For the Birds Radio Program: Chickadee Anniversary
34 years ago today, on March 2, 1975, I became a birdwatcher. It took me an hour or two to find my first bird, a Black-capped Chickadee, and it wasn’t till two days later that I saw my second bird, a Mallard, but I was hooked. That first spring I was entirely self-taught, so my progress was very slow—by the end of the spring my life list had all of 40 species. But I was determined and the rewards were so very pleasant. Each new addition to my lifelist was one cool bird or another, and if the list grew slowly, that gave me lots of time to not just savor each new addition but to actually research it. I’d read the entry for each species in my two field guides—the Peterson and the Golden Guides, but I wanted to know more about the birds, so I also invested in the Audubon Land Bird and Audubon Water Bird guides. These were written by Richard Pough specifically because he thought that people wanted to know more about birds than simple identification, and his books gave me a great footing in not just recognizing but understanding birds better. I also started spending time in the library looking up birds, and bought the set of LP records with the songs and calls of birds corresponding to my Peterson guide. This was back in the days when I still knew where my iron was, and whenever I did the ironing I’d listen to my Peterson records. Of course, every single time I heard a real bird I tracked it down. That could take a lot of time—when I was teaching, I was late for school one day because I’d heard a Golden-winged Warbler, and knew the song but had to see the bird to add it to my life list. I spent many days and nights tracking down sounds that turned out to be frogs and rodents, but little by little I teased out what each sound was, and little by little became rather proficient—much keener at seeing and hearing birds simply out of habit and practice. And every time I teased a new one out, I got a huge reward—a new bird on my life list. It took over 20 years to reach the landmark bird books talked about, 600, but only a few more years to get to a thousand—the jumps my list has made since the late 90s are because I started doing more traveling. Costa Rica has more species than all of North America, and with any focus at all one can easily double one’s list with a single trip there. A few times I’ve added over 40 lifers in a single day in the tropics—more than my entire first spring of birding. There’s a certain giddy joy in seeing so many new birds so quickly, but I think in some ways it’s like an eating contest, where you’re so busy packing them in that you can’t savor a single bite. Sometimes after a month or two I can’t even remember which of two tropical birds I’ve seen. As much as I love having a pretty long life list, I even more love savoring birds one by one. I’ve absolutely loved my tropical trips, but with a few exceptions, I’m not sure that each new bird I see now gives me as much genuine satisfaction as my first 40.
Every year on this anniversary I of course look for chickadees, which are ever so much easier to find now. And I’m still learning about them. David Bonter at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has been putting tiny transponders on the chickadees in Sapsucker Woods, and I got to spend some time photographing him and one of his students working on chickadees—those are on my flickr photostream. Watching those dear birds that come so willingly to our hands when it’s on their terms fighting so valiantly to resist when it’s on our terms makes me love them all the more. Now when I see chickadees here in Ithaca, I always look for leg bands, and I’ve gotten some photos of the birds sporting all the colorful hardware. I didn’t add a single lifer in the past year, but I’m savoring birds just as much as ever.