For the Birds Radio Program: Winter Olympics

Original Air Date: Feb. 26, 1988

How would birding skills measure up in the Winter Olympics?

Duration: 3′36″


Olympic Birds

(Recording of a Great Horned Owl)

Like just about everyone, I’ve been watching the Winter Olympics. They’re pretty interesting from a bird-watcher’s point of view, even though the Olympics will probably never include competitive birding–not even as a demonstration sport.

Like a high-tech bobsled, high-tech binoculars can improve performance, but in either case the competitor’s skill is critical. Some of the best birders in the world have seen all their birds through cheap binoculars, and I’ve seen a lot of people make incorrect identifications through high tech glasses which cost thousands of dollars.

Unlike a figure skater, you can’t judge a birder by his feathers. Birders usually wear either comfortable outdoor clothes like you find in the L.L.Bean catalog or jeans and sneakers. It’s possible to spot good birds in a $10,000 sequined costume, though that’s probably about as rare as a figure skater winning the gold in an outfit by L.L.Bean.

Birders are never tempted to indulge in blood-packing, steroids, or stimulants. On a strenuous Big Day–a day in May when teams of birders set out to see more species of birds than anyone else in a 24-hour period–coffee and high-caffeine pop are the drugs of choice. The only possibility for cheating is in calling a bird wrong–which happens mainly when an innocent but overly optimistic birder starts seeing non-existent field marks. When a rare Yellow-billed Loon was in Duluth this November, three experienced birders spotted a distant cormorant in the lake which looked for all the world like a Yellow-billed Loon, at least for three minutes. Fortunately, we caught our mistake, managed to locate the real thing, and, in our embarrassment, vowed never to breathe a word of our mistake ever to anyone in the universe.

Although no Olympic events center around birds, a lot of ABC’s sponsors use birds to sell their wares or improve their public image. MCI, being a telecommunications network, chose a wonderfully appropriate flock of carrier pigeons to coo outside a high rise window as some MBA-types milled about within their high-tech office. And Weyerhauser’s ad shows a white-tailed deer and her fawn–animals found in open country, not mature forests–gamboling about while a Mourning Warbler sings in the background.

(Recording of a Mourning Warbler)

A mourning warbler is a good choice for mascot of the timber industry, since these birds live in the kind of thick undergrowth you find a few years after a clear cut. It takes decades for species like the Blackburnian Warbler and Black- throated Green Warbler to return to an area after cutting, but the return of Mourning Warblers probably assuages the guilt of at least a few Weyerhauser executives.

Lee Iacocca uses a Great Horned Owl to hawk jeeps, which strikes an ironic note with me, because the way drivers careen through fields and beaches on their all-terrain vehicles on jeep commercials would never win the approval of real owls. The one noteworthy discovery I made watching that Chrysler commercial is that Lee Iacocca actually bears a remarkable resemblance to a Great Horned Owl.

(Recording of a Great Horned Owl)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”