For the Birds Radio Program: Hot Peppers, Part I

Original Air Date: March 21, 2002

That spicy yellow marking by a Black-throated Gray Warbler’s eye makes Laura remember a literally spicy encounter with one.

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When birders go to new places to see birds, they’re also experiencing new foods and new people. When I’m birding in south Texas, I enjoy the hot, spicy food. I used to eat a lot of spicy food when I was going to college, and living in Madison, Wisconsin, but northern Minnesotan tastes run to milder fare. When I was on a birding tour in Texas several years ago, we stopped at a McDonald’s to pick up lunches to take to a little park for a picnic. Now fast food franchises would seem to be one thing that would not be different from one area to another, but one of the cool things about McDonald’s restaurants in south Texas is that on the condiment table next to the ketchup and napkins, they usually have a huge jar of jalapeno peppers, with French fry bags to put them in. This is a novelty, and I do love peppers, so I put some peppers in a bag along with my lunch and headed for the park.

We got situated at a shaded picnic table and were talking about the morning’s good finds when we heard shouting from a distance. I could barely make out the words, “Black-throated Gray Warbler!” At that precise moment my mouth was open as I was about to take a small sample bite out of the first pepper. I’d already learned that you have to be a little careful about Texas food, because it’s much hotter than anything I’d experienced in the Midwest. But a Black-throated Gray Warbler is not something you see every day. As I grabbed my binoculars and took off, I unthinkingly popped the entire pepper in my mouth.

After three or four steps I stopped dead in my tracks, my eyes literally spurting water onto the inside of my eyeglass lenses. I’d never tasted anything nearly this hot before in my life, and couldn’t even wash it away since I’d left my drink on the picnic table. My mouth and throat were in pain and my eyes kept gushing water, but being a birder at a certain level of fanaticism, it never occurred to me to head back to the picnic table and at least get a drink. I headed for the warbler which I saw through badly blurred eyes, but I was happy to have it on my Texas list and to have survived my initiation into Texas peppers. But I’ve never been able to look at a Black-throated Gray Warbler, with its distinctive and spicy yellow marking by its eye, without remembering.

¬Tomorrow I’ll tell you about another too-close encounter between a birder in Texas and a pepper.