How I was drawn to birds

by Hari Balasubramanian

CardinalThere are interests that lie dormant within us, waiting to take hold some day. If someone had said ten years back that I'd be into birds, I would have been skeptical. It's true that I always had a fondness for animals: in high school, I spent a lot of time following neighborhood stray dogs and watching cheetahs chase gazelles on National Geographic. After moving to Arizona for grad school, I sought out every opportunity to hike and visit the famous national parks of the American southwest. But despite all the time spent outdoors, birds had never intrigued me. I used to be puzzled, even amused, by people who showed up at a trail with binoculars.

For many, it's the sighting of a particular species, usually a rare or colorful one, that sparks an interest. In my case, it was a very common North American bird – the cardinal. This was in 2011. I'd been living in Amherst, Massachusetts for three years. I had heard of cardinals, mostly as the name of a football team, and had never spotted one.

But in March that year, I suddenly starting seeing them: outside my apartment, during my walks in the woods around Amherst and while driving (they would often fly across the road). The crested bright red male was a thrill to watch. I felt privileged every time I saw one. Something was being revealed just to me! I asked others if they had seen any and would feel proud if their reply was negative. There was probably a simpler explanation of course. It snowed and rained a lot that year, and the population could have spiked for some ecological reason. Or the sight of the first made me look for more every day, with the result that I had simply begun to see what had always been there.

Whatever the reason, cardinals sparked a wider interest in birds and indeed all other species. It all seemed a tremendous mystery.

At the time my apartment had large windows in the living room. They overlooked a wide green lawn that sloped down to a stream. Close to the window was a fledgling tree or plant that had grown only to a few feet. Every morning birds would come, perch on a weak branch for a few seconds, their heads bobbing this way and that, before moving to a nearby bird feeder. There was a family of chipmunks too. They had burrows into which they disappeared and hid food. The squirrels – giants compared to the chipmunks – frequented the bigger trees just beyond, flashing their bushy tails and chasing each other. This was very much a window onto domestic wildlife.

It was here that I saw the same pair of cardinals almost every day for a few weeks. A sudden sighting of the red male would invariably be followed by the lighter red of the female or vice versa. A month or two later, I learned to identify their calls. Even if I was unable to spot them, I knew they were around in the trees. I just had to roll down car windows while driving through narrow roads.

American_goldfinch_glamour12One thing led to another. In looking for cardinals that spring, I stumbled upon the equally colorful American goldfinch. Like cardinals, goldfinches showed up at my window now and then. A gold finch is smaller than the cardinal, about the size of sparrow. The bright yellow of the goldfinch is made sharper by the black strips along the finch's wings.

Again the same question: How come I had missed something as common and striking as the goldfinch for three years? And what other open secrets of the natural world was I missing? Apparently a lot! The sightings kept coming over the years. Blue herons, downy woodpeckers, scarlet tanagers, cedar waxwings, wild turkeys, falcons. A mile-long walk along wooded trails and swamps in and around Amherst, which I had previously wanted to finish it within 15 minutes – thanks to the modern obsession with fitness and heart-rates – could now take an hour and a half. I became attuned to the movements of birds among trees, patterns of flight and behavior, their calls. All this happened not with any forced effort but with the simple act of paying attention and enjoying it. Binoculars proved invaluable. Amazing how the simple arrangement of lenses can bring the distant so vividly close!

Every time I felt that there was nothing more to be surprised by, something new would come up. This year alone – five years after cardinals set me on the path – I saw for the first time the dark silhouette of the great horned owl, seated on a bare branch, against the twilight sky; the crow-sized pileated woodpecker, knocking on a broken tree stump, possibly looking for carpenter ants; the kingfisher diving for a catch in a river, then screeching loudly as if declaring victory.

It isn't only about spotting a new or visually striking species. Recently I saw a crow steal three acorn nuts that squirrels had dropped from the high reaches of an oak tree. Somehow the crow managed to pack the three relatively large and spherical acorns along its 2-inch beak. No easy feat!

And once, while waiting at a traffic intersection for the signal to change, I noticed a small sparrow-like bird scurrying into a hollow beam. The hollow beam was the horizontal support on which the panel of traffic lights was hung. The diameter of the beam was just large enough to let a sparrow-sized bird in. Many species take advantage of the nooks and interstices of infrastructure – falcons nesting in the high ledges of buildings, starlings and mourning doves lining up quietly on telephone lines – but I would have never guessed the support beam of a traffic signal as a place of refuge. This split-second observation on the road produced as strong as an impression as anything I'd seen in more 'natural' settings.

E. O. Wilson, who spent decades studying ants, “found that ants are a magical well: the more you draw from them, the more there is to draw.” I've certainly felt that way about birds. Every time I pay attention some new detail which I had previously missed comes to the fore. What I think of as familiar is constantly turning new, constantly reinventing itself. Nothing is ever settled.