I always have a reality show going on right outside my writing-room window, and these days I’m watching my soaps. It’s fun all year, but now it’s spring, when the new season gets underway, and they’re pulling out all the stops. Things are getting tense. The music swells. So do the testes. There’s pathos, and there’s romance, and there’s aggression.
The Windowsons are back. Or possibly the Windowsons’ grandchildren. I have no idea. The Windowsons and their kin have been nesting in the chickadee house one foot outside my window for six springs now. That gives me an exceptionally intimate view of them, and yet in all that time I have not been able to detect a jot of difference between them. As far as I’m concerned, if you’ve seen one Windowson, you’ve got a good idea what all the rest of them look like.
There are people who would know. My friend Julie Zickefoose would be able to rattle off their lineage down to the third-cousin level. She would be able to do this because she will have already noted a familial tendency to shrug the left shoulder upon perching, and further narrow it down to an individual because of a cowlicked nape feather or the quirk of an eyebrow. Even though chickadees do not have eyebrows, which is one reason I so relate to them.
But I am not Julie. I do not have her observational mojo. In fact, if you show up at my door and ask for donations for the soup kitchen, I will write you a check, and if you show up five minutes later with your hat turned backwards for the Sierra Club, I will write you another check, and never suspect a thing.
Nevertheless, even though I am a shitty birder, I have enjoyed many an hour doing nothing but observing birds. Whilst simultaneously not writing. That’s right: I can do both at once. And this time of year is the absolute best time to watch birds. Everyone’s strutting a shiny new suit and everyone has an agenda. And they do not suffer from my brand of confusion. Finches are busy pairing off with finches, and pine siskins are pairing off with pine siskins, even the ones I think might be finches. Meanwhile, they’re establishing boundaries. The Windowsons are particularly proprietary, because they claimed the birdhouse. They have lots to say beyond “chickadee-dee-dee.” They have voices they use only with each other. One of them will be inside the house working on putting the mattress together. The other will perch just outside and emit enough noise to be heard only by his or her mate (who the hell knows which it is) and one procrastinating writer. He or she will be all “how’s it coming in there?” and “if you wanted to fetch me a grub, I’d eat it” and generally just keeping the connection going.
But then someone else will show up. There’s a suet feeder a couple yards away. The itty bitty bushtits like it. But no sooner does a tit show up on the suet than one of the chickadees, easily twice its size, bombs in scolding like mad and knocks it off. BOOM. And another shows up, and BOOM. BOOM. BOOM. Then a big-ass flicker lands on the suet, and the chickadee is right on it, BOOM. And the flicker, completely taken by surprise, falls off the suet and perches on a nearby branch to think about things. The chickadee, meanwhile, even more surprised, snaps onto a distant branch and is suddenly uncharacteristically quiet. Holy shit, the chickadee is thinking. I totally didn’t mean to do that. Holy shit. Dude is huge. And the flicker shakes it off and goes back on the suet, and the chickadee doesn’t say a word. Not until the flicker falls bloated off the suet, and then the chickadee makes some parting shot about its mama and shoots into the birdhouse.
And I observe it all. So it cannot be said that I’m unobservant. It can be said that I don’t know one species from another, beyond the basic backyard set. And even those I’m a little foggy on, especially if they do not arrange themselves in the same position as the birds in the field guide. Could you turn and face the right? It’s like I’m running the line-up down at the police station.
In spite of my limitations, I am once again going to humble myself by getting in a van with a bunch of real birders and hold down the stupid end of the back seat. These are people who can reliably assign a dot in the sky to a species before I have ruled out “eyeball floater.” They can pull one single thread out of a blanket of birdsong and drop it right into the correct slot on the check-off list.
I can’t find the splinter in my underpants even though I know exactly where it must be.
Songs, hell. They also speak Chirp. “Hear that? Savannah sparrow,” they say, pointing into the grass.
“You mean that chit, chit?” I say.
They frown. “More like tsip, tsip,” they say, helpfully.
How can real birders do this? A number of reasons. They’ve put a lot of time in. They have made a study of it. And, most important, they’re complete freaks.
Well, I’m not afraid of getting in a van with freaks. I used to do that in the old days all the time, when the van was guaranteed to break down and nobody had any money or a phone and all we’d brought was some pot and a bag of Oreos. It worked out.
So as you may have surmised (speaking of writing checks for random people at the door), it’s the annual Birdathon fundraiser. The twelve of us are going to try to make a little money for Audubon. Audubon does many wonderful things like conservation and advocating for wildlife but my personal favorite is outreach and education for kids. Audubon Society is in the business of teaching kids to give a shit. Eventually that produces voting adults who give a shit. Giving a shit is good. If you do, I’d be plenty honored if you wanted to sponsor me. It’ll get you a Portland Audubon membership, too.
To chip in, click here to see my Birdathon 2015 page.
Pecking order is very, very real. And seems to not have a great deal to do with size. Or justice. An aggressive little feathered enchantment can see off a larger bird who was there first.
Are you going to let foreigners donate to your Birdathon page this year? Giving a shit is a world-wide phenomena. Or should be.
I'd love to hit up furriners! I don't know how it works, though. Maybe I should ask the Audubon folks. They run the page.
Please do. There is only an Amurrican option.
Oh, Murr… this made me laugh so much! Thank you for that. I, too, have problems identifying people I have just seen, if I see them out of context. For instance, I ran into our regular bartender (We always eat at the bar when we dine out.) who I have seen and joked around with on multiple occasions. But I ran into him the very next day in a supermarket, when he was in civilian clothes, a baseball cap, and lugging along a toddler. I did not know who he was, only that he looked familiar. He was quite crestfallen, but hey… he was out of context. I would make the worst witness to a crime in the annals of criminal law.
I've also noticed that when I'm introduced to someone, I apparently am not listening to the name at all. Three seconds later I'm asking what it is all over again. I'm really bad.
Wonderfully funny, as usual! Especially the chickadee's thoughts after running off the flicker.
The birds here, from returning robins to resident owls, had a hard spring. The owls were starving from a winter of not being able to get at the mice, who were merrily running around under three feet of snow and ice. The robins came home to find the same snow and ice completely covering the grass – unusual for this time of year. It's quite sobering to hear that nature has failed its critters so spectacularly. And by nature, I mean people, because it's the warming of the ocean that caused so much snow to get dumped on our province this year, and it's forecast to be like this in winter from here on out, too. The wildlife rehab people took in starving owls, and we did what we could for the robins (grated apple each afternoon; apparently they like their dessert at the end of a hard day's work) and it was heartwarming to see them enjoy it to the last drop.
And by nature, you mean people. We're sort of outside of nature, aren't we? We're like something nature urped up on a bad night and now there's just no cleaning us up.
You take very nice birdie mugshots.
"Head to the right…now to the left…"
I'll donate, but only if you fix the typo in "the chickadee mades some parting shot about its mama". (Sorry. I used to proofread for a living. 🙂 )
That is so funny! I was just sitting around working on a new essay and Dave came up and said "you have a typo in your new piece." And I said "what?" and he said "a typo. That means you mistyped something." And I said "what?" and we went around for a while. Usually my friend sculptor1 finds my typos and lets me know but she must have missed this one. Anyway Dave found it. And I trotted right over and corrected it. And then read your comment. I'm always happy to get my corrections. Even twice!
And even happier to have generous sponsors! Thank you.
Let's see now.
Feathered wings: check.
Tail feathers: check.
Yep, it's a bird!!
I'm, like, three weeks further along in my bird ID development than you are. I think I don't have the brain for it. It would be like expecting me to be a shortstop.
Growing up with birders for parents, this resonated. I particularly liked "before I have ruled out "eyeball floater"." But the part that really got me in the feels, as the young 'uns say these days, was the bird song identifiers. Dad was one of those, plus he could mimic them beautifully, even that crow throat chortle thing. I miss my old dear sitting on my deck telling me who is singing what at me.
That bird mimicking thing is a relic now. There are birders who still mimic birds to draw them out, and many more who "pish" to mimic the chatter calls, but almost everyone now uses an iPod or the like if they want to "cheat." It's a dying art. Birders, correct me if I'm wrong. (Actually, that goes for everybody!)
Gorgeous photos and my flickers rarely come to a suet feeder. They just spend time poking holes in the ground. One does not have to be a bird expert to enjoy them.
No. We have a ton of flickers around here. And they do not poke holes in the ground. They poke them in our house. Nevertheless, I love them. They have dots. Lots of dots! What could be better than dots? I cannot think of a dottier bird, but I'm hoping someone else can, and will tell me.
Fortunately my vision is still good. I can't hear much above an alto in the bird world. It's so hard to get good bird pics as the little buggers never hold still, let alone strike an interesting pose.
They don't. I get most of my best pics outside my writing room window. They're real close and they kind of stay put. But I still fire off like fifty photos to get two or three winners.
Hope you raise lots of money. Love your post. I too am involved in looking at as many birds as I can find. Today it was 67 species. This weekend, we should be able to match that AND get fabulous pictures at the blinds of South Llano State Park, Texas. But when I had a house, I loved to snoop on the lives of the yard birds and the eastern phoebe love to spy on me.
My sister Margaret used to LOVE her phoebes. I'm thinking they must be fun to watch for some reason, because they look sort of plain to me. We don't have any.
Egad you have zippy looking flickers. Thanks for the shout out. I enjoy being a complete freak. Today's list for a four hour run/amble=ramble hit 64 species in southeast Ohio. Yep, picking the threads of tsip out of the tapestry of BLA BLA BLA BLA BLA, every single bird shouting to the heavens that spring is here! I. Love. It. Good luck on the 'thon darlin!
I won't soon forget you trying to get me to hear some warbler in the tapestry–all avid, jabbing a finger at some remote point in the brush, saying "THERE…[jab]…THERE…[jab]…THERE…" and I'm all "whuh? Whuh? Whuh?"