For the Birds Radio Program: Birdwatching (and Ogden Nash)
Modified from July 30, 1986.
Summer is the time when many birds are hard to find in the Northland. Territories are well-established, so male birds do far less singing than in spring. Most adult birds are busy caring for their young and trying to keep their babies as inconspicuous as possible so they’ll be safe from predators.
But, although summer is quiet, it’s still a good time to start keeping a life list–a list of all the birds you’ve ever seen. If you start from scratch and are reasonably observant, you can easily list twenty or more birds in your own backyard–even through your window.
By any reckoning, the Northland has a lot of birds. Both Minnesota and Wisconsin have state lists of more than 400, and 344 species have been recorded in St. Louis County alone by the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union–a single birder alone has listed 311. It’s not all that hard to see 200 species around here in a single year, if you’re skilled at identification. And even a complete beginner can compile a list of 50 in a summer. I counted 62 species on my 25-mile Breeding Bird Survey route just north of Two Harbors one morning a couple of weeks ago.
The two things you need are a field guide and binoculars. Bookstores all carry the Golden Guide to Field Identification and Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds. Either is a fine choice to start with—I think the Golden guide is a better buy, though. Not only is it cheaper, but it also covers the whole continent north of Mexico— Peterson’s only covers the U.S. east of the Rockies. The golden guide also has the maps of each bird on the same page with the description and picture. You’ve got to go all the way to the back of Peterson’s book to see the map to find out whether a given bird is even possible to see here.
The National Geographic Society publishes perhaps the finest of all the field guides available, its FIeld Guide to the Birds of North America. The society doesn’t distribute its books through most bookstores, but you can get this book through the 2nd edition on the UMD campus or you can write to the National Geographic Society. The pictures and maps are all superior to the other guides.
Once you’re ready to start finding birds, the worst problem you’ll have is figuring out what the heck they are. Ogden Nash wrote a poem about the difficulties:
UP FROM THE EGG: THE CONFESSIONS OF A NUTHATCH AVOIDER
Bird watchers top my honors list,
I aimed to be one, but I missed.
Since I’m both myopic and astigmatic,
My aim turned out to be erratic,
And I, bespectacled and binocular,
Exposed myself to comment jocular.
We don’t need too much birdlore, do we,
To tell a flamingo from a towhee;
Yet I cannot, and never will,
Unless the silly birds stand still.
And there’s no enlightenment so obscure
As ornithological literature.
Is yon strange creature a common chickadee,
Or a migrant alouette from Picardy?
You rush to consult your nature guide
And inspect the gallery inside,
But a bird in the open never looks
Like its picture in the birdy books ~
Or if it once did, it has changed its plumage,
And plunges you back into ignorant gloomage.
That is why I sit here growing old by inches,
Watching the clock instead of finches,
But I sometimes visualize in my gin
The Audubon that I audubin.
That was Ogden Nash, this is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”