Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Spreading The Bird-Love: A Father’s Day Tribute, Part Two
July 12, 2008
by Melissa Grinley

This is a follow-up to last week’s column. My daughter, Melissa, wrote this one for Father’s Day 2003. It is self-explanatory:

     Last year, I wrote a piece for ‘Words on Birds’ for my dad for Father’s Day. This year, he asked if I would do it again. This worried me, as I said pretty much all I had to say about birds in the first column. For those of you who missed it, let me sum up. I spent a good deal of space making fun of my dad’s strange superhuman ability to spot and hear creatures (birds) which, in my opinion (which I should mention is based on fact), are very small and prone to flying away. I then discussed how he managed to drag me to the reserve in Salisbury and I ended up seeing a couple of birds up close, which both helped me to appreciate the hobby of birding and feel closer to my dad.

     Questions that have arisen since, according to my dad, mostly relate to whether this experience has led me to “become a birder”, or become at least “more interested in birds”. The short answer, “not quite”. I did have one bird sighting in the last year that was rather monumental. Although my dad is an avid birder, and I have been living in Washington State for the last five years, I had never seen a bald eagle. (Imagine the look on my dad’s face when I dmitted that. “You’ve never seen one? It’s the national bird!” Here I wanted to point out that if Benjamin Franklin had gotten his way, the national bird would have been the turkey, and I’ve seen plenty of those.)

     This past fall, on a trip to Victoria, British Columbia, I was walking with a friend and came across several people looking up at the sky. I immediately recognized the intent gazing as that of the birdwatcher and asked them what they were looking at. When they told me it was a bald eagle, I became excited. I looked where they were looking and saw nothing. One person pointed. “On that branch, second from the top.” I squinted and strained. I stood over their shoulder to follow the angle of their arm and finger. Nothing. It took four people pointing for about 10 minutes but finally, I saw it, and felt a thrill.

     This story illustrates an important point: why I have not become an avid birder. I believe there are several qualities of the birder that I do not possess. First, birders (and particularly my dad) have the ability to notice small details in the environment. I have a hard enough time noticing the obvious. It has happened more than once that I have been in a car with someone and we have passed something interesting (e.g. a man dressed as Elvis) and when they point it out I search, crying ‘Where? Where???’ and completely miss it.

     Second, birders have a fairly long attention span. In order to really see a bird well, you have to wait until it does something such as fly or move, which could take up to half an hour. Birds often sit doing nothing for long periods of time, and therefore, so do birders. I have the attention span of a small child. Third, a good birder must have patience. From what I have seen, birdwatching requires a lot of waiting, standing, and looking, and it is possible you could go a whole day without seeing anything interesting. But an avid birdwatcher won’t give up, and they’ll try again. I have barely enough patience to get through an entire game of bowling, and even in that I am actually doing something.

     I also believe there is a quality that sets the bird hobbyist apart from the rest of the crowd: a vision of the nature of birds that goes beyond the average person. What I will fondly refer to as the ‘Bird-Love’. Bird-Love can cause someone like my dad to quit years of corporate work and open a store dedicated to the art of birdwatching. Bird-Love inspires the annual bird-a-thon, which I understand requires those affected with Bird-Love to spend 24 hours identifying birds for a good cause (although I have a theory that Bird-Love people would do this anyway, and the fundraising is a guise in order to give it a purpose and make it appear sane to the common man).

     I talked to my friend Amber about the idea of Bird-Love, and she promptly told me that she thinks she can talk to birds. I was a bit taken aback as I have been friends with her for about five years and wasn’t aware she was insane. I asked her to elaborate. Here, paraphrased, is her story:

     “I have a garden on Anderson Island [in Puget Sound, near Seattle] that I spend a lot of time working in on the weekends. There are lots of birds around, mostly robins, starlings, sparrows, but there is this one robin, a big fat red breasted one, who started hanging around last summer. It was strange, I’d be working in the garden and it would just sit near me, for hours at a time. It would leave and come back, and I was sure it was the same robin. I began talking to this robin.”

     At this point in the story, I interrupt and ask her how, exactly, she ‘talked’ to this bird. She demonstrated her bird talk: She made these clicking, seething sounds using her front teeth and lower lip. I struggled to keep a straight face and she continued.

     “So this robin is hanging around all the time. I would make the sounds and he’d turn his head, then start hopping a little closer to me, like he understood. Stop laughing at me! He never flew away, he’d pull a worm and sit next to me and eat it.” She then added (without any embarrassment), “I sing to him too sometimes.”

     In ‘bird-talk’?” I asked incredulously. She said no, that she sang in English, but the bird seemed to really like it, cocking its head and listening intently. I commented that the bird must be quite worldly, being bilingual and all. For some reason, she didn’t want to continue the conversation with me.

     It’s not that I don’t believe her. I think it is definitely possible that Amber has some Snow White connection with woodland creatures. She is a very caring, warm, quiet person, and perhaps they sense a calmness about her that is different from the bustle of ordinary humans and therefore find her approachable. However, this is definitely not a quality that resides in me, and the idea of talking to any bird that came near me in a similar situation would never cross my mind.

     So although I don’t share the Bird-Love, I appreciate those who do. I admire the vigilance and stamina that my dad and other birders possess. Though I may seem cynical and sarcastic about birdwatching, I do think of it as a skill and art.

     One more note-Amber’s robin story reminded me of another favorite quirk of my dad’s that I thought would be nice to share with you all, in the hopes that maybe you’ll swing by his store and make a request. He talks in Duck. Meaning he makes these noises through the side of his mouth that sound like a mixture of the common mallard and Donald Duck. It’s quite a talent. He has done this as long as I can remember, and I picked it up at an early age. It is the one aspect of Bird-Love I have acquired from my dad. In fact, we’ve held entire conversations, back and forth, in Duck. When this happens in public, it causes many heads to turn. So do it. Go to the store, ask my dad to talk in Duck for you. I am sure he will, and will think twice next year about having me write a guest column.

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
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