Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Monday, October 9, 2017

Of Baseball and Birding in the Postseason

Laura and the Cubs' World Series trophy

The baseball postseason is upon us—only the second postseason in history (the previous one being in 2003) to include both the Chicago Cubs and the Minnesota Twins, albeit much too briefly for the Twins and their fans. Baseball is the best sport of all if you are good at multitasking and happen to enjoy birding. Of course, sports with indoor stadiums, including baseball, aren’t conducive to birding at all, and those with bird-killing stadiums are the worst of the worst. I’ve never been a football fan, and have especially turned sour on the Minnesota Vikings thanks to their new bird-killing stadium.

Vikings Poster
When games are played outdoors, you can see at least some birds while watching just about any sport, but balancing your observations between the game and the birds doesn’t always work out the way it should. I almost missed my son Tom’s first goal in soccer when he was little because nighthawks happened to be flying over. If Russ hadn’t been right next to me to jab me in the ribs, I’d have missed the goal entirely. Baseball games move slowly enough that you don’t miss a lot if you’re mostly keeping your eyes on the skies. Even if you do miss the pitch and swing of a home run, the thwack when the bat hits the ball brings your eyes down instantly to at least enjoy the ball’s long trajectory.

Being a Cubs fan in particular is surprisingly compatible with birding. Even so long after they installed lights at Wrigley Field, the Cubs still play far more daytime games than any major league baseball team, and due to the ballpark’s proximity to Lake Michigan, a good variety of birds will be winging over just about any time during spring and fall migration. I’ve even seen a Peregrine Falcon cruise over Wrigley Field once, back when seeing a Peregrine was even rarer than seeing the Cubs win. Of course, back in the olden days, you could watch the sky throughout the game and hardly ever miss the Cubs' winning run.

Despite their long track record of loss, I like to think that even Mother Nature smiles down on the Cubs. Not long after midnight last November 3, an hour or so after the Cubs won the World Series, I took my dog out before I went to bed. From my backyard Pip and I heard a Boreal Owl calling. That was the first time in the 35 years we’d lived in our house that I’d ever heard one calling. Something truly magical had happened that night, that even the birds seemed to celebrate.

Pip loves her Cubbies!

Having lived just shy of 65 years without the Cubs ever winning the National League Pennant, almost two-thirds of those years as a birder, I can attest that birding and being a Cubs fan are surprisingly alike. In his wonderful new book, The Chicago Cubs: Story of a Curse, Rich Cohen writes:
What you want is always out of reach. Sometimes it’s miles out of reach, sometimes you can almost touch it. If you do touch it, you will realize, after a week or two, that it’s not really what you want, that what you really want is still out of reach.
That is true of virtually every material object. And it’s true for Cubs fans. Less than a year after the Cubs finally won the World Series, we already find ourselves yearning for an encore.

That truth also holds in birding. For years my most-yearned-for species was the Cuban Tody. I finally got to see one last October, during the only week of the entire baseball season when I couldn’t keep track of every single Cubs game, because we had no access to Internet or American news in Cuba.

Cuban Tody!!

I was thrilled to have finally seen this gorgeous tiny bird, and just as elated to come home and see that my photos of it had turned out well. But little by little, my thoughts started turning to birds I still hadn’t seen. Suddenly I was hungry to see a Pink-footed Goose—my new "most wanted bird." I managed to see one of those in New York City in January.

Pink-footed Goose

And now? Now I find myself yearning to see an Andean Condor, an Ostrich, a Shoebill, a Jabiru… Some of the birds I’ve already seen, I yearn to get an even better look at. I want to see a Marvelous Spatuletail with its marvelous tail fully grown; an Ivory Gull in pristine adult plumage; an Andean Cock-of-the-Rock and a Cuban Trogon at close range. I want to park myself where some Orange-collared Manakins are displaying, and watch a pair of Cuban Todies excavate their nest and raise young. I even want to get more and better photos of Black-capped Chickadees nesting, and some of them roosting at night. We humans are never really satisfied, are we?

But in a larger sense, even as I continue to yearn for new things, the truth is that I DID see real, warm-alive Cuban Todies, and my Cubbies DID win the World Series. Thinking about either will always have the power to make me smile, whether or not I ever see another tody and whether or not the Cubs ever repeat their 2016 miracle. Everyday birding jaunts and Cubs games will always bring me pleasure, win or lose, no matter what birds I see or miss. If one powerful element of the human condition is to yearn for what we don’t have, birders and Cubs fans will always be able to look back and appreciate the intangible riches we have enjoyed. Just as Rick and Ilsa will always have Paris, I'll always have that Cubs World Series Victory and my Cuban Tody. Who could ask for anything more?

Cuban Tody!!