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).