing or three about birds, noted, "The whole world is a series of miracles, but we’re so used to seeing them that we call them ordinary things."

Thank goodness, we have Confucius to thank for the handy apothegm, "A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace."

On a bright note, have you ever felt happy and content in a woodsy setting, or on your porch, with the birds chirping away, coming and going at your feeder?

Well - surprise! surprise! - birdsong changes our brains by attuning us to the innumerable but oft-overlooked mysteries around us - nature's nuanced reminders of our inter-connectedness with all things!

Just being in the presence of birds, listening to their meditative melodies, has been scientifically measured to induce harmony and well-being, uplift the psyche and elevate the human spirit by stimulating neural networks that flush the brain with happiness endorphins and activating birdsong tryptamine receptors. Really!

Being a devoted observer of the comings and goings of anywhere from ten to fifty species of birds (I spot thirty-three during our three-day camping interlude) involves a stubborn willingness, a mindless (or mindful) transcendent state of being (or non-doing), to stand by idly, waiting, waiting, for interminably long stretches of time . . .and for what?

To "thrill" at another mundane sighting of a "drab" old Towhee or Bushtit?

But look, listen, observe closely, and long enough, even the drab old Towhee and Bushtit are anything but. Jon Young, author of What the Robin Knows, says of so-called "boring" birds: "When we really see and hear and begin to understand these and other birds, the revelations are fun, enthralling, even vital."

A curious child-like attitude thus infuses every outing, every errand, with a spontaneous opportunity to spot and appreciate birds, to have fun, enthrall, seek out and connect with vital energies, enhancing a deep brain connection to and soulful intimacy with birds - and to the natural world. Thoreau grokked the low-down: "Nature will bear the closest inspection. She invites us to lay our eye level with her smallest leaf, and take an insect view of its plain."

And, while we're at it, Hank, a bird's-eye view!

Ultimately, though, what keeps the game exciting, is the hope to experience that serendipitous encounter, the holy grail of birders: the unlikely appearance of a never before spotted bird. Such synchronicity does happen, if but rarely.

Imagine the surprise of being in the right place at the right time and a rarely sighted bird appears, in living color, manifest for a few fleeting seconds!

When such a bird appears out of nowhere, your day is automatically brightened and enriched in a way that scrolling through images of nature and birds on a computer screen can never equal. Even seeing a so-called common bird occasions a smile, a knowing understanding, a heartfelt sentiment, an interesting insight, a neural attuning to nature's deepest secrets and mysteries, in fact.

Dare I profess that spotting a Prothonotary Warbler or some  exotic Madagascar bird is the gratifying equivalent of bearing witness to any unseen or unknown animal, whether a Snow Leopard, Orca, Dugong, Sun Bear, Sloth, or Clownfish. Size or species doesn't matter; provenance be damned; charismatic megafauna, overrated.

For who could not thrill equally at a Prothonotary Warbler - perhaps a once in a lifetime sighting tantamount to seeing for the first time a tiger salamander or polar bear? For the common denominator is the comparative rarity of the encounter, the thrill one experiences in seeing a singular animal for the first time, not which kind of animal, or how big it was, or if you had to climb Himalayan heights to see it.

Such sightings - whether avian, amphibian, reptile or mammal (or tree, plant, lichen, moss, fungi, and rock, for that matter) - no matter large or small, finned, feathered or furred (or barked, slimy and shiny surfaced) - all are worthy of wonderment and apotheosis from the tiniest bird in your backyard to the biggest cetacean (or tree) in the world!

My camping mates (still enthralled) are not sold. Well, I guess you have to be a biased and impassioned birder to ascribe to such a (hyperbolic) sentiment . . .

Keep in mind, such profound revelations are not strictly reserved for once in a lifetime sightings of rarely seen birds, for even a pair of Banded-tailed Pigeons roosting on a high tree branch down the street (previously a woodlands sighting only), or the random urban appearance of a White Dove, or a Brown Creeper feeding her very tiny little ones, hidden deep in the barky crevasse of a Redwood in a local park, will do to augment the day's magic and pageantry.

But when news of a particularly striking wayward bird gets around, people freak! They will flock from hundreds or thousands of miles away on the drop of a dime to travel to the ends of earth, for the off-chance of spotting the bird. This reeks of fanaticism (and elitism) (and passion) - and for what?

Bragging rights, mainly, but deep down, we birders know it's the thrill of the "chase" (right word?), the hope of "bagging" (wrong word?) that rare bird to check it off your Life List. But it also goes back to my earlier point of partaking in a special visual encounter / spiritual communion, with a singular, heretofore unseen creature of the earth.

Birds fit the bill. (Even the butt-ugly Buzzard.)

All this standing around and waiting about in silent zen moments of patient nature gazing is, or should be, prime time for inward reflection and focus on the minutiae of nature's hidden (but in plain sight), and little (but oh so grand) miracles. The sacred and sublime imbuing your world, an ephemeral moment of "contact" in an intimate connection with a sentient being. (Even though you know the bird is completely absent of such feelings or "connections" but that doesn't matter one bit.)

But, ah, to espy a little Titmouse or Hummingbird, only to see him flit away, gone forever, renders that tiny insignificant event no less sacred in the scheme of things, all things being sacred.

Of course, birding is an activity best done as a solitary pursuit (or with other birders), because such a dilatory hobby tends to put you at risk of being left behind by hiking partners not so into birding. And for what? A fleeting glimpse of a bird you've seen a zillion times, that's what! But so what!

Because, in truth, any glimpse of any bird, no matter how fleeting, or mundane, or repetitious, or common, is a precious thing - there may come a day when birds no longer exist, driven to extinction by humanity's careless stupidity and greed. And then what? Well, we won't be around either, in that case.

Birding, I let my friends know, is not just something you'll find me doing when out and about in nature, here on the Yuba.

I'm equally content (and passionate) looking for birds just standing on my porch or hanging out in my overgrown backyard, as I am hiking the High Sierra, patrolling birding hot spots at Point Reyes National Seashore, or lolly-gagging in bird-rich Mount Diablo State Park.

David Lindo, author of Tales From Concrete Jungles, effuses, "There is not a day when I don't marvel at the nature that surrounds me in my urban environment . . . when you start to see the urban world as a habitat with cliffs, woodland, marshes, lakes, rivers and scrubland, that is when you start to see birds."

Because birds, by their very nature, force us to closely inspect our most intimate surroundings, they are a conduit to connect us to, and bridge the gap, of earth and sky and spaces between.

Among their dazzling talents, have you ever noticed their superb eye-claw coordination, how they're able to fly into a bush at top speed and manage to expertly dull their momentum and clasp onto a branch without missing a beat. Ever see a bird stumble?

Birds are masterful aviation and navigation control experts. Except, of course, when they fly headlong and unsuspecting into ill-designed wind turbine blades or invitingly reflective skyscraper windows or sucked into jet engines. They're no match for outsized bird-dangerous human technology.

The art of birding can be a frustrating activity, if you let it, if the pursuit of knowledge and identity certification is your chief goal. Because more often than not,  you're left with the feeling of being denied, blanked, shut out of such-and-such a bird's microcosmic existence in some dense shrubbery or in a high cluster of boughs, or foraging out on distant mudflats, never to know what bird it was, where it disappeared to, what its intent was, or its thought (instinct) process.

Because more often than not, you're left standing there to be content only to hear a plaintive cry, a longing twill, a beautiful song of presence, or a screech announcing something of great import - but what? - for a breeding partner, a territorial challenge, or merely to sing a song for sheer joy, as the case may be.

So, any burning, yearning desire to know something of what makes birds tick, requires some serious lucubration poring over academic tomes and reference guides. I prefer to follow Walt Whitman's advice: "You must not know too much or be too precise or scientific about birds and trees and flowers and watercraft; a certain free-margin , or even vagueness - ignorance, credulity - helps your enjoyment of these things."

Amen, Walt.

Eric Berne, a Canadian psychiatrist, echoed Whitman's sentiment: “The moment a little boy is concerned with which is a jay and which is a sparrow, he can no longer see the birds or hear them sing."

In the process serving up a zen lesson urging us in metaphoric language to become more present / more in the moment to fully take in one's surroundings without mental distractions and over-analytic thinking and perceptions about nature.

In other words, slow down, stop, even, and don't just see, but look; don't just hear, but listen. Even put down your binoculars and set aside the viewing scopes. No pens, smart phones with instant bird app knowledge at your fingertips. Just you and the birds, alone, on equal footing.

Because birds are an enduring mystery, we may never know everything about them, try as we might to plumb the scientific depths of their tweeting presence. And knowing too much, as Walt cautioned, would probably suck the mystery out of our love affair with birds.

Lindo exhorts us to "Go ahead and fall in love. The birds will love you back unconditionally and will continue to fascinate you until you draw your last breath."

Extraordinary Ordinary Birds:

Our fellow inhabitants on our one and only Earth! Let us embrace birds, respect them, admire them . . . not murder endangered ones for selfish pursuits of the palate, or kill them with negligent and unthinking uses of horrific poisons, or allow uncontrolled feral and pet feline menaces to stalk and brutalize and maim them.

Why do I love birds and their magnificent otherness? By now, I've come to realize a lengthy essay is unnecessary, giving way to a few choice words:

Birds: Who know no bounds.

Birds: Who are confined by nothing.

Birds: Who trespass without obstacle or concern.

Birds: Who go where they damn well please.

Birds: Who rule the roost!

Long Live Birds!


I am recently retired from a long career at U.C. Berkeley where I served as Program Director of certificate programs in the Extension Department. Since my retirement, my wife and I have been traveling around the country visiting national parks and many old friends we hadn’t see in years.

I am a writer with several non-fiction publications to my credit, and amateur photographer, with voluminous content on Facebook and Instagram. I also publish several blogs, including my top three: a hiking blog going back fifteen years (@ gambolinman.blogspot.com); a birding blog begun eight years ago (@ berkeleybackyardbirdblog.blogspot.com); and a blog begun this year on inventive word games and puzzles of my own creation (@ brainwrack.blogspot.com).

Currently, as our road trip has temporarily ground to a halt, my wife and I are living in Santa Fe, New Mexico where we are both working on writing short stories.




Contact Tom


(Unless you type the author's name
in the subject line of the message
we won't know where to send it.)

Another story by Tom

Book Case

Home Page

The Preservation Foundation, Inc., A Nonprofit Book Publisher