Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
My Dad The Birdman, A Father’s Day Tribute
June 16, 2023
by Steve Grinley
I still receive requests to repeat some of the columns that my daughter Melissa has written on my behalf over the years. Since Father’s Day is this weekend, I share with you again this column that Melissa wrote back in 2002 as a Father’s Day present to me:
My dad loves birds. And when I say ‘loves’, I don’t mean that he has a lot of bird books or that he likes to go birdwatching every other Sunday. They are his life. My father’s love for birds has outlasted his marriages and goes deeper than probably even his love for his children. This is not to say he doesn’t love his children deeply, but he is better at identifying a black headed grosbeak from one hundred yards away than he is at realizing his kid’s clothes are mismatched. We’re talking passion. The only other thing that might come close in my father’s heart is the Beach Boys, but as they have gotten older and older and some of them have died off (or gone off in the case of Brian), his love for them is not what it used to be. But the love for birds has not faded.
This deep passion began early. As a teenager, my dad went on a cross-country trip in a VW bus. Yes it was the 60’s, but he wasn’t on a ‘freedom tour’ or a ‘peace mission’. No, my dad was hanging out with a bunch of other nerdy like-minded teens looking at birds.
When I was a kid, he really tried to instill the bird-love in me and my brother and sisters. He would wake us up at 7am on a Saturday and march us off into the woods. We were forced to stand very still while he said things like “Shhhhh!!!” “Do you hear that?” or “Do you see that?”. We never heard or saw anything. Eventually he gave up when he learned that trying to keep four kids quiet in the woods is near impossible.
I’ve never understood it. My dad has something like 20/70 vision yet he can see these specks sitting on the branches of far away trees. And not only see them but identify them. And not only that, but he can tell if they’re male or female. I am lucky if I can tell if a person is male or female from 20 feet away.
In this way I see my dad as superhuman, with this ability to see and hear things that aren’t there. And I have always rolled my eyes at this little eccentricity, until recently. Not so long ago I was visiting my dad and we had planned a day of ice cream and shopping. I went to his store at about noon to meet him, and before we left to go get ice cream he casually asked if it would be alright if we stopped along the way to check out a bird. Sneaky. That’s how he does it, he makes it sound like it is just going to be a quick pull-over along the road, when really it is a detour to the Salisbury refuge and suddenly I find myself birdwatching, just like that.
He told me that there was a little blue heron at the reserve, as well as an owl. I asked him how he knew this. He said he got a phone call around 9 this morning. Ah, the birdwatcher phone tree was at it again. This astounds me. No rare wild bird could get within a 50-mile radius of my dad without him knowing about it. These birdwatchers are tenacious, a network of bird nerds who spread the word faster than faith healers in Alabama. Still I am skeptical. We are talking about birds after all, and to me, birds are elusive and mobile. They have wings, and like to use them. If someone were to call me and tell me they saw a Tufted Titmouse (which is a real bird) at 9am, in my head it is impossible the bird will still be there at 9:03, let alone four hours later. But did I say tenacious? We were shortly on our way to Salisbury.
We got to the reserve, and pulled over along the road at the exact spot the bird was last seen by the informants. There it was, a little blue heron. I was blown away. I said something like ‘Wow, it’s actually here’ without any trace of sarcasm. I was truly amazed. And the bird was really beautiful. My dad pulled his field guide out from the backseat of the car and showed me the picture. It looked just like the picture! I had this strange sense of satisfaction, like I had solved a complicated word problem. My dad noticed my enthusiasm and milked it. “Do you want to see the owl?” “Do I! Oh Boy!” the sarcasm was back, if only for show. I didn’t want to seem too easily converted.
We trekked through a grove of trees, searching high and low for the owl. I wasn’t trying too hard, knowing there was no way I would spot a bird before my dad, so why expel the energy? He had just about given up and I had just about turned back into my cynical birding-is-dumb self when suddenly my dad grabbed me and started laughing. Right at eye level about four feet away was a little saw whet owl, staring at us (and in my mind, laughing at us). It was beautiful. We were so close we could see its bright yellow eyes and distinctive streaked markings. I couldn’t believe how small and cute it was. I realized that birdwatching does have its rewards, especially when the birds are at eye level four feet away.
I now laugh less at my dad’s obsession with birds. What I now refer to as ‘The Owl Incident’ has helped me to better appreciate my dad’s passion, though I admit I won’t go so far as to buy my own binoculars. Besides, I know all the words to ‘Fun Fun Fun’ and ‘Help Me Rhonda’, and I think that is far enough.