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The Greatest Bird

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.

BirdersOne 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.

02 AmRo 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.

03 Robin 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.

Click here to listen to what was recorded.

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.


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Ted Floyd

Ted Floyd

Editor, Birding magazine at American Birding Association
Ted Floyd is the Editor of Birding magazine, and he is broadly involved in other programs and initiatives of the ABA. He is the author of more than 100 magazine and journal articles, and has written four recent books, including an ABA title, the ABA Guide to Birds of Colorado. Floyd is a frequent speaker at birding festivals and state ornithological society meetings, and he has served on the boards of several nonprofit organizations. Mainly, he listens to birds at night.
Ted Floyd

Latest posts by Ted Floyd (see all)

  • You’re so right.

    HUGE smiles here from me, my son, and my husband who all listened with me.

  • jmj

    LOVE that recording.

  • Awesome, Ted!

    I open up a can of worms and you call in a flock of robins. Now that’s what I call teamwork.

    Great post!

  • Good post, Ted. I think your Robin story is a great example of the sort of unifying shared experience that birding can, and in my experience, frequently does provide. A birder for over 15 years, I have just joined the ABA for the first time in the hopes that the organization can advance the companionship and mutual understanding that birders share in a manner that is not only enjoyable and edifying for the membership (the “choir” as it were), but also empowering for birders in the pursuit of ornithological education, conservation, and advocacy.

  • Beautifully said!.. 🙂 Its all about keeping the wonder and excitement alive. There is always something new to discover.

  • Ted, that 4-second audio clip is exactly what the ABA should be about: keeping alive the inborn sense of wonder.

  • George Scott

    Excellent post, Ted (and Hannah).

  • Bob Warneke

    Special stuff, Ted. Your writing always captivates – and Hannah’s excitement is a special touch.

  • Growing up in Kansas City, it seemed like Robins and Bluejays were all we had. Then I moved to South Texas and experienced a fallout on South Padre Island (legendary, think it was 96?). Suddenly all birds were miracles, my heart opened like it did when I had my first child. And Robins? Miracles! Not as common as a Green Jay…and every Robin had to be carefully looked at, because there are many robin species here. But as someone in between a Cardinal and a Ferrugionus Pygmy Owl…(what would that be?)…I think there are many levels of birders. Maybe the ABA should let the Cardinals know that if they want to work their way up the ladder, stopping wherever they are comfortable, the Owls will be glad to give them a hand up.

  • Sharon Lynn

    I love the enthusiasm in the recording. That is what birding is about. Getting excited about seeing birds. At any level of skill.

  • There is nothing like seeing (or hearing) the world through the eyes of a child. The pure joy in that recording lifts the heart and reminds us of how to approach all of life’s experiences.

  • Ted, if it hasn’t been said before, it needs to be said. You are a fantastic writer. Very few can get away with a wordy blog post these days of fast consuming social media/internet society. You also make use of images in a very smart way to make it estethic to the eye and catch your readers. Plus a very catchy title (and perfect for a tweet as well for that matter).
    There is a lot of good text produced on ABA blog – other authors should learn by your example. Pics are needed – and a catchy title.
    Love the excitement of your kids. They will be come great birders because of the greatest bird!
    Running a birding magazine is much like running a bird tour company. You have to supply for both the Pygmy-Owls and the Cardinals – and sometime they just awe together.
    To some extent it is also a Resplendent Quetzal and House Wren thing. You can be rich or poor (in equipment, bells and whistles – or just plain wealth) – but the magazine has to supply both for those that stay at home and bird, as well as those that can afford a overseas birding holiday. And when it comes to those holidays – we need to supply for both those that can afford 5-star hotels as for those that are on a budget. When you are bit by the birding bug and supply a service for birders – it needs to be all-inclusive and not only elitist.

  • Karl Stecher

    Wonderful post, Ted. I appreciate your posts on CoBirds, as you note that your child, now children, are on trips with you.
    I’ve had the same experience with my three daughters, but, differing from your taking your children almost daily locally, mine have been “far and wide” on many trips in pursuit of a rare one.
    Therefore, a “pygmy owl” comment from my oldest one, over twenty years ago, when she was 5 1/2. A little gull had been found at Sloans Lake (urban Denver). We drove down with her 3 year old sister also in tow. It was one of those days that brought back memories of Cape Ann, Massachusetts…bitter, windy, so that your eyes might burn. The bird was seen at the NW corner of the lake, and we drove almost to it. On the car trip, she had asked for the book to study the potential sighting. We all got out of the car as the bird was about 60 feet away, hanging, almost not moving, in the wind. She had the same bubbling enthusiasm as we heard on your recording, saying excitedly, “I see the stripe in its wing. I see the black in its tail.” The three year old was close to frozen within two to three minutes. I put them in their rear seat car seats and got in the front. The 5 year old, still bubbling, said, “That’s the easiest 3 I’ve ever sawn.”

  • Yes, all I can say is “yes”!

  • Jane Henderson

    What a treat to read such great writing. And I agree with everything you wrote!! Keep up the good work.

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