Commoner’s Field Guide to Birds

Three years ago, I asked for a bird feeder for Mother’s Day. My first, time-intensive, agonizing identification was of a Black-capped Chickadee. If only I had first read the field guide books, which all agree that the likely first enthusiastic customer on a new backyard feeder will be the cheerful Black-capped Chickadee. I’ve since identified 25 bird species in my backyard, and the Black-capped Chickadee is one of the few whose name makes any kind of sense. It wears a rakish black beret, perfect for any basement poetry reading, and natters on throughout the day, “Chick-a-dee-dee-dee-dee,” sometimes commenting with goodwill, sometimes scolding with irritation, but always with its charming, “Chick-a-dee-dee-dee.” If only my adolescent were so endearing with his constant repetition of, “Can we have pizza? Can we have pizza? Can we have pizza?”

Birds, I learned to my horror, were named by white men who shot them dead and noted the defining details of corpses. John James Audubon might shoot hundreds of birds for the sake of one drawing. A Ring-necked Duck’s neck ring might be obvious from close-up observation of a stationary object, but in the cold, wet field, from a distance, on a moving target, it’s a Ring-billed Duck, for heaven’s sake. Duh. I am not the first to note this, I now see in some field guides, so we are all in agreement: let’s get rid of these stupid names and start over.Read More »

Accidental Wonder

When the best moments are after you miss the turn to head home.

I sat in an Othello High School hallway, eating my sandwich at the 20th Annual Othello Sandhill Crane Festival. The Owl Lecture room was standing room only, so I found myself in familiar territory—flash back to eating lunch by myself in high school about forty years ago.

I had no adolescent feeling of exclusion, though I lapsed into the same behavior I did back then: eavesdropping on the popular kids.Read More »

Getting Smart (Finally!) for the Annual Science Fair

IMG_2107
Scientist at work. “Don’t get my dorky shoes in the photo, Mom.”

It’s that time of year again, when the makers of trifold boards once again rack up enough dollars to fund their annual cruises to the Bahamas. What a scam. Our underfunded schools must be in cahoots with the manufacturers and receive a kickback for every board sold. Try as I might, I couldn’t get last year’s trifold exhibit returned in order to reuse it for this year’s project. Of course, it’s entirely possible that the Little Man never remembered to bring it home despite my nagging. (You think?)Read More »

Store-bought versus Homemade

Store-bought suet cake and female Northern Flickers
Female Northern Flickers and the last store-bought suet cake

When the Little Man moved in with us at just barely six years old, he’d eaten only at Denny’s and McDonald’s for the previous month. I assumed Denny’s for breakfast and McDonald’s for dinner, but it turns out it was the other way around: orange juice and a large cookie at McD’s for breakfast, fries and a burger at Denny’s for dinner. He had full access to soda, candy, and cable TV throughout the night.

The month before he moved in, I ate my daily favorite: brown rice, cooked greens, and tofu.

Now that’s a recipe for disaster.Read More »

Trumpeting Our Success

Happy Valentine's Day from our family of three
Happy Valentine’s Day from our family of three

I had no idea that our state has native swans, until a year ago when the Little Man and I drove north for the Snow Goose Festival. Silly me, I thought the day would be about geese, but hopefully not about snow. LM thought the day would be about eating out for lunch.

I thought swans were for castle moats, fairy tales, and ballet.

I might not have known about the swans because for a long while there weren’t very many. Less than 100 breeding Trumpeter Swans remained by the early 1900s, due to overhunting. Factor in DDT and lead ammunition, and things looked more grim for our native swans than for a ballerina who’d eaten Big Macs all winter.Read More »

Speculating on Speculums

wooduck_speculum“That duck is nicely showing its speculum,” my birding teacher pointed out as we stood in the pouring rain at a garbage dump reclaimed as a Natural Area: what better way to spend a Saturday morning?

She didn’t say duck. She said the waterfowl’s specific name: Gadwall or Mallard or Wigeon.

But I couldn’t tell you which one she identified, because all I heard was SPECULUM.

“You can’t always see it when it’s at rest,” she added.

I should hope not.Read More »

Bird-Brained Birdventure

Mom's Bird Picture (see it? on the post?)
Western Meadowlark. On the post. Really.

John James Audubon was quite the artist, managing to draw all those birds in exquisite detail after maddeningly brief glimpses of flitting creatures so like my almost-thirteen-year-old son: They. Will. Not. Sit. Still. Since halfheartedly taking up birding, which the Little Monkey then shanghaied from me and ran with like a roadrunner on acid, my estimation of Audubon’s skills grew, unlike my birding skills.

But turns out that while modern birders have digital cameras that shoot off hundreds of frames in an instant, Audubon had a gun, and he shot a few hundred birds dead for each of his drawings.

While this morbid discovery was distasteful for this lapsed vegetarian who cannot eat chicken on the bone, I understood that mores have changed: Audubon was a man of his time, in which human life was superior to other life forms, especially when it came to watercolors. But why not, say, five dead birds for each drawing? Or twenty? Why hundreds? Because he wanted the perfect specimen. Now when I look at his drawings, I also see a heap of feathered corpses.

But standing on a high, dusty ridge in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by torpid windmills that could not bring themselves to move in the near 100-degree heat, neck craned back to get a bead on a circling hawk to determine if it was a Rough-Tailed or another hawk, all of which look identical to me, I myself felt the urge to just shoot the fucking thing out of the sky so we could identify the carcass and get the hell back to paved roads and air-conditioning.Read More »