Bird Whisperer: Reflections on the
of Avian Beings
Copyright 2020 by Tom McGuire
out of a day camping on the river several years ago with friends, who
noticed my bird-obsessed behavior over the course of several days,
but desired a deeper explanation and a more nuanced context for my
extreme love and passion for Mother Earth's most fascinating
One day, camping on the
South Fork Yuba River, I'm roused at dawn by a flurry of bird
activity - a phenomenon not wholly unexpected of a mid-summer quiet
morn on the Be-Yuba-Ful!
Great Blue Heron
gracefully soaring high above. Steller's Jay perched leerily on a
rock seeking crumbs from the previous night's meal. Merry family of
Mergansers bobbing along in the mellow current. John Muir's favorite
bird, the Water Ouzel, foraging in a burbling rapid in her inimitable
style. Plaintive trill notes pitching off a rock wall of another
favorite, the Canyon Wren. Flock of noisy Goldfinches competing with
chipping Chickadees for dominance in a cluster of willows. Or maybe
they're just playing.
Meanwhile, a trout breaks
limpid water's surface to snag swarming gnats; bold-colored
dragonflies patrol the canyon like miniature Sikorskys; and -
sightings of sightings! - a mink appears on the opposite bank,
foraging for crawdads in the sand. The beautiful and amazing wild
animal gives me a once-over from afar, a curious nonchalant glance
before scampering away to the safety of a hidden rock den.
The pristine dawning of a new day. An hour
before breakfast even crosses my mind. The fascinating flurry of
sightings sets the tone for an all-day birding and wildlife viewing
marathon. My binoculars go everywhere with me, so attached am I to
them - or they to me - it's a veritable Borg-like integration of
biology and technology, my cold, hard binoculars an extension of my
warm soft being.
From the moment I arise in the chill dawn
sandy banks of the river, to the moment I crash under a starry
firmament in my sleeping bag, from morning noon to dusk, my trusty
8.5 x 45 Endeavor EDs are my constant companion, accompanying me up
and down the rocky river bank, to and fro on ridge top hikes, even
while just sitting around the sandy campsite, always, and forever, on
the lookout for . . .
Birds in action!
Birds bein' birds!
My camping mates are intrigued. Not being
they grapple to understand the compelling nature of "bird
watching," an activity which (to them) must appear to be little
more than endless moments of standing around craning one's neck,
peering up into trees, scanning environs, or reconnoitering water's
As the sun begins to warm things up that
an eventual 108 degree day, I carry on in full rhapsody mode
explaining to my friends my intense scrutiny and illimitable
devotion. What, after all, drives this obsession (passionate hobby),
this peculiar yearning to plumb mysteries and secrets, to want to
know and understand birds, their every behavioral nuance and
When pressed for more specific information
relationship to, interest in, and knowledge of birds, a barrage of
thoughts, impressions, and opinions spill out.
Well, my friends, they asked for it, didn't
first, I want them to know:
I'm no expert in avian
biology and behavior.
I'm terrible at identification, except
maybe for the
usual suspects, but even they can have a befuddling optics about them
more often than not.
I'm completely remiss in hapless efforts to
distinct vocalizations, even those of the usual suspects, who might
have multiple sonorous expressions and variable tweeting songs,
cries, screeches, and croaks based on different communication needs.
During my impassioned spiel, it dawns on me
everything I know (moreso, what I don't know) is informed (or
muddled) through daily observation, honed by an intuitive sensibility
born of sheer curiosity about nature's infinite variety of animate
phenomena, and characterized, mystically so, by an ineffable
spiritual connection to birds.
(My wife, Ms. Corbin, is of the Raven
Thus, my love of birds is less a scholarly
focus of academic inquiry than it is a curiosity-driven passion, a
naturalist-oriented approach, a poetic narrative, a sense and
appreciation of birds' magnificent otherness.
Birds are arguably the planet's most highly
life form - quite a claim! - endowed with super / natural physical
prowess and herculean stamina, and armed (winged) with ingenious
survival strategies to ensure genetic propagation of individual
species and their collective avian kingdom, for over a quarter of a
Birds are the planet's most hardy, widely
and adaptable life form . . . but also among the most endangered and
vulnerable of living beings. Despite their numbers, ten billion or
more in total, they teeter on the brink of quick extinction and
annihilation at the hands of the planet's other hardy, widely
dispersed and adaptable life form . . . ecce Homo.
Because birds are masters of evolutionary
and variation, they've been able to exploit resources and occupy
niches other animals can't. Through age-old evolutionary selection
processes and deeply imprinted memories of migration / homing
patterns, birds reliably take up residence and frequently visit the
planet's propitious and not so propitious environs, roving thousand
plus mile journeys to make their temporary or permanent home any and
everywhere they can find food and a mate, build a nest, and lay,
hatch eggs, and nurture their brood to fledglinghood.
Birds are nonesuch creatures endowed with
variation and expression, capable of accomplishing seemingly
impossible aerial feats of navigation, of hunting prowess, and, with
their astounding size to power ratio, birds are blessed with superior
technical construction acumen, such as a 6 ounce bird being able to
build a stronger and more durable nest than a 200 pound man. (Saw
this on a Nova special!)
Birds are - surprise! surprise! - living
of dinosaurs, who, of course, never went extinct, but figured out a
way to transform and take to the skies to survive. This extraordinary
evolutionary heritage of taxonomic complexity and species
biodiversity, guided by tremendous stamina and cellular memory,
unmatched survival strategies, and internal GPS systems that put
human technology to shame, has propelled birds to global dominance.
Featuring prominently in human culture and
the Stone Age, birds reside in our collective subconscious as
auspicious and mythopoeic beings, as iconic symbols of freedom and
independence, and tantalize us with their mysterious ways, elusive
existence, and unfettered freedom.
Birds stand apart as ancient beings, here
to teach us
earthbound humans a thing or two about the wondrous nature of
existence, the existence of nature's wonders. About their magnificent
(Here, I break rhythm to point up to a
bough in a
gnarled Oak tree on the other side of the river for a fleeting
glimpse of a Western Tanager. Seconds later, I shout excitedly,
"Look! A Goshawk alighting on a jagged tree snag!" And,
then, unbelievable, a Belted Kingfisher whooshes downstream and
disappears around a bend in the river.)
My camping mates seem genuinely excited
sightings. (But they were all snoozing when I spotted the mink at
So, see, you don't have to be a die-hard
birder to be
into birds, for birds are found everywhere, in case you haven't
noticed. Which, sadly, most haven't.
With the exception of town square Pigeons,
mobs of neighborhood Crows, or gansta Geese on the green, non-birder
people pass the test with flying colors - ignoring birds, that is,
because . . . well, they're just flighty little balls of fluff,
aren't they. Barely noticeable blurs of fat and feathers in their
quotidian comings and goings (doing what, exactly?). Mere tiny
animations in the busy backdrop of life, right.
Hans Christian Andersen, who knew a thing
about birds, noted, "The whole world is a series of miracles,
but we’re so used to seeing them that we call them ordinary
Thank goodness, we have Confucius to thank
handy apothegm, "A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise
man marvels at the commonplace."
On a bright note, have you ever felt happy
content in a woodsy setting, or on your porch, with the birds
chirping away, coming and going at your feeder?
Well - surprise! surprise! - birdsong
brains by attuning us to the innumerable but oft-overlooked mysteries
around us - nature's nuanced reminders of our inter-connectedness
with all things!
Just being in the presence of birds,
their meditative melodies, has been scientifically measured to induce
harmony and well-being, uplift the psyche and elevate the human
spirit by stimulating neural networks that flush the brain with
happiness endorphins and activating birdsong tryptamine receptors.
Being a devoted observer of the comings and
anywhere from ten to fifty species of birds (I spot thirty-three
during our three-day camping interlude) involves a stubborn
willingness, a mindless (or mindful) transcendent state of being (or
non-doing), to stand by idly, waiting, waiting, for interminably long
stretches of time . . .and for what?
To "thrill" at another mundane sighting of
a "drab" old Towhee or Bushtit?
But look, listen, observe closely, and long
even the drab old Towhee and Bushtit are anything but. Jon Young,
author of What the Robin Knows, says of so-called "boring"
birds: "When we really see and hear and begin to understand
these and other birds, the revelations are fun, enthralling, even
A curious child-like attitude thus infuses
outing, every errand, with a spontaneous opportunity to spot and
appreciate birds, to have fun, enthrall, seek out and connect with
vital energies, enhancing a deep brain connection to and soulful
intimacy with birds - and to the natural world. Thoreau grokked the
low-down: "Nature will bear the closest inspection. She invites
us to lay our eye level with her smallest leaf, and take an insect
view of its plain."
And, while we're at it, Hank, a bird's-eye
Ultimately, though, what keeps the game
the hope to experience that serendipitous encounter, the holy grail
of birders: the unlikely appearance of a never before spotted bird.
Such synchronicity does happen, if but rarely.
Imagine the surprise of being in the right
the right time and a rarely sighted bird appears, in living color,
manifest for a few fleeting seconds!
When such a bird appears out of nowhere,
your day is
automatically brightened and enriched in a way that scrolling through
images of nature and birds on a computer screen can never equal. Even
seeing a so-called common bird occasions a smile, a knowing
understanding, a heartfelt sentiment, an interesting insight, a
neural attuning to nature's deepest secrets and mysteries, in fact.
Dare I profess that
spotting a Prothonotary Warbler or some exotic Madagascar
is the gratifying equivalent of bearing witness to any unseen or
unknown animal, whether a Snow Leopard, Orca, Dugong, Sun Bear,
Sloth, or Clownfish. Size or species doesn't matter; provenance be
damned; charismatic megafauna, overrated.
For who could not thrill equally at a
Warbler - perhaps a once in a lifetime sighting tantamount to seeing
for the first time a tiger salamander or polar bear? For the common
denominator is the comparative rarity of the encounter, the thrill
one experiences in seeing a singular animal for the first time, not
which kind of animal, or how big it was, or if you had to climb
Himalayan heights to see it.
Such sightings - whether avian, amphibian,
mammal (or tree, plant, lichen, moss, fungi, and rock, for that
matter) - no matter large or small, finned, feathered or furred (or
barked, slimy and shiny surfaced) - all are worthy of wonderment and
apotheosis from the tiniest bird in your backyard to the biggest
cetacean (or tree) in the world!
My camping mates (still enthralled) are not
Well, I guess you have to be a biased and impassioned birder to
ascribe to such a (hyperbolic) sentiment . . .
Keep in mind, such profound revelations are
strictly reserved for once in a lifetime sightings of rarely seen
birds, for even a pair of Banded-tailed Pigeons roosting on a high
tree branch down the street (previously a woodlands sighting only),
or the random urban appearance of a White Dove, or a Brown Creeper
feeding her very tiny little ones, hidden deep in the barky crevasse
of a Redwood in a local park, will do to augment the day's magic and
But when news of a particularly striking
gets around, people freak! They will flock from hundreds or thousands
of miles away on the drop of a dime to travel to the ends of earth,
for the off-chance of spotting the bird. This reeks of fanaticism
(and elitism) (and passion) - and for what?
Bragging rights, mainly, but deep down, we
know it's the thrill of the "chase" (right word?), the hope
of "bagging" (wrong word?) that rare bird to check it off
your Life List. But it also goes back to my earlier point of
partaking in a special visual encounter / spiritual communion, with a
singular, heretofore unseen creature of the earth.
Birds fit the bill. (Even the butt-ugly
All this standing around and waiting about
zen moments of patient nature gazing is, or should be, prime time for
inward reflection and focus on the minutiae of nature's hidden (but
in plain sight), and little (but oh so grand) miracles. The sacred
and sublime imbuing your world, an ephemeral moment of "contact"
in an intimate connection with a sentient being. (Even though you
know the bird is completely absent of such feelings or "connections"
but that doesn't matter one bit.)
But, ah, to espy a little Titmouse or
only to see him flit away, gone forever, renders that tiny
insignificant event no less sacred in the scheme of things, all
things being sacred.
Of course, birding is an activity best done
solitary pursuit (or with other birders), because such a dilatory
hobby tends to put you at risk of being left behind by hiking
partners not so into birding. And for what? A fleeting glimpse of a
bird you've seen a zillion times, that's what! But so what!
Because, in truth, any glimpse of any bird,
how fleeting, or mundane, or repetitious, or common, is a precious
thing - there may come a day when birds no longer exist, driven to
extinction by humanity's careless stupidity and greed. And then what?
Well, we won't be around either, in that case.
Birding, I let my friends know, is not just
you'll find me doing when out and about in nature, here on the Yuba.
I'm equally content (and passionate)
birds just standing on my porch or hanging out in my overgrown
backyard, as I am hiking the High Sierra, patrolling birding hot
spots at Point Reyes National Seashore, or lolly-gagging in bird-rich
Mount Diablo State Park.
David Lindo, author of Tales From Concrete
effuses, "There is not a day when I don't marvel at the nature
that surrounds me in my urban environment . . . when you start to see
the urban world as a habitat with cliffs, woodland, marshes, lakes,
rivers and scrubland, that is when you start to see birds."
Because birds, by their very nature, force
closely inspect our most intimate surroundings, they are a conduit to
connect us to, and bridge the gap, of earth and sky and spaces
Among their dazzling talents, have you ever
their superb eye-claw coordination, how they're able to fly into a
bush at top speed and manage to expertly dull their momentum and
clasp onto a branch without missing a beat. Ever see a bird stumble?
Birds are masterful aviation and navigation
experts. Except, of course, when they fly headlong and unsuspecting
into ill-designed wind turbine blades or invitingly reflective
skyscraper windows or sucked into jet engines. They're no match for
outsized bird-dangerous human technology.
The art of birding can be a frustrating
you let it, if the pursuit of knowledge and identity certification is
your chief goal. Because more often than not, you're left
the feeling of being denied, blanked, shut out of such-and-such a
bird's microcosmic existence in some dense shrubbery or in a high
cluster of boughs, or foraging out on distant mudflats, never to know
what bird it was, where it disappeared to, what its intent was, or
its thought (instinct) process.
Because more often than not, you're left
there to be content only to hear a plaintive cry, a longing twill, a
beautiful song of presence, or a screech announcing something of
great import - but what? - for a breeding partner, a territorial
challenge, or merely to sing a song for sheer joy, as the case may
So, any burning, yearning desire to know
what makes birds tick, requires some serious lucubration poring over
academic tomes and reference guides. I prefer to follow Walt
Whitman's advice: "You must not know too much or be too precise
or scientific about birds and trees and flowers and watercraft; a
certain free-margin , or even vagueness - ignorance, credulity -
helps your enjoyment of these things."
Eric Berne, a Canadian psychiatrist, echoed
sentiment: “The moment a little boy is concerned with which is
a jay and which is a sparrow, he can no longer see the birds or hear
In the process serving up a zen lesson
urging us in
metaphoric language to become more present / more in the moment to
fully take in one's surroundings without mental distractions and
over-analytic thinking and perceptions about nature.
In other words, slow down, stop, even, and
see, but look; don't just hear, but listen. Even put down your
binoculars and set aside the viewing scopes. No pens, smart phones
with instant bird app knowledge at your fingertips. Just you and the
birds, alone, on equal footing.
Because birds are an enduring mystery, we
know everything about them, try as we might to plumb the scientific
depths of their tweeting presence. And knowing too much, as Walt
cautioned, would probably suck the mystery out of our love affair
Lindo exhorts us to "Go ahead and fall in
The birds will love you back unconditionally and will continue to
fascinate you until you draw your last breath."
Extraordinary Ordinary Birds:
Our fellow inhabitants on our one and only
us embrace birds, respect them, admire them . . . not murder
endangered ones for selfish pursuits of the palate, or kill them with
negligent and unthinking uses of horrific poisons, or allow
uncontrolled feral and pet feline menaces to stalk and brutalize and
Why do I love birds and their magnificent
By now, I've come to realize a lengthy essay is unnecessary, giving
way to a few choice words:
Birds: Who know no bounds.
Birds: Who are confined by nothing.
Birds: Who trespass without obstacle or
Birds: Who go where they damn well please.
Birds: Who rule the roost!
Long Live Birds!
I am recently retired from
a long career at U.C. Berkeley where I served as Program Director of
certificate programs in the Extension Department. Since my
retirement, my wife and I have been traveling around the country
visiting national parks and many old friends we hadn’t see in
I am a writer with several
non-fiction publications to my credit, and amateur photographer, with
voluminous content on Facebook and Instagram. I also publish several
blogs, including my top three: a hiking blog going back fifteen years
(@ gambolinman.blogspot.com); a birding blog begun eight years ago (@
berkeleybackyardbirdblog.blogspot.com); and a blog begun this year on
inventive word games and puzzles of my own creation (@
Currently, as our road
trip has temporarily ground to a halt, my wife and I are living in
Santa Fe, New Mexico where we are both working on writing short
of the message
won't know where to send it.)
Another story by Tom
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