Photo by the author.

The Curious Pleasures of Amateur Bird Watching

The sounds. It’s all sounds when you begin. Once you make the decision to start looking for birds, it’s your ears that actually tune in first. Everywhere you go, the air seems to drip with honeyed trills and cascading warbles. It’s overwhelming, once you start to really listen. You’ll feel invigorated, alert and connected to the environments through which you move in a new and exciting way, but this will be tempered by pangs of melancholy that come with the realization that this sonorous world has been gently draped around you for your entire life, and you’ve been sleepwalking for so long.

After a while you hear them all the time. Sometimes birdcalls will be your first conscious thought when you wake in the morning. You’ll strain to differentiate between tones and cadence, but likely won’t be able to distinguish them in any meaningful way, won’t be able to tell a warning cry from a mating call from a territorial beacon. That’s ok. The songs will fill up some small, hungry part of you, if you’ll only learn to listen.

From time to time, as you flip through your guidebook, you think about the ornithologists who phonetically transcribe bird calls for amateurs like yourself. These transcriptions strike you as genius in their childlike simplicity and earnestness. Per-chick-o-ree says the Goldfinch. The Pine Grosbeak goes tee-tee-tew. You turn the page and think yank-yank-yank can’t possibly be right for a Nuthatch, but then days later you hear it, and it is.

Guidebook in hand, your vocabulary slowly blooms with words new and words rediscovered. You like how the Latin tastes in your mouth: Gularis (throat). Nucha (nape). Crissum (undertail). You like the sound of a clutch of eggs. You think alight is an incredible verb that contains multitudes.

Colours come next. The punkish blue and black of the Steller’s Jay, all sharp edges and constant motion. The garish red of a sun-dappled House Finch, spilled wine on a tablecloth. You thought for a long time that there were only Chickadees, but then you learned to see the soft beauty in the ochre-dusted flanks that mark the Chestnut-Backed, so many shades darker than the Black-Capped version. Just last week, a Yellow Warbler, darting to the birdbath and vanished almost as soon as you realized what it was, might as well have been a tiny crack of lightning it arrested you so abruptly, so completely.

Your eyes get sharper, your awareness improves, your senses start to work together. Where once a hidden lilt would send you whirling as you tried to locate the singer, now you find that a few notes are all you need to zero in on precise locations. Even shadows cannot always hide them. You can track their little shapes tumbling down the scaffolding of old trees. You spot them bouncing through the scattered halflight in dense cedars.

You thought about the courage of that Chickadee a few times throughout the day.

It takes a lot of hours watching your feeders, but you’ll start to learn personalities too. The bouncing bluster of the Towhee trying to shoo away the other ground feeders, its orange eyes blazing (though no one is very much afraid of it). The skittishness of the Varied Thrushes, bolting treeward if you move an inch. The Finches who calmly perch and eat for minutes on end, looking, looking, taking it all in. The businesslike Robins who only lose their inhibitions when they succumb to their unequaled fondness for the birdbath. Chickadees love sunflower seeds best of all; they’ll snatch a single seed and dart away to smash it open or hide it. One morning you see a lone (Chestnut) Chickadee bravely flitting about, waiting for an opening to perch on the feeder. Three or four Dark-eyed Juncos were trying to scare the Chickadee away, but it persevered, snatched a seed, and was lost in the cedars. You thought about the courage of that Chickadee a few times throughout the day.

When you first start out, you might be tempted to track your sightings with an app on your phone, but you will soon realize that this deflects your attention in problematic ways, draining the experience of its quiet intimacy and immediateness. Avoiding all distractions becomes integral to the act of observing. Attentiveness to that tiny corner of the world in your backyard carries with it a strange sense of urgency. It seems important that no screens are involved, that it is just you and the birds. No frames. No borders. This attentiveness is also infectious: the more you watch the feeders, the more you’ll want to watch them, the more you’ll think about them when you’re not watching. You know your brain has been rewired in the age of digital distraction, but it’s nice to learn that you can get a few of those wires back under your control. It’s nice to just sit quietly and be a human, you’ll think to yourself. And so you’ll much prefer to record your sightings and observations in small journals. Scratching out words on paper feels good, even when those words are inconsequential and only ever meant for you. You reread these journals regularly, looking closely for patterns and routines.

Photo by the author.

You gain a renewed appreciation for the slow turn of the seasons. In the winter it’s a steady stream of activity at the feeders and you can’t seem to fill them fast enough. If the feeders ever run empty you feel a twinge of guilt, afraid that your momentarily barren yard will be abandoned forever, your future loneliness now magnified by your awareness of all that you would be missing. On cold winter mornings you chip away thin crusts of ice from the top of the birdbath, and the bones in your feet ache if you spot a bird bathing on a sunless afternoon. You feel helpless when on the coldest winter mornings the bath is frozen solid. Nothing seems to go to waste in the winter, but you’re amazed at how picky everyone is come spring. The Finches especially – they dig and dig for their favourite bites. Just yesterday you watched a single-minded Finch scattering constellations of seeds down at the feet of a Golden-Crowned Sparrow who couldn’t seem to believe its good fortune amidst the grass.

You might even start to feed the crows. Not all of them, just the pair that frequent your front yard. (This will be a controversial decision that disgusts many people, so perhaps it is best to keep it to yourself). You might leave them kibbles of dog food in the crook halfway up the trunk of the big tree, timing it so they see you do it, so you can crouch on the grass and watch them hop down a thick branch and nervously gobble, watching you closely, fixing you in the rhythm of their oily black blinks. Occasionally you might even scatter a few of these crumbles on the lawn, inviting them as close as they’ll dare, surprised at how close this is. If you do, you will notice they are continually sending gentle rattles and clicks between each other, private, tender signals nothing like the harsh caws that rain through the neighbourhood all day long. You could make a soft clicking sound with your tongue and they will abruptly cock their heads, trying to puzzle this out. After you’ve done this a few times you’ll sometimes see them marching intricate patterns around the base of the tree when you are leaving out the front door. You’ll assume they’re waiting for you and then you’ll run back in and snatch a small handful of treats from the dog’s dish.

You will dream about them leaving something in this tree, a secret treasure that they scavenge in their travels and bring back, just for you. Some glittery bauble. Scrap of haggard tinsel. A rusted paperclip or tarnished penny. A tendril of blue thread. You’ve read stories of this, of crows that form a bond with a particular human and regularly deposit offerings weird and arcane. Your imagined archive of what they might leave for you is fantastic and grows daily.

You think you know what this is about. You want to know that the birds wonder about you too. That for some brief splinter of time when you are apart, you cross their mind. That you might be, however briefly, what each other think about.

So you will check the crook of that tree every day, a little flutter in your chest as you rise up on your toes and stretch your neck to see, holding your breath all the while.

English Professor. Author of "Conspiracy of One," a small book of short stories, and “The Coward," a collection of essays.

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