Pigeons, Gulls and Dumb Luck

Sunday, October 18th, 2009

You’re enjoying an Orlando vacation, lazing at a lakefront resort. Taking a break from everything, even bird watching. But you don’t really need a break from this effortless hobby. In fact, it has saved many a vacation.PARIS

There was one interminable European trip that you survived by walking through parks near the cathedrals and museums that your wife and others in your group felt compelled to visit. You said: seen one crumbling statue, seen ‘em all. This opinion wasn’t popular with your companions.

On the other hand, the Europeans do have a whole other birdbook to explore, living things you don’t get to see in the U.S.A. Like Wagtails, little European Robins, Green Woodpeckers and Blue Tits; even their Jackdaw crows are interesting with two-tone gray and black coloration. But that was Europe, this is Florida.

Meanwhile, back at the beach…

You’re enjoying the sun. Doing nothing. Thinking nothing. There are birds around but none is unusual. Just pigeons who find the garbage cans interesting, and of course there are gulls near the water. Probably Herring Gulls and Laughing Gulls, but you’re not looking closely. You’re on vacation.

Then a thought hits.

You wonder: what do the pigeons think of the gulls? The pigeons are wobbly and pear shaped, short winged, grayish and comparatively clumsy. While the gulls are sleek and slender, long winged and regal. They make flying a sport. Pigeons do it to get from here to there. Gulls do it to swoop and sail, the kind of thing you’d do if you could fly, if you had wings.


Who could help but admire the gulls and their grace? Do the pigeons admire them? And what do the gulls think of the pigeons? Do they see them as chubby nerd birds who can’t rise to the heights of the cool kids? You have to figure: probably.

You try to imagine that you’re a gull.

You’d fly just for the fun of it. You’d coast on the wind and dip and slide over the water, and then rise and circle, do a wing-over stunt or two, and it would feel great. The pigeons and featherless humans are just pathetic background. Gulls are royalty of the shore, made to fly, and nobody does it better.

herring gull

Hey, if you were a pigeon you’d want to become a gull. You’d go on a diet. You’d watch how gulls fly and try to emulate them. You’d see how long you could hover without having to flap. But the sad truth is that if you didn’t flap, you’d drop. And if you didn’t eat you wouldn’t get slim; you’d get weak and maybe die. You were put in a pigeon body and that’s the end of it.

Idle musing, not worth disturbing the pleasures of sun and relaxation. But then a new thought hits. It’s related to the irrevocable destiny of pigeons and gulls. And it’s right in front of your eyes…

There’s a boat rental business by the shore.

It’s a family resort and boats are being offered to kids and parents, miniature motorboats, big enough for one teenager or maybe a dad and his seven-year old. These little boats zoom around the lake. Each is shaped like a speedboat, but smaller.boats

Kids line up to get in as boats come back from their half-hour rental. Riders who are returning exit onto the pier, and an attendant pushes the empty boat into position for a new passenger or two to get in.

It’s fun to watch this.

But you notice something. Some boats are faster than others. An eager kid gets into the boat he was given and throttles it forward, full blast. But his boat doesn’t have pep. It’s a pig; it groans rather than roars. Its wake is anemic and its nose doesn’t rise as high as the noses of other boats. That’s the luck of the draw.

A different kid gets into the next boat, and it’s a charged up maniac of a little speedboat. It zooms past the pig boat, hitting waves with loud slaps that you can feel in your chest.

What was that all about? Each kid was more or less equal. Same age and size. Both were aggressive fun lovers. But one got assigned a boat that was sluggish, and the other got a better one. The kids had nothing to do with it. It was fate, destiny, dumb luck.

And you think: Hey, some birds got put into pigeon bodies. There was nothing they could do about that. And some got put into gull bodies. Just luck.

Same thing happens to people.

Some of us get put into average-looking bodies while others get pro athlete’s bodies, or super-model bodies. It’s the way of the world, the way of all life.

So what do you do? If you’re a pigeon you walk around in that goofy, neck-bobbing style and hope somebody throws bird seed on the ground near you. And if you’re a gull you fly on the wind. You enjoy it. And you better be thankful that things worked out that way.

Okay, enough thinking. C’mon, this is your vacation. Why not settle back, read a summertime book, get some sun, take a nap. You realize that you’re better off at work. When you get too much leisure, your mind works overtime. You try to blank out your thoughts. Simply listen to the waves and enjoy the breeze.

Then a gull flies over and you can’t help saying to yourself: lucky, just lucky.


Something Interesting: Guaranteed.

Sunday, September 6th, 2009

You went for a hike this morning figuring something interesting would happen. It always does. Guraranteed. We’ll get to that later.

Certificate SEAL

This morning you saw 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, the Scarlet Tanager. Since summer’s nearly over, this bird’s changing plumage would be mottled with green. Interesting.

Maybe you’d see a bird you never saw before. Once you met an old man in the woods. He was an odd bird: elfin and friendly, bent over and looking for medicinal herbs. He told you his name was Huckleberry Finn. You thought he was crazy, but he showed you his driver’s license. His last name was truly Finn. The nickname was what his friends called him.


On a dawn hike you saw a giant, big-chested deer with sprawling, pointed antlers and you felt a little uneasy. He outweighed you, big-time, and he looked aggressive. Interesting.

Once you followed laughter coming from a woodland brook and saw a couple skinny dipping. Oops. You crept away quickly. But it was interesting.

Once you saw a red fox cross your trail. You saw a snake but couldn’t identify the make and model, just that it was colied, shining and primeval, with a darting forked tongue and no fear.

Once you went for a hike in the woods and saw nothing special. No interesting birds. The trail was quiet. No other people, no snakes, foxes, nothing. You just hiked for an hour or so, then left. That was unusual, seeing nothing noteworthy. Then it hit you: Hey, that was the interesting thing. Something interesting had happened after all. It never fails.

Baseball and Sudden Death

Sunday, August 23rd, 2009

Baseball. Sudden death. Two-fisted subjects. But what are they doing on a website about birds and birding? Everything.The pitch

By now you’ve probably seen the snippet of video in which fireballer Randy Johnson throws a 97-mile-an-hour pitch in a Diamondbacks-Giants pre-season game, and a bird happens to fly into the trajectory of the ball as it zooms from the mound toward the plate. Bam, the bird explodes in a burst of feathers while stunned ballplayers stop the game and the umps try to figure out what to call the pitch.

Makes you wonder two things: One, if you’re interested in birds—and you probably are, otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this website—what species was that hapless bird? Well, as far as we can tell it was one of those show biz albino Rock Doves, although some say a gull. We’ll call it a dove, though, since gulls are less likely in Arizona, and there was talk of a dove-releasing ceremony at the game. In any case, it was an explosion of white, and it sure wasn’t a Snowy Owl.

The windup...
The windup…

By the way there’s actually different footage of another bird being hit, same way, in a minor league game. That bird was documented as a gull, probably a Herring Gull and it was said to have survived. Gulls are tougher than doves. And a minor league pitcher’s no Randy Johnson. If you’re going to get smacked by a league, stick to the minors.

Anyway, the other thing you’ve got to wonder is: Life, what’s it all about. One second you’re flying along without a care and the next second you’re a splatter of feathers and a hit on You Tube.

The pitch
The pitch

Now, the more philosophical of two-fisted guys are saying, hey, maybe that’s not so bad. Think of all the things this bird will never have to do…

It’ll never have to sit around starving because its arthritis is so bad it can’t fly. It’ll never die of cancer of the giblets. It’ll never perch on a branch wondering where the hell it is and how did it get there. It’ll never look at a hot young Rock Dove and think, “I haven’t got a chance.” It’ll never get old and lose its feathers.

Was it good to die young? No, absolutely not. Was it good to die fast? Well, sure. Was it good to be immortalized by Randy Johnson, one of the biggest, hardest-throwing pitchers to ever head for the Hall of Fame?


From our point of view, the human, or at least semi-human view, we have to say that it’s humbling and instructive, even inspirational, to be reminded once again how everyday life can disappear in a splash.

A little more okay
A little more okay

You don’t expect it. You can’t see it coming. And bam, gone. Thoughts like this can make you feel like getting a big martini and a steak. And while you’re in the mood, it just seems a little more okay to get the pie ala mode for dessert.

Why not enjoy the things you were born to enjoy? They say you never hear the shot that kills you. If you’re a dove on a baseball diamond, you never see the fastball that gets you. And if you’re a guy, you might never know when the good times are going to stop rolling.

So enjoy. And take solace in knowing that the bird nailed by Randy Johnson probably had a belly full of ballpark fries and a half eaten hotdog, two tastes of bird heaven, with more to follow. At least we hope so.

Three Guys

Sunday, August 16th, 2009

Three guys in different places and points of time. They never knew each other. And didn’t have much in common. Well, one thing. But that’s the punch line, and we’ll save it…


Gene managed a carnival. The guys who worked for him had tattoos, missing teeth and great stories. Military adventures, run-ins with cops, road trips. They were on familiar terms with strippers. And liked whatever beer was on sale.

Serious as war

Serious as war

Gene had been in Viet Nam.  His eyes were squinty. His hair was grayish and neat. He had a faded tattoo on his forearm. It was a large forearm, and the tattoo looked serious as war.

He had a young second wife, purely trailer park. Tight pants, painted nails and a pack of cigarettes in her fist. One afternoon, during a storm, we gathered in the concession stand eating hotdogs, listening to Gene’s wife rant about a guy who bothered her. You never heard a woman talk so profane. She said Gene punched the guy out.

I broke it

I broke it

Gene had two grown sons who worked there. One was a body builder with long hair. He only talked about weight training. The other was lanky and going bald. He said motorcycle helmets caused his hair to fall out. He was always mad about something and talked about going into bars to pick fights.

Both sons would stop talking when Gene came around. One hot night, I broke the Ferris wheel. Forgot to lock one of the baskets and it splattered neon tubes, then jammed. I froze. Gene appeared out of the darkness and took charge. He fixed the wheel quickly, got the riders out and patted my shoulder. He said, “Forget it, kid.”


A cowboy in a rank cowboy hat

A cowboy in a rank cowboy hat

Tex was old. His legs were bent. His nails looked like they came from elephants. He wheezed, and his belly hung over his jeans. He was a cowboy in a rank cowboy hat. He lived in a world of horse manure. It was ground into him. It didn’t make him smell bad; he smelled like a stable. We knew Tex through vague family connections when I was twelve. We’d rent horses from him.

He’d sit on a crate in the stable, and when he got up you could see he was bow-legged like Yosemite Sam. We’d shake hands and his skin felt like animal hide.

Tex had been a rodeo rider and wrangler. He drank redeye and slept outside. Everyone knew that he’d rescued a rider on a runaway years ago by galloping to the horse and jumping on its head, slowing it, saving the day.

She'd stand on a horse

She'd stand on a horse

He married a cowgirl and had a little cowgirl child who grew up to be a bareback rider. In her act she’d stand on a horse like a ballerina. Tex had an old magazine cover with a picture of her on it. He nailed it to the wall in a dusty office. Nearby there was a gunbelt, holster and old Colt .45.

Tex died. We didn’t go to his funeral and never went to the stable again. At the time I thought of his bow legs having trouble fitting into any coffin. A private joke that I wasn’t proud of.


Al had a reputation as a motorcycle racer. He kept a shiny Harley under a tarp in the gas station where I worked at eighteen. I was a grease monkey, changing oil, doing brake jobs, fixing flats. My fingernails wouldn’t wash clean that year.

Sometimes you have to do something that can't be done

Sometimes you have to do something even if it can't be done

One afternoon I was working by myself. The place smelled of gas and rubber. I was eating peanuts, hoping nobody’d come in. Bored, I opened the drawers in Al’s old desk. I found photos of him at motorcycle races holding trophies.

Later that week we worked on a car that needed a wheel pulled, a stubborn chunk of rust. I learned that sometimes you have to do something, even if it can’t be done. All the guys tried to remove this wheel. We poured solvents. We heated it, cooled it. Nothing worked.

After we gave up, Al took charge. He got a mallet and kept hitting the wheel. It wouldn’t move and he kept hitting. No talk. He hit the wheel while some of us watched and others drifted away. He hit it forever. He could still be hitting it.

But the thing is, he hit it until it started to move. Then he hit it until it came free. And he went to the cooler for a beer. We all had beers.


What did these three guys have in common? You might be thinking: they were take-charge types. Gene fixing the carnival ride, Tex stopping a runaway horse, Al hammering a stuck wheel until it moved. Well, that’s one thing. But not what stands out the most.

Here it is: They all had a specific knowledge of wildlife that was surprising for such guys. They weren’t bird watchers in the traditional sense. But they knew what they saw; they knew what was out there in the world, and they knew it by name.

Not a buzzard

Not a buzzard

The tattooed veteran with the profane wife once said there was a Barn Swallow’s nest in the ticket stand. The old cowboy didn’t call a Turkey Vulture a buzzard; he called it a Turkey Vulture. The mechanic liked to walk near a pond in Michigan where he said there were Black Terns, a fairly uncommon bird.

Talk about uncommon birds. Gene, Tex and Al. They weren’t the type to join clubs. But they had life lists in their heads. Tex said he’d seen a California Condor out West when they were still wild. Al talked about a “snake bird” in a Louisiana  bayou, correctly calling it an Anhinga.

A footnote: Why isn’t this piece of writing in our “Stories” category? It reads like three little stories, with characters who seem a bit larger than life. And there’s a story-like point to the whole thing. Well, the reason that it’s in our non-fiction “Viewpoints” category is that it’s all true. Those three guys really existed and were just the way you see them described here.

Bugs and Birds

Sunday, August 9th, 2009

There’s a short story we read years ago about people walking around covered in living bugs. Okay, we’re two-fisted guys and this kind of thing shouldn’t bother us. But we gotta say, sorry, no way do we want to see this image in our heads or hear much about it.

A two-fisted birdwatcher!

A two-fisted birdwatcher!

Remember the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indiana Jones (now there’s a two-fisted bird watcher!) and some sleazy crook were in a cave in the Amazon jungle and the sleazy guy’s covered with tarantulas?

The guy sorta deserved it because he was double crossing Indy, but who cares. The bugs were hard to look at. Yeah, yeah, spiders are not bugs; they’re arachnids. But we don’t want to split spider hairs here. The point is: nobody wants to have bugs crawling on them.

"Don't bug me, okay?"

"Don't bug me, okay?"

When we’re bothered by things we say we’re “bugged.” Something’s bugging us, right? Your wife says, “Honey, you’re quiet, what’s bugging you.” And you say “Don’t bug me, okay?”

Worries bug us. Problems bug us. People bug us. Bugs bug us. Go out on what should be a beautiful summer night and mosquitoes that might carry West Nile bug you. Walk in the woods to look at birds down by the river, a quiet pleasure, and ticks that carry Lyme disease bug you. Check into a hotel in Manhattan and maybe bedbugs will bug you.



This is getting creepy. And we didn’t want to talk about bugs at all! Where are we going with this? Simple. We’re going to get rid of bugs.

And by bugs we mean the literal kind, like the one crawling behind your computer, and also the metaphorical kind—the worry, the problem, the angst.

(Time out: Do two-fisted birdwatchers get angst? Do they even know the word? Good question. Sorry about that. From now on, the word angst is banned from this site.)

Something to avoid

Something to avoid

Back to that story we didn’t want to talk about: People covered with bugs. How does it end? The hero and his girlfriend go into the woods and sit on a log. It’s peaceful and pretty. Eventually birds come around. The couple doesn’t move, just sits there with bugs on their skin, in their hair, tap dancing on their shoulders.

The birds get brave and hop onto the people. They start eating the bugs! Robins and tanagers. Crows and wood thrushes. Bluebirds and flycatchers. All honest meat eaters. They gently alight on our heroes and pick away. The forest is pleasant. The sun is coming through treetops. There’s the sound of water in a distant creek. A rustle of wind in the leaves.

Chow down, old friend

Chow down, old friend

At the end of the story, the bugs are gone and the guy and his girlfriend take a deep breath. The nightmare is over. Birds have saved the day. The writer of this story was using a literary device to tell us a simple truth.

The literary device was horror—the idea of bugs all over us. The truth was that nature and an appreciation of birds can make the things that bother us go away. Bugs symbolize problems and troubles. Hey, just look at the word: bugs.


Moral of the story. When you’re bothered by the nagging little problems of life, get your butt into the woods. Sit on a rock or by a stream. Unwind. Watch the birds. Let them do their work. They won’t literally eat bugs off you, but they’ll get rid of them all the same.

Just don’t get West Nile or Lyme while you’re out there. A metaphor can only take you so far.

Banjos, Birds and Janis

Thursday, July 9th, 2009

Your banjo teacher’s a local legend, but a likable guy. And impressive. He plays every instrument there is, even the bagpipes, although he seems most interested in trumpet. But he does know the banjo, which is why you’re there.

At your last lesson you gave him Steve Martin’s all-banjo album, The Crow, Steve playing the banjo like a pluckin’ madman on 16 cuts.  The fact that this album is titled The Crow has nothing to do with your interest in birds or banjos.

banjo hands

You figured your teacher would like it and you wanted to give him something good for a change to listen to. Your pathetic strumming wasn’t getting the job done, although you liked the music and figured there’s nothing coming out of a banjo that isn’t just a two-fisted cool sound.

So the guy’s got Martin’s CD. Next week he gives you a quiz. He says, “Did you hear what he’s doing?” And you say, “Yeah, playin’ the banjo.” “No,” the teach says, “Did you listen to the third song?”

“What was he doing there, didn’t you hear?”

Truth is, sure, you heard. It was banjo. A lot of fast plucking and a wild happy sound. The reason you’re taking banjo lessons. Your desire to play started when you heard the audio book of Steve Martin’s life, Born Standing Up, and Martin used banjo riffs in between chapters. You wanted to make that kind of noise. But that’s not what the guy was asking. He gets a CD player and hits the button.

“He’s playing down here.”

And your teacher indicates the lower part of the banjo’s neck. “And he’s making all the melody with the strings, no chords.” You figure, okay, if he says so. It still just sounds like a lot of banjo noise. Not bad, but nothing discernible.

And then he hits another cut, “Get this?” And you listen, but get nothing. “He’s doing claw hammer. That’s amazing. Nobody does that kind of thing any more. “Okay, enough.” You figure this guy’s hearing something you just can’t. But he’s been making music for more years than you’ve been alive, so maybe he’s learned a thing or two about it.

Still, you feel bad. Because you’re not hearing, identifying, digging and loving something that’s apparently worth knowing about.


There’s a window behind your teacher.

In the distance you see some birds flying by, silhouetted against the sky. You don’t want to change the subject, but what the hell. You go for it: You say to the guy, “Hey, look over the roof across the street. What d’you see?” And your teacher says, “Birds, why.”

And you know that what you’re seeing is a Red-Tailed Hawk being harassed by a group of Grackles, probably defending their nests or at least a territory. And your teacher just saw “birds.”

This has happened before.

It’s not your teacher’s fault. Another bird flies by, way off in the distance. You say, “See that bird flying, what kind is it?” And he says, laughing, “ I don’t know, man, it’s a bird.” And you know it’s a Blue Jay. Come on, the long tail, the stubby wings, the strong but erratic flight. Obvious. And a good thing to see, too, since West Nile has all but wiped out the Jays around here. But your banjo master just saw a bird, that’s all. And you only heard banjo music, that’s all.

You didn’t get the details. He didn’t get the details.

And this drives home an essential truth. Not just about birds or banjos but about everything we know and don’t know: When you learn about a thing, you see it differently. No, not just differently, better. This is not a value judgment. Not a subjective opinion. It’s reality.

A guy who spends forty years with banjos hears notes and subtleties that a dope like you can’t possibly get. He’s better off because of that. He lives in a beautiful world of complex surprising music while you hear what is essentially pretty noise.

You have something else, though.

For some inexplicable reason, you have picked up bird knowledge since you were a little kid intrigued by a bird book, and have regarded seeing birds as something akin to stamp collecting. Because of that, you know every kind of bird that flies past.

You don’t see birds, even if they’re shadowy silhouettes at a distance; you see herons with long unmistakable curled necks, and raucous crows with unbeautiful flapping wings, and hawks you’re envious of, powerful buteos with awesome wingspreads. Boring sparrows; and robins who no longer migrate in this changed climate. And you know a grackle by its tail and a starling by its tubby mundane body shape.

You and your banjo teacher are alike.

You both know a subject and get the details of it while other people might blithely stumble by, missing these details. And you figure, wait, if this is the way it is with banjos and birds, maybe it’s like that with…. everything. Of course, you’re right. Ad executives don’t see billboards…they see cost per thousand drive-by impressions. You remember working in a Chinese take-out joint when you were a kid. The boss asked you to go to a newly opened rival Chinese place and order egg rolls to bring back for analysis. He dissected these, muttering Mandarin about the contents. He didn’t see egg roll stuffing; he saw everything he needed to know about his competitor.


When you wrote truck tire brochures…

…it was a lousy job, but you came to know everything about truck tires. While waiting for a light, you looked at the truck next to you and said to your wife, “diagonal lugs on that 275/70R22.5 baby,” or some such arcane nonsense.

But wait, that was good.

Essentially good. You didn’t just see a tire; you saw a kind of tire and understood it to its core. That made you smarter. So, point of all this: you may not know one banjo chord from a pluckn’ other chord. But you’ve got the birds. As Janis Joplin said to Leonard Cohen in the Chelsea Hotel, “We may be ugly, but we’ve got the music.”

Well, neither was ugly.

janis new

But they did have the music, that’s for sure. And you may be tone deaf, but you’ve got the birds. And when you see them you know that they’re not just birds. They’re Rock Doves and Mourning Doves and Cedar freakin’ Waxwings and Merlins with mice in their bellies, and you’re better for it.

Strum that tune, Steve Martin.

No Rules

Friday, June 12th, 2009

Birds have a “no-rules” approach to life. They don’t necessarily accept boundaries.  They’re impatient free spirits, and go where they please, when they please.  The Red-eyed Vireo in your crabapple tree might have been in Texas last week.

Don’t get scientific and point out that biological imperatives prevent birds from doing whatever they want.  Chicago’s House Sparrows won’t migrate to Miami.  Mallards won’t hang on afternoon thermals with Turkey Vultures.  Backyard Grackles are as locked into the regimentation of raising two broods a summer as any suburban commuter is to raising a family and meeting a mortgage.

Still, a House Sparrow could wander south, or anywhere else.  How do you think this European species diffused from New England to cover the continent in less than a century?

When you can fly, you go with your whims.  The Vireo really might have been in Texas last week. The Scarlet Tanagers that show up every Spring come from the hothouse jungles of Latin America. Snowy Owls wintering on Chicago’s lakefront come from Canada where they sat on snow banks watching polar bears.

Bird sightings help satisfy our wanderlust.  But the real kick comes from seeing a fellow being who doesn’t have to live by the limitations we’re stuck with, gravity being a main one.

The concept of no rules has long been attractive.  Maybe you find it difficult to cooperate with regulations, whether in schoolrooms, bureaucratic workplaces or even refereed sports. Which might be why you’re the best solo basketball player in the neighborhood.


Birds And More

Tuesday, June 9th, 2009

This essay appeared in Bird Watcher’s Digest magazine

I was in deep woods on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, following a large, mostly black bird that I’d hoped was a Pileated Woodpecker. I’d only had a glimpse, but it was crow-sized, and flew in the roller coaster style of a woodpecker. Plus I thought I’d seen a flash of red on its head, a head with a tantalizing, prehistoric profile.

I stopped. Looked up. Quietly. And there it was, high on the side of some kind of pine (I never could identify trees in any but the most general way, finding their field guides baffling compared to bird books). It was a sizable Pileated, crested with bright red, but lacking red on the cheek, and therefore a female. I was well focused on it, enjoying the view, thinking this bird’s neck is oddly thin for its body. And then it was gone. Big as a Pileated Woodpecker is, its attention span is apparently as small as any woodpecker’s.


....a tantalizing pre-historic profile

But at least I’d made a positive ID and could put it on my list, a bird I’d never seen before and was unlikely to find near Chicago where I do most of my birding.

Wait. Something else was there.

There was something round and dark in the tall pine above the spot where the Pileated had clung with its splayed four-toed feet and stiffened tail. I focused my binoculars upward and stood with my mouth open, fascinated by a good, long sighting of the first porcupine I’d ever seen.

That was a turning point for me. Since then, I watch for more than birds when I go birding. I’ve found that when you put yourself in a landscape where interesting birds are likely to be seen, you’ll increase your chances of sighting all sorts of unexpected wild things.

And you don’t have to be in serious wilderness like Michigan’s U.P. It works in the suburban forests I like to walk in every weekend, forests that feel as deep and smell as good as Michigan’s, even though they’re within the sound of traffic moving on roads no more than a few miles away in any direction.

Actually, I think that wildlife sightings in such semi-domesticated settings are even more exciting. They represent something encouraging about ecological diversity in the face of unstoppable human land development.

Last Fall…

I was moving quietly through old trees at the Ryerson Conservation Area, a nature preserve on the Des Plaines River north of Chicago. My attention had been captured by two Downy Woodpeckers. Or maybe they were Hairy Woodpeckers, identical in every way to Downys but size, so you never know if you’re seeing a biggish Downy or a runty Hairy. They were colorfully red-capped males who were agitated by each other’s presence and alternated working the same tree, playing out some kind of avian territory game.

I stopped to watch, leaning up against a thick tree, probably an oak, but don’t ask which variety. My brown leather jacket, dark beard and hair somewhat camouflaged me, I suppose, and I settled in to stay a while. The forest floor was yellowish with fallen leaves, and the light that came through the canopy had a golden cast. It was a nice moment.

Leaves were floating down everywhere with implausible regularity, as though in an animated Disney film about Fall. Sometimes, what appeared to be fluttering leaves turned out to be impatient Fall kinglets, both Golden-Crowned and Ruby-Crowned, surprisingly small and remarkably unafraid of people.

But the usual kinglet indifference to visitors was irrelevant on this occasion, because after several minutes, I’d already blended quite well into the woodscape, motionless and color coordinated as I was. Even the woodpeckers came so near at one point, they were too close to be seen through binoculars.

I let my arms hang at my sides, and became part of the tree, inhaling the forest’s cool musk, not thinking, just being. I was enjoying the same kind of high that people who fish tell me they get on the water, a mixture of Zen and the human hunting instinct (benign in birders, but very much there).

Movement in the distance.

A patch of grayish tan against similarly colored trees. I kept my binoculars down. I’d seen White-Tailed Deer at Ryerson before, and knew they normally hang out in small groups which will panic at the sight of a person, their tails high, flashing bright white undersides as they jump away in unnecessary panic.


...unnecessary panic

The deer I saw would surely be unaware of me. Who knows how close it might come? I remembered reading somewhere that aboriginal Americans considered it a feat of skill and maturity to become so invisible that they could touch a wild deer as it moved past them in the forest. I had no intention of doing that, but I did hope the deer would come closer.

Soon I could make out the shapes of other deer slowly grazing near the one I’d first noticed. I’d been right to expect a group. And I was pleased to see they were indeed making their way in my direction. I relaxed into the side of the big oak.

Suddenly, up went one tail, its white underpart facing away from me. The deer was looking behind it, in the opposite direction from where I stood. Then another tail shot up in alarm. And the group, four mature females–large, but antler-free at a time of year when males would be fully racked–began running in my direction.

Most penetrating noises I’ve heard in the woods have been human-made. It’s always surprising and disconcerting how clearly our voices carry through the forest. But this time, loud careless noise was coming from animals, big animals moving at speed. Forest litter crunched apart under their hooves. Low-hanging branches swung and cracked as the deer rushed with senseless urgency, right toward me.

One leapt especially high, as though going over an invisible fence, and I recalled a PBS documentary showing Thompson’s Gazelles, I believe, doing what the narrator called “pronking,” this same surprising jump in the middle of a run. Perhaps in Africa, with predators all around, such maneuvers are important. But in Chicago’s suburbs the action seemed melodramatic. Then I saw that something was running with them.

A large red fox.

It was close enough to be part of their group, but somewhat behind. My first impression was that it was chasing the deer, although I didn’t believe foxes–meat lovers though they may be–go after such oversized prey. I had to assume the fox must be running with the deer, perhaps all of them fleeing in unison from something I couldn’t yet see.


meat lovers though they may be...

I looked beyond the deer and fox to see what might have scared them. There was nothing, no one, in the woods but us. Then the deer nearest the fox at the rear of the pack pronked, a towering bound that took it well away from the little animal. Immediately, the fox, its skittering feet throwing dead leaves wildly into the air, turned sharply and ran even faster toward the next nearest deer. The fox seemed to be chasing them.

They whipped past.

Not close enough to touch, but closer than I’d ever been to so much authentic wildness. I could hear their breathing, surprisingly human, like kids on a running track in high school. I could see that the deer had wet, runny noses. Even though the red fox was appropriately reddish, it had black, gray and white hairs, too, giving it a multi-colored appearance which I felt privileged to see. A kind of inside information.

Its black eyes were shining in the yellow light, causing in me a momentary childhood recollection of bizarre fur pieces owned by elderly female relatives, garments composed of whole pelts with plastic eyes and pathetic clawed feet, somehow connected like link sausages and worn around the shoulders. Then they were gone.

Quiet again.

I leaned forward, looking after them. Nothing. The only noise was the occasional small, hoarse croink of the same two Downy or Hairy Woodpeckers, still concerned over each other’s claim to a piece of bark.

Their call was kind of like that of the Belted Kingfishers I’d occasionally see at the west end of Ryerson, where woods border the brown river. I wondered if somewhere on their family tree woodpeckers are close to kingfishers. Kingfishers do have that overlong and powerful bill. And some woodpeckers are crested, rather kingfisher-like, as was the Pileated I’d seen in the North Woods.

Another hiker?

I looked in the other direction, the one from which the deer and fox had escaped. Was there another hiker in the woods, someone who’d spooked the animals? I moved away from my tree in that direction, sure I’d soon hear or see another person. Perhaps, it would be someone with a dog sending out predatory vibrations, scaring the wildlife in its path. Although Ryerson’s entry signs say pets aren’t allowed, I’ve seen them there several times.

But five minutes later, and well into another part of the forest, I’d seen no one, no sign of anything that might have alarmed the animals.

The naturalist in charge of Ryerson Conservation Area later told me it’s unlikely that a fox would chase deer, and that the explanation must be (as I’d expected to hear) that they were coincidentally running together, away from some perceived threat they all shared.

I don’t know. But I remember how that fox veered toward one of the running deer, the one closest, its heels almost in biting range. And I know how it looked. The incident upstaged the woodpeckers and kinglets, and I’ll never figure it out.

Later that year…

There was news of a White-Winged Crossbill in those same woods, high in some kind of fir that my tree guide says only grows in the Pacific Northwest. The tree’s more uncommon around here than the crossbill. I never did spot the bird, a rare winter visitor not on my list yet, but I did find beaver sign near the river. There were gnawed, pointy tree stumps and bright wood shavings all along the bank. Here was evidence of another nearly extinct animal making a comeback, regardless of increasing human development.

White-Tailed Deer, the kind I saw, are perhaps the best example of wild animals doing this. I recently read that in the 1950s, there were virtually no deer in the Northern half of Illinois. Today, they’re nearly as common as squirrels, and have even become backyard pests during Fall and Winter.

Ryerson Woods–a conservation area–has had to resort to trapping some for relocation, and even employing all-too-willing marksmen to shoot double-digit numbers of deer in order to keep populations of important native plants from being eaten to extinction.

Bears in Chicago? Cougars?

In addition to deer and beaver, these suburban woods, rivers and fields now have unexpected numbers of red fox, mink, woodchuck, chipmunk, raccoon, skunk, weasel, pygmy rattlesnake and even coyote. In fact, last winter at least three coyotes were captured in Chicago’s very urban Lincoln Park amid skyscrapers and boulevards. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that some day porcupines, black bears and even cougars will have worked their way down wooded river systems northwest of here and come into our suburbs. This is known to be the same route that deer and beaver took.

Perhaps these animals don’t always just disappear when human development constricts their natural, preferred environment. Some might well live on. And true to the principles of natural selection, the survivors may gradually produce individuals that prosper within a landscape of only intermittent wildness, co-existing with highways and housing developments.

Later that year, I managed to get some close-up sightings of Red-Bellied Woodpeckers at Ryerson. I saw a brightly colored Evening Grosbeak, and an owl flying from one bare branch to another. It was silhouetted against the dusk sky and too far for a clear identification except to say it was an owl, with upstanding ear tufts blowing in the wind.

In mid-winter there were a surprising number of Robins there, sightings I consider exotic only because, unlike the Robins of my pre-greenhouse-effect Chicago childhood, these don’t migrate any more.

And as spring plants greened along a small creek in Ryerson, I saw a coyote and it saw me. We shared a moment of eye contact before it turned casually and disappeared into the foliage, walking with that distinctive stiff-legged coyote walk I’d seen on others of its kind when visiting Yellowstone National Park.

But this one was fifteen minutes from my home. Bird watching has never been more interesting.

Birds and Books

Tuesday, June 9th, 2009


People who know me believe that I like birds. Well, I want to explain this. The truth is that I DO like birds, somewhat. But I’m not a typical bird watcher. My interest is actually more about bird books.

Over time, my interest in bird books led to an interest in books in general. All books. Books let you in on secrets.


I like secret information. The word “secret” is an exaggeration of course. It makes the information sound like something dangerous. But that’s not the case.

All information is secret to the people who don’t have it. And if you do have it, you know something these other people don’t. This helps you see the world better. It helps you appreciate the world. It helps you understand the size and shape of the world.

It gives you power over information. And it’s better to have power than not. People can argue with this if they want, but I’m not going to argue back. I have better things to do. Like read a book.

Anyway, here’s how a little black and white bird known as a Downy Woodpecker started my interest in birds and books. I should say books and birds. Books come first. I’ve seen a lot more books than I have birds. And learned a lot more from them.

When I was about six years old, my school teacher had us study birds for a few days. She passed around bird books and we drew pictures of birds and she put up posters about the birds of our area.

I didn’t care much about this. I thought birds were something the girls might be interested in, like flowers. I paid no special attention.

But I was a kid who liked art. I liked to draw and could do it pretty well. I had lots of crayons and a watercolor set of paints. Anything colorful would catch my eye; I couldn’t help it.

One day, I leafed through the pages of our classroom’s bird book and I was interested to see how many colors the birds had on them. This was new to me, and interesting.

I lived in a city neighborhood in those days, and the birds I saw around my apartment building were gray and brown. Pigeons, sparrows, that was about it.

So when I saw all the different birds in the book, in bright color combinations, I paid some attention. One bird caught my eye because it had a color combination I could only describe as mischievous, although in those days I don’t think I would have used that word.

It was the Downy Woodpecker.


This bird was all black and white. Black mostly, with white stripes, white speckles, a white chest. It came from a world of black and white, like the pictures in a newspaper. You didn’t need any colors to draw a Downy Woodpecker, just a black pencil would do.

Or would it? Maybe I was wrong about this bird. Something caught my eye. On the back of the Downy Woodpecker’s head, if it was a male bird, there was a tiny bright red dot!

It’s like the designer of birds was having fun with us. The colors of this bird were black and white, and just as we understood this and expected no more, bam, someone dipped a fingertip in cherry red paint, fire engine red paint, and dabbed in on the top of the little bird’s head.

This seemed to say, don’t jump to any conclusions. We can have any color anywhere we want to put it. And red never looks as red as when it’s against plain black and white.

See, it wasn’t the bird I cared about. I wasn’t interested in a woodpecker’s habits or its size or the sound of its voice, or how many eggs it lays, at least not at first.

I only cared about how life could be full of surprises because a black and white thing could have an unexpected dot of color on it.

Then I forgot about the Downy Woodpecker and its colors. Well, I didn’t forget, exactly. I just put it out of my mind and went on to think about other things. Like playing with my friends, watching cartoons on television, running in the playground, climbing slides and sliding down as fast as I could.

Later, on a summer vacation with my parents, I was walking in the woods at a country resort and I saw a Downy Woodpecker.

It was on the side of a big tree and the bird looked very small. But it skittered up and down the trunk, holding on with its feet and propping its body by resting its stiff tail against the bark.

Every once in a while it would peck at the tree, and I thought, hey, it’s called a woodpecker and it’s pecking at the wood. Makes sense.

And then I remembered the red dot I’d seen in the birdbook. I moved closer and looked up at the bird as it worked its way around the tree, sometimes disappearing behind it, but then coming around again.

It wouldn’t sit still, and I couldn’t get an easy look. But then, there it was! The bird tilted its body, and I could see the back of its head. A bright red spot. I knew it would be there.

The connection was exciting. I connected my memory of the bird on the page in the book to this moment of seeing the real bird on the tree.

I had the secret knowledge that this wasn’t just a black and white bird; it was a bird with that surprising bit of red. And I knew it was a male. I knew it was called a Downy Woodpecker. I knew things that other people who were standing around me looking at a little nameless black and white ball of fluff hopping up and down the side of a tree didn’t know.

I said the word “connection” a moment ago. That’s the right word. It was like pushing an electric plug into a wall socket, and zap, light! The connection was made.

I realized that books can tell us things that are not just in the books, but in the real world, the outside world. This made me feel good. I wanted more of this good feeling.

So from that day on, I looked at books with a new interest. Of course, I soon got a bird book, hoping to get that good feeling again when I saw birds in the outside world that I could recognize. And this happened.

I saw a Cardinal and knew it would have black around its face, and a pointed crest on its head. I saw a Blue Jay and knew the back of its tail would have white tips, as though it were dunked in a can of white paint. I saw a Wood Thrush and knew it would stay on the ground instead of sit on a tree branch, because the bird book said Wood Thrushes preferred the ground.

I knew about the birds. I knew things. The books gave me those things.

This would be a small story, not really worth telling, if that was all there was to it. But birds and the information in bird books about them, were just the beginning.

I got the point that day when I saw the red spot on the Downy Woodpecker in the tree, and imagined the electric plug. All books can connect you to what’s out there in the world.

I like knowing about what’s out there in the world. So I like reading books. All books. And when people think I’m a guy who likes birds, just a guy who’s a bird watcher, they’re not really getting the picture. Birds were where I started understanding this important thing about secret information. I still look at birds. But I look at other things too, as much as I can.

Finding a Scarlet Tanager

Monday, June 8th, 2009

First appeared in slightly different form in Bird Watcher’s Digest magazine

During the migration last May I went on a quest for my favorite bird, the scarlet tanager. It was a quest that ended with a twist. This would be a very corny story if it weren’t true.

Every May, my part of the world is rich with migrating birds. I live north of Chicago, on the shore of Lake Michigan. It’s in the heart of the Midwestern flyway. In winter you can see bald eagles if you keep your eyes open. Snowy owls have been spotted on our beaches.


I usually drift through the forest preserves near the Botanic Garden in Glencoe, Illinois, a few miles from my home. I’m content to see whatever I find there. Sometimes I count up the birds I’ve seen. It’s not a big deal, just a way to tap into a guy’s collecting or hunting instinct.

But this day I got it into my mind that I’d see a scarlet tanager. Why is this hot red bird with jet black wings important? I was a six-year-old city kid when I first saw a picture of a scarlet tanager in school. Until then, I’d thought that birds were little brown things, like the sparrows around my apartment building.

What a discovery that bird was to a kid who loved crayons. I remember looking further and finding birds that were blue, yellow, many-colored. When I saw my first live tanager at Allerton Park in central Illinois, that same feeling of discovery hit. I liked it. I wanted it again.

The odds were excellent. After an hour in the woods, I had 30 or 40 species scrawled on a folded scrap of paper I kept in my army jacket. But no scarlet tanager. I went deeper into the woods. I moved like a commando, snapping no twigs, rustling no leaves.

I climbed a tree to blend in. I sat in that big oak for most of an hour. Insects bit. My skin was scratched from twigs. My clothes were stained with sap. No tanager.

(Get ready for some bird porn now, the obligitory name dropping that turns on readers of bird stories….) I’d seen the three kinds of thrushes we get. I’d seen a ruby throated hummingbird, always a kick. Out west, people see hummingbirds a lot, but they’re not common where I live. I saw a green heron that flew in silence thorough branches over a creek. I saw a black crowned night heron, too, and a red-tailed hawk being chased by a fast little marsh hawk for reasons only hawks knew.

I figured I’d move to another site. Half way down I lost footing and fell out of the tree. Bam. On my back amid rocks, branches and poison ivy. Okay, now, more than before, I was on a mission.

I spotted every Midwest warbler, including some I’d never seen. The golden-winged was one. And the Connecticut. I saw deep blue indigo buntings, goldfinches in meadows, yellow-billed cuckoos with long spotted tails, purple finches—another first—and gray-brown flycatchers I can never be sure I’m identifying right. I didn’t see a scarlet tanager.


So I gave up. Left the wilds. Headed home, clothes ripped and dirty, face and hands mosquito-bitten, scraped, scratched, bleeding, hair and shoes sticky with burrs.

In my bedroom upstairs, I stood in front of a big window, pulling my tee-shirt up and over my head. This was slow going because my shoulder ached. The fall was beginning to make itself felt.

When my head emerged, the first thing I saw was a scarlet tanager. Right in front of my face, through the window. Wait. Another one. There were two male scarlet tanagers in my neighbor’s tree.

The distance between the tanagers and me was under ten feet. I wouldn’t have needed binoculars even if I’d had them. I could see every scarlet and black nuance—even glints in their eyes. These were better than the scarlet tanagers I saw in that old bird book years ago.

Please keep in mind that this is a true story. It doesn’t sound like one. It sounds like some kind of morality tale. A fable, perhaps, about how the things we want are really right in your own front yard, blah, blah.

Okay. I can’t help that. This one time, the things were right in my own front yard.

I’ve thought about this from time to time, especially when I find myself pursuing something that appears elusive. Then I think, “Maybe it’s not so elusive. Maybe it’s closer than you think. Hang in there” (So I guess, in a way, this was a morality tale. But still true).