For the Birds Radio Program: Coin Collecting

Original Air Date: Dec. 14, 1989

What’s the difference between collecting coins and collecting bird names on a list? (3:46) Date verified.

Audio missing


(Recording of a Bald Eagle)

My little boy Joey is in second grade now, so this year he was eligible to join the Cub Scouts. One of the projects he had to do to earn his wolf badge was to start a collection, so he decided to save pennies. Ever since he discovered that he can get toys by giving store clerks money, he’s been fascinated by dollars and cents, so I guess it was a natural choice for him. I had a few old coins that I had squirreled away back when I worked my way through college as a bank teller, and we found lots of recent coins by going through the loose change in the house. Joey still has quite a ways to go before he fills up his coin folders, so his new hobby will be fun for a long time.

Many people have a need to collect—be it coins, stamps, unicorns, or “My Little Pony” toys. Perhaps one of the reasons we consider crows and ravens to be so intelligent is because they too collect and value otherwise useless items.

Watching Joey start his collection made me realize how much bird-watching is like collecting coins or baseball cards or stamps. The first one you get is guaranteed to be new, whether it’s a 1988-D or a starling. After that, finding the same kind of penny or bird isn’t so exciting, but chances are the next one will be another new one. The first twenty or thirty are easy to get, but each time you add a new one, it’s harder to find the next new one. To compensate, with each new bird you add, you become more competent at finding and identifying the next one. And as you add more, the ones you still need become all the more valuable and exciting. In the Northland in winter it gets tricky to amass a list of 20 or more—but that makes the 21st pretty valuable. Beginning a new list makes the first red-wing of spring more thrilling than it already is, and makes even pigeons and house sparrows exciting for a moment. Joey’s collection now is at about the level of a competent beginning birder—he has enough pennies that in a given roll of 50 he’s likely to get at least one he needs.

Pennies are finite and the record of their minting is completely documented. There were exactly 5 kinds made in 1909, 3 in 1943, and so on, through this year. If people manage to actually acquire every kind of Lincoln cent minted since 1909, they can still add 2 or 3 newly minted ones every year, but the magic is probably not the same as during the stage when they must search for, and finally find, all the rare ones. One advantage of birding is that there’s no definite number of species it’s possible to see. As soon as someone says there are exactly 702 species of birds in North America, someone else goes out and discovers a 703rd. Last Saturday a birder in Elgin City saw what was probably the first Cassin’s sparrow ever found in Minnesota. Even after a person has seen all the common birds of an area, there are the uncommon, and the rare, and the accidental species waiting to be discovered. And once you find all of those, there are year and state and county and backyard lists—it’s possible for a birder to keep acquiring new species for his or her collection throughout a lifetime.

(Recording of a Bald Eagle)

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