Seasons of a Birder's Life

Mel White
for National Geographic News
October 23, 2002

On such small things—I often think in delight and fear—can the world change its course. A little boy is dragged to the symphony, and a single passage of joyful sound shapes a career in music. One rainy afternoon at her grandmother's house, a young girl picks up a book—chosen on a whim, perhaps, for the cover—and in the power of words a new writer is born. One day a man takes his car instead of the bus and misses meeting the love of his life.

Each fall, when the first really cool weather arrives, I'm unfailingly reminded of a day when my life changed. It's not a chilly wind that recalls the moment, though, or the smell of burning leaves, but a high, clear whistle from the bushes in the backyard.

I was introduced to birds by my mother in Arkansas, at some age that more or less coincides with the start of memory.

She was not what is considered these days a birder. She called juncos "snowbirds" and house sparrows "spatzies," though she could call them by their real names if she needed to. She liked the cardinals in the backyard, liked the robin's song, liked telling me that the bird that was making such a racket on the tin roof of our garage was a yellow-shafted flicker.

We went driving in the country on Sunday afternoons to look for some of the birds that were special to us: bluebirds, goldfinches, pileated and red-headed woodpeckers, and, most thrilling of all, painted buntings.

We would head West, to where the landscape started looking like Oklahoma, and it became our happy contest to see who could first call out "Scissortail!"—for in those days scissor-tailed flycatchers were still uncommon in our part of the world, and seemed nearly as exotic to us as toucans.

Happy "Birdbrain"

I had all kinds of bird books, and I'd read the stories and look at the pictures over and over again. I'd seen few of the birds illustrated in the field guide; the plates were like maps in an atlas of countries I could only imagine visiting. I had no idea, in fact, that most of the colorful warblers on those pages passed through the woods and fields near us twice a year.

But I dreamed. Some of my school friends knew of my obsession and sometimes called me "Birdbrain" in the playground-mocking way kids have. I didn't consider it an insult.

Somehow all this disappeared. Went away like the fever of measles. I'm not sure why, all these years later, but I have a couple of ideas.

The first was the slow realization that the girls attached to those bouncy ponytails were pretty fun after all. More important, though, I think, was the day a man came into the classroom and asked all those who wanted to be in the band to raise their hands. Music is a big world for a teenager to explore, and so is romance. And if your girlfriend is a majorette … Golly, gee.

Still, that non-bird period of my life seems very odd to me now. For a decade I was one of "them": One of those people who go through life not noticing the great blue heron in the pond, not noticing the wood thrush singing in the woods across the street, not even noticing the red-winged blackbirds on the telephone line.

Continued on Next Page >>


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