The Boy Detective

We were part of a busload of tourists led by a bossy park ranger in a Smoky Bear hat. As we hiked, he pointed out birds and acted like he’d put them there for us to see.

We were on a family vacation a hundred miles from home. Could have been a thousand miles. There were canyons and deep, old woods. It was early morning. I was ten.

My dad had signed us up for this guided tour. My mind wandered. I was looking for arrowheads in the leaf litter, and hoping that bears or mountain lions would show themselves.

I saw a bird on the ground, rooting around in the leaves, a large, mostly beige bird. As I got closer it flew to a nearby tree. There was white on its back, and I thought I saw a bit of red on its head. But these weren’t what grabbed my attention. I’d seen unexpected golden flashes as it flew.

The bird landed on the side of a tall tree further up the trail. As it settled, the undersides of its wings revealed themselves: bright yellow.

I knew what this bird was. I’d seen that wing color before. It was in a schoolbook that I’d been forced to study. I didn’t like studying. But those yellow wings stayed with me. They were unexpected on this generally light-brown bird. The unexpected is the heart of a good mystery.

I said to our Smoky, “What bird has yellow wings?”

My question seemed to annoy him. I was a punk who’d been looking for arrowheads. He sighed, saying, “No bird has yellow wings.” And he resumed lecturing to the group. I interrupted. “What if it’s under the wings. He said, “Son, no bird has yellow under the wings.” The ranger turned away. I was dismissed.

Under my breath, I said, “Flicker.”

My dad, who would later tease me for life because I once identified a Titmouse, looked at me and said, “What’d you call him?”

I shut up. Eventually, we neared the tree where the bird landed. The group looked up and saw it. As it fluttered from place to place the bright yellow under its wings was obvious.

Our guide said, “Okay, everybody, please notice, we have a bird called a Flicker here.”

And he went on to describe how this was a kind of woodpecker, sometimes found on the ground eating ants, but mostly up in the trees, blah, blah. There was the implication that he’d found the bird for us, that we’d been given our money’s worth.

“Flicker,” I said smiling. My dad gave me a curious look. “Yellow-Shafted,” I added.

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2 Responses to “The Boy Detective”

  1. [...] one of your favorite birds, a male Yellow-Shafted Flicker. Same woodpecker that’s mentioned in The Boy Detective. But even if you hadn’t seen the Flicker you’d have seen something else. Maybe another favorite, [...]

  2. norm schaefer says:

    Mike- All of the Bird Detective stories were great! I read them all….norm

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