My Favorite Bird
by Ted Floyd
In the summer of 1980, when I was getting interested in birding, my favorite bird was the Brown Thrasher. By the end of the summer of 1981, I was hooked on birding; at that time, my favorite bird was the Common Grackle. Sometime in the fall of 1981, the Downy Woodpecker became my favorite. Next up was the Red-bellied Woodpecker, which grabbed the top ranking on February 12, 1982. That lasted two months and a day: The Pileated Woodpecker was #1 as of April 13, 1982. [Left: Brown Thrasher by © Bill Schmoker.]
Ah. A theme is starting to emerge, it would seem. Three species of woodpeckers. Evidently, I was channeling the passions of James T. Tanner, Lester L. Short, and Steve Shunk.
I wonder what Steve Shunk was doing in 1982.
Back to the matter of my favorite bird. The woodpecker thing lasted a while, but, eventually, it came to an end. By the mid-1980s, my favorite bird was the Eastern Screech-Owl. And the screech-owl thing lasted quite a while. But not forever.
At some point in the early aughts, the Swainson’s Thrush supplanted the screech-owl. Then it was a tie: Swainson’s Thrush and Chipping Sparrow. Then a three-way tie: Swainson’s Thrush, Chipping Sparrow, and Upland Sandpiper.
Over the years, the following succession: a mimic-thrush, a blackbird, and three woodpeckers; then an owl for about fifteen years; then a Catharus thrush; and then add a sparrow and a sandpiper into the mix. Y’know, I’ll toss a few others into the fray: the cosmopolitan Barn Swallow, the range-restricted Brown Trembler of the Lesser Antilles, and the Clamorous Reed Warbler of the Middle East and Australasia.
You’d be excused for saying I’m pretty fickle when it comes to a favorite bird.
But check this out: I have a favorite planet.
Mercury is my favorite planet. Mercury is my incontestable beloved. Indeed, Mercury is my favorite of all celestial objects. It’s been that way with me for ages. It will be that way forever. A sighting of Mercury fills me with delight and stirs me with wonder.
I’m fickle, as I said, about my favorite bird or birds. Why, I’m downright unfaithful. From fave to fave I flit. These days, I have three favorites—or is it six?—all at once. Make that seven; the Eastern Screech-Owl is back in the running. Check that. Eight. Sooty Shearwater, too.
We were talking about Mercury.
Our solar system’s innermost planet is my totem. More than any bird or any other object in the material universe, Mercury symbolizes my whole approach to nature study. [Right: The iconic Mariner 10 photo of the south pole of Mercury.]
Here’s the deal.
Mercury ought to be one of the most obvious and most familiar objects in the sky. The planet can shine as bright as magnitude minus-2.3, quite a bit brighter than brilliant Sirius—by far the brightest star in the night sky. That’s exceptional, but even a merely “average” apparition of Mercury is much brighter than any star in the celestial northern hemisphere. (The three brightest stars—Sirius, Canopus, and Alpha Centauri—are in the celestial southern hemisphere.)
Yet Mercury has been seen by relatively few human observers.
It is said that Nikolai Copernicus—the astronomer who achieved the most daring and disconcerting insight in all of human history—never saw Mercury. Now that may well be just a legend. Still. It gets at the heart of the matter. Many folks—especially folks who ought to know better—have never seen brilliant Mercury.
How can that be?
There are two basic challenges for those who might lay eyes on Mercury.
First, Mercury is fast. The planet whips around the sun in 88 days. Now you see it, Now you don’t. The other planets hang around for months or even years at a time; but sightings of Mercury last just a few days to a week or so. Mercury is the celestial equivalent of a sunset, a rainbow, or the morning dew.
Second, Mercury is close to the Sun. This second point is the biggie. It has to do with psychology. You see, Mercury’s proximity to the Sun messes with our minds. As dusk transmutes into darkness, our eyes and imaginations are drawn toward the darker regions of the sky. That’s where the action is, right? That’s where all the stars are to be seen. And by the time the night sky is fully dark, Mercury is long gone. The planet cannot be seen except during twilight. [Above: “Now you see it, Now you don’t.” Mercury moves fast, and it never gets high above the horizon. Schematic of the western horizon at sunset, northern hemisphere, late winter 2012, by © Bob King.]
We don’t see Mercury because we’re not looking in the right place or at the right time. Or maybe we do see it, but we’re not sure. “What is that bright object?” we ask ourselves. “Maybe it’s just the landing lights of a distant airplane?” And then when we go out to look for it the next evening, it’s not there. The innermost planet “flies forgotten, as a dream / dies at the opening day.”
In my first summer as a birder, I’ve already noted, my favorite bird was the Brown Thrasher. Here’s why. Nobody else—not my parents, not my siblings, not any of the neighbors—knew about this skulker in the briar patch down by the creek. Sure, my friends and family knew all about cardinals, mockingbirds, goldfinches, and perhaps a dozen other birds. But not the Brown Thrasher. In having made the acquaintance of Toxostoma rufum, I had come into possession of secret knowledge. I knew, only I knew, the ways and haunts of this actually quite stunning bird that is really rather easy to find. But you have to know where to look for Brown Thrashers. And there was something else, I reckoned, something more fundamental: You have to know to look for them in the first place; you have to know to look for them, period.
My preteen encounters with the Brown Thrasher provided me with early instruction in the most powerful—and most powerfully vexing—lesson in ontology: Believing is seeing.
Same thing with the Common Grackle. Nobody knew about Quiscalus quiscula, so far as I could tell. It was ridiculous! Grackles were everywhere! It amazed me that not a one of my neighbors, teachers, or playmates had ever even heard of this over-the-top-brilliant, totally-in-your-face, amazing, shiny, black bird. Again: Believing is seeing. [Right: Common Grackle by © Bill Schmoker.]
The woodpeckers, too. There were actually woodpeckers in my residential neighborhood!
Even, in due course, owls! As ABA President Jeff Gordon noted in a recent essay in Birding (March 2011 issue, p. 9), “Do you remember how you felt when you first realized that not only are there hawks—or, even more magically, owls—living in close proximity to most of us?” Yes, I remember. It was exhilarating to realize that there were Eastern Screech-Owls in the urban parks near my house. Anybody, in theory, had the same access to those owls that I did. But they didn’t know, as I did, where to look for Eastern Screech-Owls. Let alone how to find screech-owls—by whistling imitations of their calls, I soon enough discovered. And the key point: All those other city dwellers just didn’t know. The converse, then, of the lesson of the Brown Thrasher: Not believing is not seeing.
I ought to note that I didn’t actually see many of the hundreds of Eastern Screech-Owls I encountered during my teen years. Rather, I heard them. And I heard something else in the night woods: in spring, and especially in fall, the nocturnal flight calls of migrating Swainson’s Thrushes. On some nights, I heard thousands of flight calls. Yet practically nobody else—not even other birders—knew about the bewitching nocturnal flights of Swainson’s Thrushes, invisible of course, but plainly audible to anybody with normal hearing.
In recent years, I’ve discovered the wonderful secrets held by Chipping Sparrows and Upland Sandpipers, by Barn Swallows and Brown Tremblers, by Clamorous Reed Warblers, Sooty Shearwaters, and many others. It doesn’t matter, for our present purposes, what those secrets are. The bigger point is this: Seemingly prosaic birds like Chipping Sparrows and Barn Swallows harbor amazing secrets. Who knew? I sure didn’t.
I vehemently resist the idea that nature study is a form of escapism. It’s precisely the opposite, I would say. When we engage the natural world, we attain a better grasp of reality. When we “escape” into nature’s realm, we obtain new knowledge of the objects and phenomena that populate the world around us. Whenever we step outdoors, we achieve a grander vision of the wonders and glories of the material universe.
The other day, my kids and their paternal grandmother and I were scurrying from one errand to another. Into the car; Out of the car; Off to the next event or engagement.
It was half an hour past sundown. Jupiter, Venus, and the Moon were lined up in a row, one atop another, in the western sky. Something caught the corner of my eye. Way below the thin crescent Moon, just above the horizon, there was another object in the sky. It was incongruous, shining brightly in a patch of sky still awash in the glow of sunlight. It was Mercury, of course. [Left: Schematic courtesy of © EarthSky.]
I brought it to the attention of my companions.
My mother, who’s been around the block more than a few times, had never knowingly espied Mercury. My daughter, who’s astronomized with me a fair bit, exclaimed, “I don’t think I’ve even seen it ten times in my whole life!” (Eat your heart out, Copernicus.) My son, meanwhile, was clearly frustrated by the whole affair.
I knew exactly what the problem was.
He wasn’t on it. He wasn’t seeing what we were seeing. Something in his brain was telling his eyes to look up—up above the sunlit western horizon, up into the dark sky above. That’s where we’re supposed to see stars, planets, and so forth.
My son persevered. Finally, and most definitively, he got it. “Oh! OH! WOW! It’s so bright! I never knew!”
No matter, we’re in on a wonderful secret: This world, this universe, of ours is stranger and grander than we ever knew.
Copernicus unlocked that secret when he proved that the Earth is not at the center of our solar system. So did Darwin when he dismantled the old idea of the fixity of species. Likewise Curie, when she discovered radioactivity and shook the foundations of chemistry and physics. [Right: Marie Skłodowska-Curie, 1867–1934.]
And so did each one of us, we birders, each in our own modest way, when we were just getting started.
Birders often speak of their “spark bird,” the bird—not just a species, but an actual individual bird—that ignited their passion for birding. Each birder’s spark bird story is unique. How could it not be? But there is a consistent theme, I have found, in the broader narrative of the spark bird.
Let me explain by way of the story of my spark bird. First, a bold declaration: I am positive that my spark bird was not yours. Now as you already know, my favorite bird is the planet Mercury. And my spark bird was—wait for it—Didelphis virginiana, the Opossum. [Left: Photo by © David Crum.]
The date was July 17, 1980. I’d been reasonably serious about astronomy for a year or so, and I was starting to take an interest in the vertebrate fauna of Planet Earth. Then it happened. At 10 p.m. that evening, I saw the Opossum. I was thrilled. I wrote in my journal, “No one has ever seen one.” What can I say?—the preteen mind is prone to grand pronouncements. Presumably I intended something a bit less extravagant, something more along the lines of, “I believe no one in my acquaintance has ever seen one.” No matter. It’s perfectly clear that I was onto something amazing, almost unbelievable.
And then a life-changing insight. A breakthrough. I took out a sheet of paper, and wrote on the first line:
1. Opossum. July 17th.
The next day:
2. Cat. July 18th.
3. Dog. July 18th.
4. Cow. July 18th.
5. Frog. July 18th.
6. Buzzard. July 18th.
With that entry #6, I was onto something big. My budding life list continued:
7. Cardinal. July 19th.
8. Mockingbird. July 19th.
9. Blue Jay. July 19th.
10. Groundhog. July 19th.
11. Goldfinch. July 19th.
12. Crow. July 19th.
13. Nighthawk. July 19th.
14. Robin. July 19th.
15. Brown Thrasher. July 19th.
16. Sparrow. July 19th.
17. Swallow. July 19th.
18. Rooster. July 19th.
Well! Eleven avian lifers, plus a groundhog, that day.
I wouldn’t have called them “lifers,” of course, and neither would I have referred to them as “avian.” And I didn’t yet self-identify as a “birder.” But I was. Was I ever. I’d crossed the divide. There was to be no turning back.
It started with an Opossum.
And it’s most powerfully reaffirmed whenever I see Mercury.