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Experience October/November 2023

On Second Thought:Fine Feathered Friends

Stephen M Terrell


  • Embrace birdwatching as a a simple source of wonder and inspiration.
  • Enjoy each species' beauty, uniqueness, and variety in their appearances and calls.
On Second Thought:Fine Feathered Friends Jose Bernardino

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My mother loved birds. She’d look out the kitchen window and comment on the cardinals or blue jays she’d see, sometimes imitating the call of cardinals (“birdie, birdie, birdie”). She’d delight in hearing whippoorwills, bobwhites (she knew the northern bobwhite quail by their distinctive call—“bob-white”), or the weather-predicting sound of what she called rain crows.

I didn’t think of it as bird watching. When I was young, I thought of bird watching as that nerdy pursuit followed by Professor P. Caspar Biddle (Wally Cox) and Jane Hathaway (Nancy Kulp) on “The Beverly Hillbillies.” My image was of grownups prancing around in the woods acting foolish. They displayed knobby knees in adult scouting uniforms, dangling binoculars around their necks, and talking in excited tones about a tufted titmouse or a yellow-bellied sapsucker.

Birds of ill omen

It’s no wonder that as an adult, even though I enjoyed camping and hiking with my family and was a scout leader, I never took a particular interest in watching birds. There was the one time on a scouting campout when my son and I stumbled upon a giant dead tree. Every bare branch was covered with turkey buzzards. There must have been 50 or more of them. Even though buzzards are harmless, it gave us both shivers.

Years later, during the early days of the pandemic, a similar occurrence brought even more concerns. Our neighbors are a wonderful couple pushing 90. They both have health concerns, and it’s not unusual to see an ambulance called to their residence. But one morning, I stepped out for a morning walk and saw the roofs of their house and garage and the tree in front of their house covered with huge, black turkey buzzards, their small blood-red heads dangling.

It was a shock. So much so that I went back inside and asked my wife if we should call someone to check on them. It wasn’t long after that we saw Slim, the husband of the elderly couple, step outside, fit as a 90 year old could be.

I never understood why the buzzards congregated there that morning. They’ve never returned, and three years later, Slim and Alice are still with us.

It started as a lark

But that summer of the pandemic, when so many people stayed at home and roads were quieter, introduced me to a different view of bird watching. Sitting on our porch as we did so much of that summer, my wife and I began noticing birds more—and particularly the couple that nested in the decorative grasses in our yard. They were an odd couple of ground-nesting birds with a distinctive cry.

I did a little research and acquired a copy of The Sibley Guide to Birds, which I understand to be the Bible for birders. I was able to identify our new friends as killdeers. Sometimes described as a shore bird without the shore, they’re robin-sized brown birds with white breasts and distinctive black and white rings around their neck and face.

We watched the killdeer all summer and were terribly disappointed when they didn’t return the following spring. But my bicycling route included dozens of them in farm fields that I could now readily identify by their calls and by seeing them in flight.

My next step in birding came while spending winters in northeastern Florida. My wife and I developed a regular habit of spending afternoons at a local park, sitting on the park swings looking out over the water. The park was full of noisy birds that most dismissed as simply “blackbirds.”

But enter Merlin, an amazing and free app developed by Cornell University that can identify birds by both sounds and images. By using Merlin, I identified the “blackbirds” as boat-tailed grackles.

The more time my wife and I spent with them, the more amazing these birds were. First, they weren’t just black, as they appear in the trees. When they approached us to eat Cheerios we tossed to them (they loved Cheerios and would chase them as they rolled down the sidewalk), we found they were translucent in the sunshine, showing not only black but purples, blues, and greens.

We also picked up on the incredible variety of calls they make. It wasn’t unusual that as we sat in the park, we’d hear a variety of different calls and think, “Surely, there are different types of birds here today.” But there weren’t. Merlin identified all the sounds as boat-tailed grackles, which our eyes soon confirmed.

As we became more attuned to the sights and sounds around us, we identified (with the help of Merlin) more birds. There was the common crow, the fish crow, the majestic red-shouldered hawk, and the fluffy and all-too-cute red-bellied woodpecker.

A bird’s eye view of the world

Then I began using Merlin on my daily walks where we were staying. I was amazed at the variety of birds—Carolina chickadees, Carolina wrens, yellow-rumped warblers, downy woodpeckers, pileated woodpeckers, chipping sparrows, pine warblers, and yes, even the tufted titmouse. And there was even the northern mockingbird singing to his heart’s content—the bird, which every lawyer and English major knows, it’s a sin to kill.

Riding my bicycle around the Florida golf course community, I saw egrets and white ibis. At one pond, I seemed to make a friend with the oddly-colored muscovy duck, which followed me on a walk. In another area, I regularly saw a flock of the oddest birds I’ve seen in both name and appearance—the black-bellied whistling duck. And yes, its call resembles a whistle.

The highlight of my new adventure in birding was when a large black bird showed up along the pond outside the house where we were staying. Merlin identified it as an anhinga, also known as a darter, American darter, water turkey, or perhaps most appropriate when it’s in the water, a snakebird. It’s a South American bird whose northern-most range is along the United States Gulf Coast.

At first appearance, it seems simply a large black bird. But as you watch, its back and wing feathers spread a bit, revealing a beautiful pattern of white feathers mixed among the black. And when it slides into the water, it swims with its entire body below the surface. Only its long, black neck is visible, looking exactly like a snake.

When we returned to Indiana this spring, one of our first purchases was bird feeders—not one bird feeder but six. It took a couple of weeks, but soon our feeders were filled with birds—birds that were eating like pigs.

There were cardinals, robins, red-winged blackbirds, mourning doves, cowbirds, finches, sparrows, starlings, and others. There were even blue jays. I hadn’t seen a blue jay near my home in several years, but as many as six at once were finding their way to my feeders. Then one day a cute little fluffball flew onto a feeder perch. It was a red-bellied woodpecker, just like the one I’d seen in Florida.

I never envisioned myself as a bird watcher. I certainly never thought I’d find myself staring out at bird feeders or sitting on a bench tossing Cheerios to boat-tailed grackles. But now I am. Just like Professor Biddle and Miss Hathaway.