A 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.