For the Birds Radio Program: Imaginary Birds

Original Air Date: Sept. 28, 1990

Not everything that looks like a bird is a bird. (Date verified)

Audio missing


Last week, I got a phone call from a woman with a tricky identification problem She had just seen a bird the size of a Ruby-throated Hummingbird or even smaller. It had rosy patches on its wings, a down-curved bill, and two feathery antennae. I had to break it to her that her rare tropical hummingbird was really either a Cecropia or a Sphinx moth. She was a little embarrassed to mistake an insect for a bird. But she needn’t have felt bad–I’ve mistaken a lot worse than bugs for birds.

When I first started birding 15 years ago, I didn’t know any other birders. So I was on my own my first spring migration. I was at Michigan State at the time, and my normal technique was to spend five or six hours a day at a campus woodlot and nearby field. If I heard the slightest sound, I’d search through every branch of every tree until I found the bird. One evening I heard a songster whistling at dusk. I searched and searched, but every time I came close, it would quiet down and start up further away. When it got dark, I gave up, but then I heard it again the next evening, and the next. I searched for that little bird every day for three weeks until I finally got it in the beam of a flashlight–and then I couldn’t believe my eyes. That beautiful whistled song was coming from a frog. A spring peeper.

Other bird-like calls came from chipmunks and thirteen-lined ground squirrels, and the first time I went birding in Port Wing, Wisconsin, in the real North Woods instead of tropical East Lansing, I got a new surprise when I heard my first red squirrel. But I was getting better at sorting sounds all the time. Pretty soon I learned to ignore the squeak of the metal hook on my binocular strap, which sounded like a Rose-breasted Grosbeak call note. And as time went on, I learned to filter out non-avian sounds almost unconsciously.

As my first year of birding drew to a close, my lifelist was closing in on 120, and I decided to show off my new-found talent by leading my husband on a walk through the Morton Arboretum outside Chicago. We saw plenty of chickadees and nuthatches and Downy Woodpeckers, and then, suddenly, right next to our path on a thick oak branch I spotted a Barred Owl looking right at us. I looked and looked at this heart-stopping new lifer, then gave my binoculars to my husband so he too could enjoy the sight. We came up within 50 feet of the bird, marveling at how tame it was, just like the books said, and watched it for at least ten minutes before it suddenly occurred to us that the owl hadn’t moved a muscle or even blinked since we spotted it. We walked up to the oak and circled it before we realized that this was no owl—it was a misshapen branch with two perfect knot holes whee the owl’s eyes turned out not to be.

Well, at least we were looking at living tissue. Now that I have fifteen years of serious birding under my belt, I would never make that kind of stupid mistake, right? Well, this past summer, my family drove out to the South Dakota Badlands. There’s a prairie dog town there, and I searched it one evening for signs of a Burrowing Owl. After some serious scanning with my spotting scope, I actually found one of the little owls sitting on a dirt mound. I wanted a closer look, so I started to walk toward it, getting more and more excited because it was allowing me to approach so close. But then I got a sense of deja vu—my so-called owl was being just too cooperative. I walked right up to it and actually kicked it before I could accept the truth: my little Burrowing Owl turned out to be nothing more than a buffalo chip.