For the Birds

Birds resemble art in more ways than one, especially when they force us to address questions of ineffable provenance.
For the Birds
A Pyrrhuloxia, the red and gray cousin to the more notable Northern Cardinal.
Photograph by Sean Kelley

I’ve long been comfortable with friends who snicker at my love of birds. I don’t expect them to know the difference between preferred stock and livestock, much less be interested in birds. But I never imagined my motives for bird-watching would be considered, as one Harvard educated journalist recently wrote, “downright suspect.” Nor could I conceive that the growth of birding in America would be seen as “ominous.” Then again, there was a time when I snickered with the best of them.

I came to bird-watching in my late twenties—a time when I had a traditional career and little time for travel—on a cool January day in Big Bend National Park. As my father and I trudged up Emory Peak he kept pointing out birds.

“Do you see the Cactus Wren?” he asked.

I shrugged.

“Was that a Colima Warbler?” he said.

“Hellifiknow.”

A little later he yelped with glee and said, “Look at that Plumbeous Vireo!”

I glanced at a fleeting whir, shook my head, and with much annoyance said, “Enough with the birds, let’s get up this mountain.”

For the next hour we climbed in silence past Madrone trees, drooping junipers, and pinon pines. The loneliness of the desert floor tempered by the monochrome blue brilliance of the sky.

Halfway up we stopped for water and a snack when a Mexican Jay (Aphelocoma ultramarina) plopped down, screeching, next to us. Dad ripped off a small piece of energy bar and placed it a few feet from me. The jay pounced.

Intrigued, I tore off another piece and put it in my palm. The jay danced a curious avian galliard, screeched twice, and pecked the food straight from my hand.

My conversion was immediate. And total.

In the subsequent twelve years I’ve seen birds, both common and rare, on every continent but two: Australia and Antarctica. Birding, I’ve come to realize, is as ancient as civilization. Aristophanes wrote The Birds in 414 BC, foreshadowing Hitchcock and Messiaen by centuries. The English word “auspicious” derives from the ancient Latin “auspice”: one who looks at birds. And even Catullus, that Bukowski of the Romans, wrote of birds, comparing his ribald lover Lesbia with a delicate sparrow.

With history like that, it’s no surprise contemporary birding is also a deeply human occupation, arising from the same impulse that compels men and women to visit architectural wonders and to see works of art in museums, to admire, if just for a moment, creation for its own sake. Birders are solitary for a reason: better to avoid the pompous intercession of Harvard intellectuals pontificating on the meaning of birds. And birds, like great art, can surprise us.

Sometimes we find peace in even the biggest of metropolises. After a week recuperating from a painful collision with an Indonesian water buffalo, I arrived in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur. The city is massive (home to about seven million people), and only a few species survive the ecological pressure: sparrows, pigeons, and Indian Mynas.

One afternoon, in the shadow of the Petronas Towers, I saw a Black-naped Oriole (Oriolus chinensis) flitting about in a pair of trees. In that moment the magnetic stainless steel skyscrapers faded in a momentary blur of black and T’ang dynasty yellow and the chaotic city dissolved around me.

Birds resemble art in more ways than one, especially when they force us to address questions of ineffable provenance. I’d been traveling for a week through the Great Rift Valley, the crucible of man’s evolution from lower primate to lord of the realm, when I stumbled upon a Little Bee-eater in Axum, Ethiopia. This curious bird, so unlike me, evolved into a unique ecological niche. And there he sat on a tree branch, flourishing on the grounds of an ancient church that some believe holds the Ark of the Covenant. As I looked at his burnt orange breast and green hood I could not help but to ponder the deepest mysteries of my existence. All this from a bird no larger than my outstretched fingers.

While some birds proffer questions, others offer answers, such as a brilliant orange and black Hoopoe feeding his nesting chicks in Tamil Nadu, India. What is often forgotten about birds is the fundamental equality between the sexes. The males may have more brilliant plumage, but they share equally in raising their young, in fact in everything else. As the male Hoopoe flew off to collect more food I saw his mate poke her head out. Perhaps the birds can teach us something as well?

Of course seeing birds on five continents marks me as exceptionally lucky, but the best birds I’ve seen are always close to home. For several years I visited Big Bend in the hopes of seeing a Pyrrhuloxia, that red and gray cousin to the more notable Northern Cardinal. This year I had the good fortune to see several in the riparian flatlands of the Rio Grande.

Some birds we might never see, not because they are rare but because they are human shy. One such bird is the Painted Bunting, which many consider the Holy Grail of Texas birding. The Painted Bunting is a fabulously colorful bird, with vermilion, cobalt blue, green, and yellow plumage more reminiscent of the tropics than the cactus flats and wajia brush of the Hill Country. From the moment I first saw his photo in the field guide that day in early 1998 I’ve longed to see one.

Late last year while I drove south from Camp Wood, a small hamlet deep in the Texas Hill Country, toward Uvalde, a multihued blur zipped past my windshield.

I slammed on the brakes, grabbed my camera, and got out of the car. As I scanned the horizon, a silhouette settled on a mesquite tree.

And there he was, a Painted Bunting, staring at me nervously. I snapped a few shots and then tried to get closer. He would have none of it and quickly flew off.

I sat still and felt

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