bird by bird

birdsofnorthamericaA few weeks ago, I asked a question on Twitter: How many North American birds could you name by sight? For many of my friends, the answer turned out to be, “More than I thought, now that I’m counting.” And over the past few weeks, some of them have returned to the question, realizing, over time, that they know more birds than they imagined. Great Blue Heron. Gull. Robin. Chickadee. Blue Jay. Pigeon. Flicker. Sparrow. Turkey. Crow. Red-tailed Hawk. It comes as a surprise, it seems.

And I wonder if the same question occurs to them as occurs to me: how exactly did I come to know in the first place?

Bird-minded folks sometimes ask one another, “What’s your spark bird?” It’s a beautifully phrased question about our origins, and among the disciples, it can be revealing. Was it a humble robin? An exotic or elusive bird? A particularly striking warbler? Some birders remember a specific feathered individual. Me personally, I can never nail down the moment.

I remember one warm summer evening at my grandparents’ house on the bank of the Rock River. I was about nine or so, exploring the yard in torn shorts and long braids. I sat alone on a splintery picnic table under a sprawling silver maple, watching dusk fall on the river. Out of the summer hum of crickets and cicadas, I picked up a sound I was particularly tuned in to: a kitten, crying in a lilac bush. Though I couldn’t find it, I ran to the kitchen to tell my grandma, who is also tuned in the key of cat. I led her across the yard to where I’d found the kitten, which I’d already claimed and named, but when she heard its voice, her face fell. “Oh geeze,” she said. “It’s only a catbird.”

“What’s a catbird?”

“It’s a bird that sounds like a cat!” She turned back to the house.

I stayed, and peered into the darkening bush, trying for a glimpse of this bird that sounded so much like a kitten that it’d fooled its namers, too. Catbirds are difficult to spot when they don’t care to be seen, and it was years before I actually caught sight of one, a slaty grey skulker. Years more before I discovered their bright red bloomers. But after that encounter, I never stopped looking.

I remember how my mom knew the names of the birds who visited the feeders she hung outside our dining room—flicker, cardinal, sparrow, chickadee, blue jay, starling. And the names she recalled, but couldn’t hang decisively on any of our visitors: grackle, finch, blackbird, nuthatch. We were not a family of naturalists, and I’m pretty sure birds weren’t on the school curriculum. Most likely she learned from her own mother, she who named the catbird. But how did she know? And who taught her? Few of my friends knew any birds beyond robins. The knowledge always felt like a special family trait, even though its source is a mystery to me. I’m not exactly sure I want to know the true history.

I remember the house finches, too, or at least their painted likeness on a certain glossy page. My other grandparents kept a copy of the Golden Guide to Birds on their coffee table. I would leaf back and forth through the book when I visited, admiring the colors, the weight of the paper, the way it settled open to particular species in my palm.

My grandparents never actually pointed out any birds to me, but they did pass on an old guide they didn’t use any more. It grew dusty and creased as old paperbacks do in the hands of middle-schoolers. Those guides were probably published with that well-worn and well-loved patina, anyway. Somehow the illustrations came to life in the mind of a suburban girl, far distant from their home habitats. The stripedy-purply finches in the field guide’s paintings occupied my imagination for years, until the day I finally saw them in real life. I recognized them instantly, as well as others I finally met in person years later: sandpipers, kestrels, bluebirds.

I suspect that lots of folks have lived similar stories. Instead of a feathered coup de foudre—a lightning strike of love—our minds stayed quietly welcoming and open to a growing awareness of the nature of things. All the creatures crept into my consciousness undercover, by way of books and backyards. And I realized how many I knew by name only when I started looking.

How about you? Do you have a spark bird, or were you a slow learner? And while we’re on the subject, I wish someone in my life had been a fan of fungi, because I’d be much better off if I’d gotten a head start as a kid. Are there any critters or plants you wish you’d known about long ago?


I borrowed the title of this post from Anne Lamott’s wonderful book, “Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life,” which is excellent.

9 Replies to “bird by bird”

  1. Red-tailed Hawk for me. The dude was always enamored with them, so they kind of grew on me. Then we started seeing them everywhere. And I mean EVERYWHERE. Now we have one that lives in the woods behind our house, so many mornings we hear it screeching as it circles above our house.

  2. My parents lived in the suburbs, and past our backyard is a small nature preserve, so I was lucky to grow up around lots of birds. As a home-schooled fifth grader, my “science” assignment was to draw a bird. I choose one of the perky, fat, black-capped chickadees I saw and heard so often, and lovingly filled him out with all the right colors using my colored pencils. While that drawing is long gone, I’d say that little puffy guy was my spark bird.

  3. I don’t remember a time when I was not fascinated with birds, especially raptors. As a little kid, my favorite animal was the bald eagle. At that time bald eagles were not something you saw every day, and I thought of them as exotic creatures like tigers and cheetahs. Shortly after my sixth birthday, my family spent Thanksgiving together in northwestern Pennsylvania. My mom happened to look out the window and noticed a large bird perched just outside the cabin where everyone was staying. “Is that an eagle?” she wondered aloud, and every brother, sister, aunt, uncle, and cousin ran over to the window to check it out. I saw my first adult bald eagle that day. I think that’s the moment I first realized that these birds in my field guides were real, that they were out there, waiting to be discovered. That bald eagle was my spark bird.

  4. Between my parents’ house on three acres of partially wooded land and my grandparents’ lakeside cabin, I grew up around a lot of birds. The masked bandit chickadees were always my local favorite, although now I love spotting allusive owls and other birds of prey.

  5. I don’t think I have a spark bird, but I do really like owls, and would like to see those in the wild more. I think I’ve really only seen ones in captivity.

  6. Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker
    I liked the name. There was one in the neighbor’s yard. My dad made the effort to find out what it was, so I could know . Then my grandparents gave me a field guide. I was 5 or 6. I think it was the top one in your photo. 🙂

  7. The bird was a chickadee and the person was my 4th grade teacher Mrs. Buckholz. She was a naturalist and a birder, and she taught us all to be bird lovers too. Chickadees were her favorite and my 10 year old mind was blown that something that cute was just flying around the neighborhood unnoticed. I had a feeder for years after that and all manner of cute things came by–nuthatches, titmice, house finches, juncos. Now my favorite cute birds are kinglets, something I was amazed to discover in the same backyard 15 years after first seeing a chickadee. I think that’s what I love about birds and animals. There’s always something new, even when it seems like you should have heard of everything.

    My grandmother also taught me something about birds too: that she hated blue jays, citing “they shit on the clothes”. I never saw a blue jay in the yard until after she died.

    PS – S brought one of those old, blue Roger Tory Peterson guides into our relationship, and despite the many nice, photo-filled books we’ve acquired since, I always pull that one out when I need something.

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