2018 Year of the Birds

8 Feb

Like Jonathan Franzen (author of this article), birds were just simple pleasures in my life until my fourth decade. Watching groups of evening grosbeaks chatter and bully each other in the large feeder outside my cabin’s picture window was often the amusement of my winter days in Maine. As was observing parental red-tailed hawks on fir tree branches teach their fledglings to fly by taunting them next to the pastures in Oregon.

Thinking back, the enchanting swans in the fog that occasionally visited the small ponds of spring melted snow in the field next to the house I grew up in, the majestic snowy owl that often perched on a large tree branch in our back yard looking at me while I sat in my snowsuit and looked at it……. These are still vivid memories that probably contributed to my path to become a biologist so many decades ago.

Learning about their evolution (and ties to dinosaurs), their adaptive biology and physiology, the unique complexity of colorful plumage, the often amusing social interactions with each other and within their ecosystems, their impressing tenacity to migrate thousands of miles, their inherent traits that we covet as amusing (such as the burrowing owls clownish movements), and even ornithologist’s taxonomy, which reveals more about ourselves than the animals; it all deepened my respect and wonderment for the world of birds.

Now, in my retirement and no longer in the whirlwind of academic life, birds have become more personal and intimate, which has increased my passion for them. Holding a six-week golden eagle nestling while working with two USFWS biologists to band and collect data was like holding an angel in my hands. Bird surveys allow glimpses into aspects of their lives: breeding, migrating, feeding, competing, parenting, and housekeeping. Handling birds while banding them with metal ‘bracelets’ is more than just data collection; it is a rare and privileged opportunity to share a moment of respectful interaction between bird and human.

This winter by a lake in west-central New York State has provided me with the same fascination and enjoyment of my childhood. Instead of purposeful counting, naming, banding, and poking, I have been simply a bystander observing and enjoying that simple delight. When the small group of four trumpeter swans expanded to 19 swans, I was out on the edge of the lake with binoculars searching for them every day. When an adult bald eagle swerved down from the air to instantly grab a fish from the water barely 25 feet from the side of my kayak, I was a giddy kid again. Watching the antics of house finches play hide and seek in the weeping elm tree next to the deck made me smile and laugh. While I stood on the edge of the Genesee River gorge this past fall, a male American kestrel flew and kited below me with the sun gleaming off its blue feathers. It was like watching a ballet in the air.

Many people share a passion for birds. For some its about ticking off names on lists, some fans have favorites and spurn other non-favorites, others travel around the world to see exotics, and many colleagues think about them mostly when they are a component of their research. Others delight in watching birds out their windows, and I know a few that give them their own names. Many avid birders organize and participate in bird watching groups, which sometimes amusingly reminds me of bird social behavior.

We all have our own source of what birds bring to our lives. And there is a growing number of us that work towards improving the world in which birds live. In today’s human-contructed world, we attempt in diverse ways to protect them from disappearing. Part of this mission entails educating people on how wonderful and important birds are, part is “boots on the ground” activism, such as volunteering with groups that rescue and rehabilitate injured and orphaned birds, or participating in bird counts that provide numbers from which we can estimate populations and movement. The importance of the latter is information to help us manage and improve habitat for birds.

This year is dedicated to the birds. Learn about birds, all birds. Let birds expand your world and share it with others. You don’t even have to learn their names. It’s just that simple.

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One Response to “2018 Year of the Birds”

  1. Danny-Maggie Hancock February 9, 2018 at 4:10 pm #

    thanks for the great article EV. we were talking the other evening about when we’re out observing birds our minds are set free and at those moments we are just concentrating on the birds and nothing else.

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