For the Birds Radio Program: The Birding Spark

Original Air Date: Sept. 23, 1992 Rerun Dates: Feb. 25, 1998

What got Laura interested in birds in the first place?

(If this is the one I repeated on 1998-02-25, it should be 3:48)

Audio missing


(Recording of a Black-capped Chickadee) .

I spend a lot of my life answering questions about birds. One question that comes up over and over is how did I ever become so consumed by birds? The answer is as elusive as an Ivory-billed Woodpecker. The more avid birders I come to know, the more I believe that birders aren’t born or developed–they are sparked by an encounter with a magical bird. A mysterious force within that bird ignites a birder’s heart, mind, and soul forever.

In my own case, there were actually three birds that ignited the spark. When I was a little girl, my greatest treasure was the Golden Stamp Book of Birds. I lived in a suburb of Chicago, where I was used to cardinals, unidentified black birds, and those little sparrows you see at McDonalds, but those were the only birds I ever managed to find. Then my family spend a week at Lake Geneva. It was just as crowded with people as Chicago, but I knew it was really wilderness when one morning, swinging on the porch swing, I saw a flash of blue in the clear sky, and a Blue Jay alighted high in a tree across the road. The sight of this real bird, even more lovely than the one in the Golden Stamp Book, stayed in my mind’s eye ever after, but this was the closest encounter with a bird that I was to have for a long time.

Then, when I was in high school, I found a dead bird lying on the edge of State Street in the Chicago Loop. It looked so pitiful that I picked it up, wrapped it in a Kleenex, and threw it in a trash bin–I didn’t know what else to do with it, but I couldn’t bear the thought of anyone stepping on it. It was such a perfect little bird–olive brown on the cheeks, back, and tail, a snowy white throat, its breast covered with perfect round dots, a white circle around its eye, and an orange crown outlined with black stripes. I didn’t have the foggiest idea what it was, but the picture of that perfect bird haunted me. Then, when I was at Michigan State, my mother-in-law gave me binoculars and a field guide for Christmas. I turned the pages, and suddenly, right before my eyes, was the very bird I had thought was dead forever. An Ovenbird. I finally had a name for it, and a revelation. It was possible to see an ovenbird alive.

I studied the field guide, and Joseph Hickey’s “Guide to Bird Watching,” all through the winter, and on March 2, 1975, I set out to become a bird watcher. I searched through Baker Woodlot for my first bird. I knew it wouldn’t be an ovenbird– the field guide said they wouldn’t be back until May. But I hoped I’d find something. And after a few hours I finally did. It was a friendly little sprite that hopped around my head while I desperately thumbed through the book, starting at page 1, Common Loon, and ripping past the ducks and hawks and shorebirds and gulls and pigeons and woodpeckers and flycatchers and jays and crows all the way to–my bird. There it was, except there were two birds on the page that looked the exact same. Being in southern Michigan, I couldn’t tell from the range map which would be most likely. So I listened hard, memorizing the call notes of this cooperative and cheerful little guy, and then rushed to the university library. I played a bird song recording and suddenly, there it was. I listened in rapture to the call of the first bird on my life list–a Black-capped Chickadee.

(Recording of a Black-capped Chickadee)

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