For the Birds Radio Program: Turning 59

Original Air Date: Nov. 10, 2010

There’s a lot to be said for turning 59.

Duration: 4′51″


For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved my birthday. Most people seem to go through a stage in their 30s or 40s, or at least by their 50s, when they decide that they no longer like their age so relentlessly going up, and suddenly birthdays start symbolizing impending doom rather than a special day. But my brain is apparently stuck in the third grade, when a birthday represented all the possibilities opening up in a brand new year. And so there’s plenty to celebrate about turning 59 tomorrow.

59 is a prime number, so I’ll be in my prime. And a regular icosahedron has 59 stellations, which is a very pretty geometrical shape, and means this promises to be a year of sublime numerical geekiness. I researched other ways that the number 59 is special, and posted 11 of them on my blog. One of my favorites is that ‘59 was the year Sleeping Beauty came out—it was the first movie I ever saw in a theater. I was enthralled from start to finish. I’d hated the fairy tale. But Disney changed all the yucky parts–in the original story, she slept for 100 years, so everyone she knew and loved was dead when she woke up, and the prince was some stranger who walked in, saw her in the bed, and walked straight over and kissed her—that seemed genuinely creepy.

Disney sensibly made Sleeping Beauty and the prince fall genuinely in love before she pricked her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel. And the fairies put everyone into a magical sleep so when she woke up, everything was the same as before she fell asleep. Disney also added a cool dimension to Aurora, who in their version sang like a lark from sheer joy from being in the woods with all the birds and little mammals. I was entranced. The prince fell in love with her singing before he ever saw her, and he also fell in love with her for her charming relationship with the animals.

I’ve been graced three times in my life with perfectly wild birds alighting on my hand, making me feel like Sleeping Beauty. On two different mornings back in the 70s, a kinglet (one time Ruby-crowned and one time Golden-crowned) alighted for one brief, shining moment on my finger while I was birding at Picnic Point in Madison, Wisconsin. I don’t think either of them noticed me—for them, my finger was just another branch to alight on momentarily while searching for bugs—but it was thrilling nonetheless.

My most amazingly thrilling experience with a wild bird alighting on me was again at Picnic Point, on December 3, 1977. I heard my lifer Pine Grosbeak calling from a distance that cold winter day. I whistled to him as I walked toward him, and he seemed to be coming toward me—the sound grew louder more quickly than it would have if he were staying in place as I walked. When I saw him, he stayed at the top of a tree, looking straight at me while I whistled and he called back to me. I have no idea why I pulled off my glove, but I did, and held up my hand, and–I am not making this up–he alighted on my finger, looked into my eyes, and warbled a bit more. He may have stayed there for 5 seconds or 5 minutes–probably closer to the former, since I don’t think I breathed at all. Then he leisurely flitted to a nearby branch and continued to whistle right at me. This was truly one of the most magical moments of my life. I felt just like Sleeping Beauty, only in real life.

So this promises to be a year of wonderful memories, and I expect it to be a year of wonderful new experiences, too. For one thing, I’m going to figure out some way to get to Cuba so I can finally see the Bee Hummingbird, which is the tiniest bird in the world, and also the Cuban Tody—the most adorable bird in the known universe. I don’t know how I’ll get there, but this is the year I’m going to do it.