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.

On one level I feel like an amnesiac who spends five years selling irrigation equipment in Bakersfield, unaware that a grieving wife and two children and a career as a gourmet chef are waiting back in New Orleans, until one day the office manager sees a newspaper story and says, "Hey, Duane, you look just like this missing person." And—bingo, oh, yeah, that's who I am.

My day came when I was 20, in college, but back at my parents' house on a gray winter morning. Nobody else was home, and I was sitting on a stool by the patio doors, talking on the phone. I looked outside, and there on the concrete, eating the seeds my mother had scattered, was a little brown bird with black-and-white stripes on its head.

A Reawakening

As painful as it is to write, I must admit that at this stage of my life I considered myself an intellectual. By this I mean a rational person, ruled by logic, knowledge, and empirical inquiry. I mistrusted emotion and sentiment. So I can't concoct some story here of how I was enthralled by this creature's loveliness—let's face it, little brown birds aren't going to win any beauty contests.

I realized that at one time in my life I would have known which bird this one was, and I didn't anymore, and I didn't like it. I knew it was a sparrow, of course, but exactly what kind I couldn't remember. I was quantitatively less smart than I used to be in this subject, and that just wouldn't do.

I went to the bookcase and poked around until I found a bird book. It was my mother's copy of Roger Tory Peterson's A Field Guide to the Birds, second edition, copyright 1947, the same one that had been in the car with us on so many Sunday afternoon drives. I flipped through the pages to Plate 58. Okay, sure: White-throated sparrows have white throats and white-crowned sparrows don't. That makes sense. This was a white-throated.

I flipped through more plates and saw birds I knew. There were the bay ducks lined up neatly in black and gray. There were the commoner owls (common? I'd never seen an owl) and the thrushes and the wrens. There was Plate 54, most colorful of all, with the scarlet tanager showing an incised outline where, so many years before, I'd traced around it to practice drawing. I'd never seen a scarlet tanager, either, but there was proof that once I'd dreamed.

I looked out into the backyard. I had nothing in particular to do. I wondered how many other birds I could identify, just there through the window.

A blue jay, of course, English sparrow, cardinal, starling, robin, grackle, yes. And a couple that I must have had to look up: brown thrasher and junco. And what's that? Frantically looking through the field guide—a cedar waxwing!

My goodness, now they had my attention. That made ten. I decided I'd better start a list.

Thrill of Addiciton

A list. Do I even need to finish the story? It's not a pleasant analogy, but looking back now, I can't help imagining a drug addict who's been clean for years, slipping up just once, and in the space of an hour the deed is done.

Mockingbird was next on the list, and then mourning dove and meadowlark. Soon I started driving to the lake north of town, where I found coot and killdeer, and to my uncle's farm to find rufous-sided towhee and field sparrow.

My girlfriend was tolerant of being dragged along on these chilly expeditions, and my mother was amused and a little mystified by this sudden addiction, or re-addiction. Her bird-crazy little boy was back.

At the end of a month I had 31 species on my list—a bird a day.

That seems ridiculous now, when any birder can go out and see dozens of species in a single day. But I had no idea how to look for birds; I must have blundered around in a daze. (More important, I didn't know songs and calls.)

I'm glad I got started the way I did. I found every one of those birds myself and looked them up, and I can still remember the exact moment for many of them. If an experienced birder had shown me a hundred birds in a day, my list would be a blur of names—only names, not memories.

Addicted I may have become, but, unlike drugs, birds have enhanced my life in ways that I couldn't have imagined at 20.

There's a long list of wonderful places I might never have gone but for birds, from Big Bend and Belize to Spain and South Africa. There are friends I'd never have met, diverse personalities whose one commonality is birds, some of whom I've known for nearly 30 years now.

And it was through the doorway of birds that I entered the whole infinitely varied and fantastic world of nature. You can't be interested in birds without learning about habitats, about why this species is here and that species is there, and soon the interconnections draw you in, the way a beautiful garden tempts you to follow this path and that—though this garden is as big as the planet.

Song of a Meadowlark

It's because of birds that I know the difference between a sugar maple and a red maple, a diamondback water snake and a cottonmouth, an American lady and a painted lady.

It's because of birds that I want to know the difference. It's because of birds that I'm so very rich now, in experiences and possibilities. It's because of birds that I know who I am.

One April afternoon last year when my mother was very sick, I was walking in a park. My sister called and told me to come to her house quickly. It took me 45 minutes.

When I walked into the bedroom where my mother lay, her eyes were almost closed and her breathing was heavy and slow. My sister's eyes were shining and red and my brother-in-law looked terribly sad. My mother had stopped breathing completely about ten minutes earlier, they said, and they'd thought she was gone, but she had started again just before I arrived. I kissed her on the forehead and held her hand, and soon she really was gone.

My brother-in-law put his arm around me. "She just came back to say good-bye to you," he said.

I walked outside, and from the field across the road a meadowlark sang. As I stood there on my sister's porch, the first scissor-tailed flycatcher of the spring flew over.

On a cool day in fall, the whistle of a white-throated sparrow reminds me of a kind of rebirth, of a small thing that changed my life.

Right here on my desk is that 1947 Peterson field guide, the one that traveled in the car with us, the one in which I looked up that little brown sparrow. The book's spine is missing, its covers are held together with tape, its corners are bent and worn. On the endpapers—Peterson's black-and-white roadside silhouettes—are my name and the address of the house where I grew up, in my mother's handwriting.

Somewhere along the way, she passed her book on to me—her book, and a whole universe.

Mel White is a freelance writer specializing in travel and nature.

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