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Secret Handshake

I recently watched a CBS News segment about birding, that for the first time really seemed to “get it” … as far as mainstream news coverage goes. There were no real big errors, no cringe-worthy moments and no real flubs. It portrayed fairly accurately what we’re all about.

Which got me thinking about what we’re all about. Each of us got into birding through a different avenue, maybe a friend or family member is a birder. My situation was kind of unique. Birding was a way for me to be out and away from a broken household and abusive parents.

Maybe that’s why when I think of birding, I think of community. I think of the people who—when I was a 9-year-old tromping around in Lincoln Park all by myself, looking for birds—became my friends. My family.

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Birders have a secret language. Case-in-point: not long ago I was taking a walk around a city park in Chicago. This park is situated between a very bad neighborhood, and a rather nice and wealthy one. On a walk around Columbus Park you may see someone shooting up heroin on a park bench. Or a young family out enjoying the day. Or someone birding.

So, I’m walking the 3-mile loop around the park, when I come across an elderly lady with binoculars minding her own business. I’m a big guy, with a beard, and I was wearing a dark hoodie-type sweatshirt and a Chicago Bears cap. No binoculars. I don’t take them on my exercise walks, because I get too distracted and wind up standing around looking at birds, rather than putting in some miles. But I do notice the birds as I go by, and I’ll stop to try to get a better look if I see something interesting. Bare-naked Birding as Ted Floyd would call it.

Anyway, back to the lady in the park. I’m walking toward her, and I notice her binoculars, so I smile and walk right up to her. She takes an involuntary step back, and quick look around. I said, “Hi! Seeing anything good?”

Now, I can’t tell you how many times this has happened to me while I’m out birding. Someone stops to ask what we’re looking at … and when we say “birds”, what follows is inevitably a detailed story and instructions as to where we can see eagles nearby. You try to be friendly, but really, you just want them to go on their way, so you can get on with your birding. So there’s that. But this is in a bad neighborhood, and people who approach you in this park are usually looking for money or something.

She said, “No … not really. Just a few sparrows.”

“I just had a Cerulean Warbler about 50 yards back on this path, in the oaks there”, I replied.

Instantly, her perception of me had changed, and the involuntary step back was replaced by an eager step forward as she asked what else I’d seen. “Cerulean Warbler” was the secret handshake. I was now a friendly, and could be trusted. We chatted for ten minutes, and continued happily on our way(s).

Birding is a great equalizer. Age doesn’t matter. Cultural differences don’t matter. It’s like being in kindergarten all over again. We’re all the same, and all that matters is the birds.

Speaking of cultural differences, I’ll wrap this up with a little story.

My friend Amar Ayyash invited me to drive with him to Toronto and Niagara Falls from Chicago this past winter. The goal was to photograph gulls, particularly Iceland Gulls. I’ve described myself above. Amar is scholarly-appearing, young-middle-aged, somewhat dark-skinned man of Middle Eastern descent. Born and raised in Cicero, Illinois.

So it was that this unlikely duo—because of our mutual love of gulls—was crossing the border into Canada at Port Huron/Sarnia, in a blizzard, at night, on December 26th. The lanes were empty, and as we pulled in, Amar remarked, “You wanna bet we get ‘randomly’ pulled over for a security check?” He’s used to being singled out by TSA and other authorities because of his name … I couldn’t even imagine it.

The border patrol agent asks what we’re doing in Canada. “Looking for birds”. That caused her to lean over and take a good look at me. She looked at Amar again and asked, “So how do you know each other?”

“Through bird watching.”

“Pull over to the first check-point area on the right, please.”

They made us stand outside the car while they questioned us, asking us the same questions over and over. It was freezing cold, and when I put my hands in my pockets the agent loudly told me to keep my hands where he could see them. Really?
They went through the car, remarking at all of the optical equipment—cameras, binoculars, telescopes—in the back seat. Then they opened the trunk. The one agent motioned the other over to have a look, and they both stood up and looked at us, puzzled.

So, how exactly, does one explain 150 loaves of Wonder bread, and 60 pounds of pork fat in the trunk?

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