When I started working at Audubon in 1998 I could recognize a few birds by sight – just a handful. You know the ones: cardinal, blue jay, chickadee. All the little brown ones were simply “LBB” for Little Brown Bird. Just as I know the difference between a truck, a car, and a van, I also knew the difference between a goose, a duck, and an owl. And just as I can’t tell a Chevy from a Ford, I couldn’t tell a great horned from a screech owl.
One day I came to work so proud! “I saw a hawk,” I told my colleagues. They were excited for me, “That’s great!” Then came the crushing question: “What kind of hawk?” I hung my head. I thought I was doing well just to know it was a hawk.
“That’s OK,” I told myself. “You don’t want to be one of those nerdy birders anyway… never finishing a sentence because something flashed past the window… binoculars hanging around their necks on every walk… completely oblivious to the cool wildflower on the ground or the wild beetle on the bark of the tree… Nope. Don’t become one of Them.”
In the spring of 1999, the folks at Roger Tory Peterson Institute asked if they could hold a teacher workshop at Audubon on bluebirds. Always delighted to get more people visiting Audubon, and not knowing anything about bluebirds, I said sure – as long as I was allowed to attend. Those three or four hours turned out to be life-changing.
Elaine Crossley, the Bluebird Lady, guided us as we each made our own nest box. The video we watched on bluebirds not only taught us where and how to place our boxes, but also about the bluebirds’ songs, courting, and the care of their young. “These birds are so dear,” I thought. I felt my heart melting; my love affair with the New York State bird had begun. But I wasn’t totally hooked yet.
We hit the road to learn about monitoring. The first box we visited on Elaine’s nest box route didn’t have bluebirds; it had tree swallows. It also had a very foul and wet nest, possibly caused by a windy rain storm the night before. “Hold out your hands,” Elaine told me. Into my waiting hands she plopped four or five featherless babes, eyes still shut tight against the world. Quick as can be, the damp, dirty nest was replaced with fresh grass and a few feathers. Elaine inspected the babies one by one as she plucked them from my hands and returned them to the nest box, teaching the whole time about her experiences as a nest box monitor.
Now I was hooked… transformed! Those babies in my hands… that did it. I couldn’t wait to get back to Audubon and place boxes. I couldn’t wait to monitor and to teach others what I was learning. It was such an easy entry into birding. There were only a few species I had to really know: the other cavity nesters who might use my boxes. Chickadee, tree swallow, and titmouse. House wren and house sparrow (and now two of my LBBs had names).
I still wasn’t a birder, mind you… still resisting, reluctant. But a funny thing happened. My concern for and interest in the handful of birds that use nest boxes began to expand to anything that flashed by the window or flitted in the bushes as I walked by. During the summer, I learned about catbirds and yellow warblers, red-winged blackbirds and kingbirds, kingfishers and screech owls. Winter came and so did the feeder birds. Could I learn the twenty-five top visitors? I asked for binoculars and a field guide for Christmas. More of my LBBs started to have names: tree sparrows, white-throated sparrows, song sparrows. Spring came around again and I noticed bird songs more than I had ever noticed them before. I even started being able to recognize birds by their songs… Crow, blue jay, chickadee, of course. But also cardinal, oriole, catbird, red-winged blackbird, yellow warbler and more. I didn’t even have to see them to know who was out there.
I’m not trying to become an ornithologist, or even a birder; I guess when you work at Audubon, it just starts to seep in – like osmosis. I still don’t know my hawks, or my ducks. I’m getting better with my owls. I have a long way to go; there is so much to learn. I’m not a birder. I don’t take my binoculars on every walk. I still notice the wildflowers and the bugs. I’ll never be one of Them, but I don’t mind learning a bit about… hey, what just flew into that tree?