As a kid growing up in northeast Ohio, I knew the basics of the birds that frequented our neighborhood. Mom always pointed them out, marveling at the cardinals and their song, tisk-tisking the raucous blue jays (“those bullies!”), and pointing with delight at the cute house wrens popping in and out of the birdhouse that hung from one of the backyard trees.
Robins and house sparrows were common, and every once in a while we’d see a red-headed woodpecker, validation that the cartoon character Woody Woodpecker was reality-based.
One day in our yard I spotted a gray and white bird with a crested head, like a cardinal only smaller, yet definitely not a cardinal. What was it?
My parents had a bird book on the bookshelves beside the fireplace in the living room. I can’t remember which book it was. The Golden field guide “Birds of North America” published in the mid-1960s is a fair bet, although it doesn’t quite match the vague image lingering in memory. I can’t remember how old I was; six or seven seems a reasonable guess.
I thumbed through the book and discovered the tufted titmouse. You might say I started my life list that day, as it was the first bird I identified on my own, without adult input.
It would take years for my interest in birds to build to the daily duty it is today. I have no recollection of taking any interest in the birds on campus when I was in college or graduate school, and I think the first real interest came during my late 20s and early 30s in Nebraska.
I traveled nearly everywhere in the Cornhusker State in my jobs as AP correspondent and bureau chief in Omaha. One of the most wonderful experiences I had was catching the sandhill cranes congregating along the “mile wide, inch deep” Platte River near Grand Island. I had never seen so many noisy, gawky birds assembled in one place in all my life.
I was also startled on one of my first drives through the Sand Hills in the central part of the state to see white pelicans — how on earth did these sea birds end up in the middle of the continent?
So many birds, so many questions! Just thinking about these early experiences stirs up more memories of my travels, to recall in future days.