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Birds and Birding

During the summer of 1997, I got very interested in birds, and began keeping a life-list of species sited. Over a period of about 2 months I spotted a little over one hundred species. Here's how it happened:

I was sitting in my backyard one day when, for no apparent reason, I noticed the birds. It was not that a particular bird caught my eye, or that I heard a striking birdsong -- it was that I noticed all the birds at once. I realized that for much of my life, I had been ignoring the birds, even though they were all around me, flying in front of my face. Although I could recognize a few basic types, such as hawks and crows and sparrows, the majority of the birds around me were anonymous brown creatures.

I'm not sure why, perhaps I was frustated by my ignorance. For whatever reason I was filled with the desire to know the names of these creatures. The following day I bought a field guide at a bookstore (the first of many).

Over the next few days, I would sit in my backyard every evening after work, systematically identifying every bird I saw and writing it down. At first this was difficult, because I had no idea what to expect. When I would see a brown bird, I would flip through the entire field guide, past gulls, pelicans and owls, looking for something that resembled my target. Eventually, identification became easier, as I saw that the birds in my yard tended to fall into a few thin sections of the book: Thrushes, doves, finches and so on. For the most part I could skip the water birds and the birds-of-prey. Soon I was able to leave the book in the house, as I was able to identify the vast majority of birds in my yard by sight and sometimes by sound.

I made a list everyday of the birds I saw, and began to recognize patterns in the locations and behaviors of the birds in my suburb. And I learned interesting esoterica. I learned that what I called a sparrow was not a true sparrow, but a kind of finch. I learned that what I called a Pigeon was named a Rock Dove. I learned that the birds I called Crows were often Ravens, and that many of the birds I called Ducks were Coots. I learned that some of the most common birds we see (such as Pigeons, Sparrows and Starlings) originally had been brought from Europe, and had made a large impact on local species diversity.

A few weeks later, something amazing happened. A nondescript gray bird landed on the telephone wire in front of my house for a few seconds, and I noticed it. I noticed it because it was clearly not a bird I had ever seen before. I memorized its features before it flew away. When I looked it up shortly thereafter, I saw that it was a rare kind of dove (it was a Eurasian Collared Dove - an invasive species which has grown in numbers in California, but was still rare in 1997). This is something that would have completely escaped my attention if I had not been paying attention to the birds in the first place. I paid attention to the bird, not because its feathers were brightly colored, but because it was unique; and that uniqueness, hitherto invisible to me, made it beautiful.

I realized, on that day, that the act of merely paying attention could bring new beauty into my life. What other things was I ignoring? What other beautiful creatures were right in front of my face, simply waiting for me to open my eyes?