For the Birds Radio Program: Stories

Original Air Date: Feb. 20, 1991

Laura recounts some stories behind the birds on her lifelist. (3:31) Date confirmed. Might have been modified slightly for a remake.

Audio missing


Birdwatchers add new birds to their lifelists the way stamp or coin collectors go about their hobbies. Instead of an actual stamp or coin which can be held and admired, each new bird is nothing more than a tick on a checklist or a date written in a field guide page or a name written in a notebook. But that mark on a piece of paper can be just as valuable and tangible an acquisition as a 1909 Lincoln head penny. And most new birds come with something else—a story.

During my junior high teaching days, I used to go to a Madison park every spring morning before school. I heard my first Golden-winged Warbler on one of those early morning walks. I recognized the song at once, but could only count the bird if I actually saw it, and it was most uncooperative, hiding in a thick tangle of shrubbery.

I had to catch a bus to get to school on time and was already late, but that song stopped me dead in my tracks. I let the bus go without me—no way could I get on it without seeing that bird. It took me ten minutes, but I finally got a good look. Then I had to run the whole two and a half miles to school. I didn’t notice the school bus passing me a mile from school, but apparently several of the kids noticed me and were taking bets about just how fast a junior high teacher can sprint. I charged into my classroom just as the bell was ringing and my sixth graders were coming in for science. My speed gave them a new respect for science teachers, and my story gave them a new alibi when they were caught in a tight situation. For the rest of the year, any time a student was late for anything or caught gazing out of the window, they said they couldn’t help it–they’d been looking for a Golden-winged Warbler.

There’ve been other birds that I’ve heard and recognized before I saw them, like the Black-throated Gray Warbler I found in Madera Canyon in Arizona. I was hiking alone, leaving my husband to tend for our six-month-old baby in our cabin. That warbler also stayed hidden for a while, but I waited patiently and finally saw it. I was still basking in the afterglow of success when a heard a Dusky-capped Flycatcher. I searched through the branches with my binoculars trying to get a glimpse of it, all the time stepping backward to get a better vantage point. All of a sudden the ground dropped out from under me. I’d literally backed off a cliff, but was caught by a tree that had rather fortuitously rooted itself in the side of the canyon. I was so intent on that bird that I kept my binoculars focused toward its song, and the instant I landed, straddling a thick root two or three feet below the path, there it was. I enjoyed it for several minutes before I looked down and discovered just how far down Madera Canyon drops right there. I had one heck of a time pulling myself up, clawing at loose soil and rocks that just kept giving way and dropping down the canyon. But I made it up and back to our cabin in one piece, sort of shaken up but with the presence of mind not to relate to Russ the entire story about that Dusky-capped Flycatcher. He has always considered me a sensible person, and I wouldn’t want to disillusion him.