The Greatest Bird
by Ted Floyd
Wow. ABA President Jeff Gordon sure has opened up a can of worms with this rather straightforward question: What would you like to talk about? Inevitably, many of the responses have revolved around the age-old question of who we at the ABA really are. Are we the cream of the crop?—“elite” birders with long lifelists and imposing knowledge of Staffelmauser in tropical seabirds. Or are we “robin strokers,” as the Brits say?—entry-level birdwatchers interested in, and quaintly taken with, the common bird species around our yards and neighborhoods.
One person responded to Gordon by comparing ABA members to birds. On the one hand, in this quasi-anonymous person’s formulation, there are Northern Cardinals: “They are easy to see, easy to attract, and easy to keep happy. Give them what they want in small doses, and they’re yours for life.” On the other hand, this person says, there are Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls: “They have fairly specific habitat requirements and extremely limited ranges. Despite their small size, they are ferocious predators. They have been known to attack cardinals and scare them into hiding. Moreover, they are extremely territorial and immediately chase off other pygmy-owls who dare to venture into their areas.” (Above: Birders at the 2008 ABA Convention in Snowbird, Utah. Are ABA members high-maintenance "pygmy-owls" or easy-going "cardinals"? Photo by © Bill Schmoker.)
It’s a good analogy. Those pygmy-owls are the “elite” birders—high-end, decidedly high-maintenance ABA members who demand “serious” content from Birding magazine, among other things. Cardinals, meanwhile, are all the rest of us—folks who count it a blessing just to be part of a community of likeminded bird lovers.
But it’s not really like that.
For one thing, those pygmy-owls—despite their sometimes truculent posturing on BirdChat—do have a lot to offer to the rest of us. They’re “serious” precisely because they care; they care about the ways and welfare of birds, and they’re serious about transmitting knowledge to the next generation of birders. Even though they require a bit more maintenance, the pygmy-owls are worth the effort, many would say.
Meanwhile, it’s not exactly as if the cardinals are being completely ignored. There are all sorts of outfits—Bird Watcher’s Digest and Birds and Blooms, National Audubon and local bird clubs—that cater to the wants and whims of entry-level bird lovers. Those great hordes of cardinals are well cared for by organizations and interests other than the ABA, many would say.
One solution, advanced by our quasi-anonymous correspondent, would be for the ABA to offer a tier of membership services. Only the pygmy-owls would pay a special premium to receive what another correspondent derides as “soul-deadening articles in Birding on mitochrondrial DNA that must have been rejected by Science only to be inflicted on ABA members.” [Ouch. —Ed.] The cardinals, meanwhile, would elect to receive just the basics: Birding Lite, I guess, and random swag.
I understand the logic, but I don’t buy into the basic premise, namely, that “cardinals” and “pymgy-owls” can’t get along; that serious and casual birders can’t find common ground; that beginners and experts have little, if anything, to offer one another.
Enter Turdus migratorius, the American Robin, the greatest bird in the world.
Everybody loves robins.
Some of the greatest birders I’ve ever met are head-over-heels in love with robins. Last I heard, Michael O’Brien’s favorite bird is the American Robin; and O’Brien, I hasten to point out, is on anybody’s short list of the greatest birders of all time. Robins challenge us to get serious about understanding molt limits, flight calls, and geographic variation. If those things sound “hardcore” and “elite,” you’re absolutely right: The truly dedicated advanced birders devote an awful lot of time to painstaking study of American Robins. Once you've mastered peeps and empids, once you've figured out accipiters and subadult gulls, it's time to get serious about robin study. (Right: That's "just" a robin sitting on a fence. But it's also a second-year female. Can you tell why? Hint: Click on the photo to enlarge, and look for molt limits. And which subspecies is it—propinquus or caurinus? Photo by © Bill Schmoker.)
George Miksch Sutton (1898–1982), the Albert Schweitzer of field ornithology, had this to say about Turdus migratorius: “The quiet, homelike beauty of the robin appeals to every American. As the trim bird runs about the dew-drenched lawn, he seems to impart to us his own belief in the goodness of life.” We cannot help ourselves. We are mesmerized by robins. Rachel Carson (1907–1964) pondered robins, as a result of which the modern environmental movement was awakened.
Here’s an anecdote of my own. A few months ago, I was leading a fieldtrip that felt a bit “flat” to me. I think the outing had been misleadingly promoted, with the result that both serious birders and rank newbies were in attendance. The beginners were put off by the prospect of traipsing through waste-high grass in pursuit of a rare sparrow; and the experts grumbled about wasting time at a feeding station behind a nature center. To make matters worse, it was overcast, drizzling, and cold. The “pygmy-owls” were about to attack the “cardinals,” and the “cardinals” just wanted to go home.
Then a flock of American Robins burst onto the scene. They came in from on high, filling the air with their electric flight calls. Their red axillaries (“wingpits”) were flashing beacons in the gray sky. The birds landed in a nearby crabapple. Immediately, they got down to business: jockeying for perches, devouring the tree’s fruits, all the while calling and even caroling. Bedlam. (Left: Photo courtesy of © VIREO.)
The fieldtrip came to life. The birds were so cool! We watched and listened and learned: about subspecies, secondary coverts, and so forth. Mainly, though, we just took it all in. We just marveled at those rowdy, roisterous robins.
“I have never seen anything so tremulous and alive,” writes Annie Dillard of a striking landscape on a particularly brisk and invigorating afternoon in the Appalachian foothills. That’s how we felt about the robins.
“I am more alive than all the world,” Dillard continues. That’s how each one of us felt in the presence of those robins. For Dillard, it was a personal epiphany. For us with the robins, though, it was a corporate awakening: Life is good, real good, and we’re all in this thing together.
A final anecdote, if I may. This past weekend, I was getting the old flowerpot microphone ready for spring migration. I had a quick errand to run, and I’d left the recording set-up running. Now I should’ve known better: Even the cheapest of parabolic microphones—and that’s basically what the flowerpot set-up is—are annoyingly good at picking up human voices. (Note to Nathan Pieplow: You really should inform your field companions when you’re actively recording. A whole bunch of us live in constant fear that you’ll some day go public with all the incriminating background chatter you’ve managed to pick up on and preserve forever.) Anyhow, my kids had come onto the scene, if you will. And then a large flock of American Robins descended upon our back yard. The recorder was still running, recall.
That’s the utterance of a six-year old who has yet to discover the wonders and glories of Staffelmauser. Rachel Carson and George Miksch Sutton would have used different words to describe the spectacle in our back yard; Michael O’Brien and Annie Dillard, too, would respond with different terminology. I’m certain of those things. But I’m also just as certain of the following: The basic sentiment is all the same: Life is good, real good, and—yes, when you think about it for just a moment—we’re all in this thing together.