Transcript of today's For the Birds
In his seminal book, Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv coined the term “nature deficit disorder.” Suddenly I had a term for the condition I’d grown up with in the 1950s. Children today spend much less time outdoors, and have even less access to truly natural habitats, than I did. But people who enjoy nature in their day-to-day lives don’t necessarily realize how many adults as well as children spend their lives utterly removed from the natural world, like Woody Allen, who famously said, “I am two with nature.”
When I take a walk in my Duluth neighborhood during fall migration, I usually see 15 or 20 species of birds, and quite a few more on a good day. It’s jarring to realize how much I take this for granted now, when I think back to my first year of birding.
This was right after I opened my Christmas present—my first pair of binoculars—on Christmas 1974
The day I started, March 2, 1975, I hiked around Baker Woodlot on the Michigan State University campus for almost 45 minutes before I saw my first bird, a chickadee.
I didn’t see another chickadee for weeks, and didn’t notice another bird of any kind for three days, when I saw Mallards on the Red Cedar River. I knew the ducks would be there, but it wasn’t until I’d studied the field guide that I realized that they weren’t generic ducks, or that the gaudy males were the same species as the dull females.
It took another four days to see my first European Starlings. That day I also saw my first House Sparrows. I was excited to see two new birds in such short order, but it took more than a week to see my next species—a Northern Cardinal, which I saw in Russ’s parents’ backyard in a Chicago suburb. That day we headed to the Morton Arboretum—a birding hot spot, where I saw a total of five species, and added three—American Crow, Canada Goose, and Bufflehead—to my life list. I was proud of myself for seeing so many species in a single day. I’d been actively birding for 15 days and had amassed a life list of 8. Doesn’t sound like much, but every new bird on my life list was a brand new discovery that felt like a tangible achievement.
It would have been far simpler to build up a large life list had I gone out with other birders that first spring. But I feel lucky that I didn’t know any. If I had, I would not have searched through the field guide from start to finish for every bird I added, would not have forced myself to view every single field mark before adding each bird, and would not have searched out every bird with my own two eyes and ears. My ignorance of birds may have started out about as wide and as deep as possible, but mastering them bird by bird has been the most satisfying achievement I’ve ever felt. Over the course of that spring, I got my life list up to 40 and came to intimately know and love my trusty Golden guide.
Using a single field guide day after day, as my light reading at bedtime as well as my tool for figuring out birds as I was watching them, made me familiar enough with bird families and species that when I took my first field ornithology class in June, I was ready. My list more than doubled in the following three weeks, what with having an instructor pointing out so many birds, but by then I was picking out a lot of the birds our class saw, too, and I recognized enough songs that I could easily pick out and learn the unfamiliar ones. By the end of 1975, I’d built my life list up to 120 species, more than half of which I’d found and identified entirely on my own, and I was off and running. Within a few months, I’d gone from suffering an acute case of nature deficit disorder to being good at identifying birds and habitats and spending most of my free time outdoors. Birding was the cure.
(This is the title page of my second copy of the Golden Guide, a hardbound. The pages fell out of the first within a couple of years. I didn't use this copy in the field much after Chandler Robbins autographed it! Meanwhile, I cut up the pages of my first copy to make flashcards for my students. I still have them.)