We stood and listened to the bird banging away at its tiny typewriter in the bushes. As is often the case with bird “watching,” we could only hear the bird, not watch it.
“That’s an Anna’s hummingbird,” my middle-schooler, the Little Monkey, informed the group of a dozen adult birders.
“Actually,” said the Audubon Master Birder who led the guided walk, her head cocked to listen, “that’s a Junco.”
“No, that’s a hummingbird,” LM corrected her.
She listened for a moment, then repeated gently, “Mmm, Junco.”
My son corrected the Master Birder twice more. When a rush of movement indicated that the bird had flown off for a smoke break, LM chased after it, in order to prove himself correct.
“How does your son know so much?” a woman asked me.
“He’s twelve,” I answered, “which means he knows everything.”
The adults laughed. They knew exactly what I was talking about.
A short while later, LM noticed and identified an Anna’s hummingbird sitting atop a tree like a Christmas ornament. The Master Birder stood still and studied the cooperative bird, who flashed his fuchsia gorget like a starlet posing with her loaned ruby necklace on the awards runway, jewels sparkling with camera flashes and Los Angeles sunbeams.
“That’s a Rufous,” the Master Birder said, after a lengthy and quiet consideration.
“That’s an Anna’s,” LM corrected her.
She considered this thoughtfully, watching the bird, then murmured, “It’s a Rufous.”
“No, that’s an Anna’s,” LM insisted.
I was horrified, but the truth is that adults are consistently impressed by the Little Monkey on our bird walks. Not only does he tend to be the only participant under retirement age, but he also spots quite a few birds first and does know a lot; he simply confuses knowing a lot with knowing everything.
In our first year of birding, I’ve come to recognize two truths: First, I am a lousy birder.
I will always be a lousy birder. I do not care about being a lousy birder. I realized on that walk that I will never, ever, be able to tell the difference between a Rufous and an Anna’s hummingbird, and I could understand LM’s confusion at the identification. From now on I will say, “That’s either a Rufous or an Anna’s.” They happen to be the only two in our neck of the woods, so it’s a safe call. Otherwise, I’ve got the hummingbird m.o. nailed.
I also would have pegged the typewriter-tapping bird as a hummingbird, but, on the following week’s guided bird walk, both LM and I heard a Junco tapping out the Great American Novel in the bushes, and we could both now tell the difference between that and the hummingbird’s flash metafiction. The difference is that I know to shut my mouth and listen to the expert, whereas LM thinks he is the expert.
But the second truth is that the Little Monkey might just someday be a Master Birder. I had never heard the word gorget that he used to describe the hummingbird’s flashing red breast (and to this day I can never spell fuchsia correctly on the first, or second, try). He didn’t know how to pronounce gorget but had memorized it from one of the many bird books that now litter our house.
The park’s naturalist now calls us about upcoming classes that LM might be interested in. The birder who took these photos on one of our guided walks called LM a “rock star” for his keen birding eye and knowledge. The adults are clearly smitten with this enthusiastic youth and want to encourage a boy who is looking up, unlike other U-shaped youths grunting down over hypnotizing electronic boxes. I can see him in a new light through their eyes. Hope for our planet is in the hands of youth like my son.
Not that he wouldn’t opt for an iPad in the flick of a wren’s tail if given the choice between that and a first edition of Audubon’s Birds of America.
The irony is that a year ago I had hit upon birding as a solitary endeavor to save my sanity. LM’s hair was yet again on fire for yet another Ides of March that blindsided us and landed us all in SALT Talks with school officials. We had thought we were going to skate through his first year of junior high school as one of “the normal families.” Indeed, when he had gone to buy our annual Girl Scout Cookie cache from his fifth grade teacher earlier in the year and she had asked how he was doing, he had answered, “Well, I don’t know the name of the principal this year!” She understood this as a sign of remarkable progress.
Though we had begun to anticipate LM’s growing independence as a middle-schooler, his therapist had instead cautioned us to keep a closer eye on him than ever, when we should have been loosening the parental leash and looking forward to more Afternoon Delight while he was out doing whatever it is that teenagers do these days when they don’t have technology. But instead of easing off on the reins, we needed to double-wrap them around our fists. Reading Mary Stewart novels and dreaming of Hadrian’s Wall and Cornwall, I had felt trapped.
So I made the resolution to explore my immediate world rather than lusting after faraway eras and lands. On my first bird walk shortly thereafter, I was blindsided by the kindness of birders, who helped me locate the birds through borrowed binoculars whenever I squawked, “Where? Where?” I had considered bringing LM with me on the bird walk, but rejected the idea as one of my more insane masochistic hiccups: no way would LM be able to remain still and quiet, unless I wound up throttling him out of frustration.
That Mother’s Day, I requested a birdfeeder. LM had broken my birdbath that I’d recently found after years of searching: it was fashioned out of old punchbowls. Irreplaceable. So I replaced it with a plain one from a superstore. I borrowed a bird book from the library. I spent an entire morning identifying my first bird on the feeder: a Black-capped Chickadee, as common as rain. At least their name makes sense, because they repeat it to you ceaselessly: I am a chickadee, a chickadee, a chickadee-dee-dee. I said a chickadee; are you deaf? No, a chickadee-dee-dee, sounding like new dates struggling to be comprehended in a loud bar: I live with my mother! You got over your stutter? No, I’m replacing my gutters! Chickadee-dee-dee!
But take the Dark-eyed Junco, which should be named the Executioner, for his black hood and resolute eyes barely visible through the eyeholes as he wields his tiny hatchet. Seriously, how many birds aren’t dark-eyed? As if this telling feature sets them apart?
Or the Spotted Towhee, which should be named for its eyes: the Red-Eye, looking like travelers in coach after a turbulent Atlantic crossing with a faulty bathroom smoke detector.
Or the Belted Kingfisher. Come on. With that hairstyle, they’re going to name it after its belt? This is the punk rocker of birds. This bird started the stage-diving movement in the 80s. How about: The Mohawked Skydiver of Death? We need poets on the birding case.
Or the Purple Finch, which, wait for it, isn’t purple.
No wonder birding is hard. Birders: wink-wink. We’ll know how to separate the wheat from the chaff.
The names are designed to make birders look like brainiacs instead of what we are: moldy flower children who don’t know that staying in our pajamas with a cup of tea is far preferable to staggering around at dawn on weekends, loaded down with encyclopedias, cameras, tripods, binoculars, and notebooks we don’t write in because our hands are too cold to operate the golfing pencils.
Then, to make sure the rest of us never catch up, those at the top of the Amway birding pyramid change the names every once in a while. Not to something that makes sense, no. They might change the Oregon Junco to the Dark-eyed Junco. Ah, that clarifies things.
So when I decided to take the Little Monkey on my second guided bird walk, I considered a Valium prescription, or at least a hip flask. No way was he going to cotton to this.
But, lo, a birder was born. ’Twasn’t I.
What started for me as a stab at contentment rather than yearning and remains for me a mild interest a year later has become an obsession for him.
One bird book from the library became a dozen that were given to us by neighbors, friends, or family members (who all seemed anxious to clear their shelves of bird books no one had consulted in decades). When I took him to a friend’s reading at a bookstore, he bought a coffee table book about hummingbirds instead of baseball players. LM pores over them at the kitchen table and on his bedroom floor. He took some amazing photos but broke his camera, so now he draws birds. He broke his binoculars, too, so when the Man I Married gave me a nice pair of birding binoculars for my 50th birthday, LM inherited my old childhood pair, passed down to me from my parents. I just found them at the bottom of his laundry basket.
He leaves behind a trail of wrecked birding equipment. How can he succeed at studying the fragile hummingbird, which weighs less than two pieces of notebook paper?
How can a boy who stomps, yells, rushes, runs, drums, shrieks, and wails be obsessed with a pastime that requires silence, stillness, patience, and listening? He is like a bird himself, flitting from one thing to the next; he eats his dinner with his head turned to the counter to see what other food is there rather than looking at the food on the plate in front of him. But he is more like the California Condor, hard to miss with its nine-foot wingspan, than a hummingbird.
When the annual horror of the school science fair came around again, he researched the hummingbird. He tested alternate dilutions of sugar-water solutions to see which the hummingbirds preferred, and he came to this conclusion: Mom’s vocabulary broadens when he leaves sticky sugar-water solution all over the kitchen. Also? Mom taught him the word plagiarism when she noticed that his report didn’t exactly sound like him, for instance, the bit about the mother regurgitating food. We then explored the concept of drama when he was “encouraged” to redo the report at the 11th hour, which is when he came up with an admirable report, from which I learned about hummingbirds weighing less than a couple of pieces of paper, which remain blank because I no longer have the energy to write anything except for grocery lists and the There Goes the Alaska Cruise list, which includes $7,000 orthodontia.
What I thought I would undertake on my own in order to prevent my nervous breakdown has become something we do together. We drove south to the Nisqually refuge, which I’ve been flying past on the freeway for decades, never once stopping, where a guide said to us, “I like to think of it as watching birds, rather than bird watching.” I liked his philosophy of learning from a single bird watched for a time, rather than striving to identify as many birds as possible, which is what LM likes.
We drove north to the Skagit Valley for the Snow Goose Festival, where I learned that we have a native swan here in our state. Together we found a flock in a farm field and listened to them trumpet. Well, I’ll be goshdarned. I thought swans resided only in castles and zoos and tutus. And I learned that trumpeter swans trumpet, while mute swans are mute: even I could handle this bird identification. Sadly, I learned that one reason swan numbers plummeted was because their very few primary feathers were prized as the very best quill: go ahead, blame writers, Shakespeare among them.
I signed us up for a local bird walk to a Great Blue Heron rookery just a mile from our house, where I learned that herons nest in trees. No wonder I’d never been able to find the herons there before: I’d been looking down to find their nests.
We watch every bird movie I can find: The Big Year, The Birdman of Alcatraz, Fly Away Home, The Bird Cage (oops).
I thought I’d be doing these things for me. But I began to do them for him. And eventually that meant I did them for us.
Which means that I continue to get up early on occasional weekends for dawn birdwalks, when, if left to my own, I would have given up the birding chapter in my life as one of my more ill-thought-out endeavors. I’ve always been a morning person, but I discovered that means I like getting up in the morning to be by myself while the rest of the world sleeps. Morning means a book and a bottomless cup of tea and looking out the back window at the birdbath. Not traipsing around in the dew, especially with my aching hip. I take up the rear on walks, which means the bird has flown off before I catch up. Oh, well, the stationary mountains are pretty.
Sometimes I wonder if what attracted the Little Monkey to birding was the, “Look, Mom!” aspect. And Mom looks.
On the flip side, at school he gets taunted, “Birds are gay.”
Seriously? I suppose that might explain the waning population of some species, especially if gay people write with quills.
If I worried that the teasing would deflate his interest, I need not have. He recently begged to go with the Man I Married to the hardware store on an exciting plywood run, and there he bought a birdhouse, with his own money.
Even if his obsession someday wanes, and he gratefully passes on his musty birding books to the next enthusiastic sore thumb in that generation, he’ll have the knowledge and awareness his entire life. When Mary Stewart mentions an egret, he’ll know how it’s different from a stork. He can impress a future date by taking them to see a field of swans.
When he told me he’d started his Life List, writing down every bird he’d seen in his life and to which he would add, in theory, forever, I gave him the blank book that my friend had given me to thank me for being her chemo-buddy during her cancer treatment. The notebook, handmade by her friend, has a bird on the cover, and I couldn’t think of a more appropriate and beautiful use for this book that is about community and support and is now intertwined with his relationship with me.
The other day I, delighted, mentioned to him that some birds were actually bathing in my birdbath, doing the backstroke like in a Busby Berkeley musical.
I started to describe one of the birds. Before I could finish my sentence, he told me it was a juvenile starling.
I cautioned him once again not to be a know-it-all. He hadn’t seen the bird, and there are a million midsized brown birds out there (with names like Green Palafer).
But turns out he was right, proven when I witnessed a beleaguered mama starling feeding the ill-mannered teen.
When he returned from a morning jaunt through a motel parking lot on a trip south (where we saw puffins and rare white pelicans), he identified four new birds he’d never seen before, without his book, which he’d apparently memorized.
So I simply said, “Wow! Neat!” I sipped my tea and rearranged myself against the pillows fluffed against the headboard. “Why don’t you go back out to see what else you can find?”
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Snow geese, herons, bird drawing, camouflaged birder: Straight-No-Chaser Mom
Dark-eyed Junco, Spotted Towhee, Belted Kingfisher, Purple Finch: Seattle Audubon Society Bird Web
All others: Elaine Chuang, Discovery Park, WA, April, 2015.