American Birding Podcast



Open Mic: Awaken the Dream

At the Mic: Steve Siegel

As birders we often wonder how to interest young people in our passion.  We need them, after all, to carry on.  Have you ever thought how you got started?  You see and hear the term “spark bird”, some mythical creature that once lit a fire under your butt and made you a birder.  We probably all had a spark bird, but what happened to the fire after it was lit?  I would like to suggest some very inexpensive, very beautiful, and maybe very effective kindling for your 8 through 14 year old potential birder.

Let me digress and say that I am a pediatrician.  As such I spend a lot of time around kids.  In my examining rooms I keep a supply of bird-related items.  A waterproof card of the Birds of Costa Rica.  A copy of a children’s book I wrote years ago about a Tree Swallow.  Old bird trading cards.  A small subset of patients actually look at these.  The child with the greatest potential to become a birder is the one whose mother says,

“Christopher loves animals. He knows all their names. It’s all he cares about”.

Often there is a tone of,

“Is there something wrong with my kid?” in her voice.  Or,  “Can you fix that?

Not inclined to “fix that”, I purposely try to support the poor kid, who may be having some difficulties with peers, and has discovered the wonderful world of Nature in the process.  Like a lot of us.  Certainly like me.

When I was nine, my next door neighbor and I shared the same spark bird.  It was a Northern Flicker.  I began to show the “Steven loves animals” symptom.  I couldn’t hide it at school, and with my last name sounding like Sea Gull, there was no end of razzing.  My neighbor (who today is one of ABA’s top listers) and I started paying more attention to birds.  We lived in the city, but 60 years ago, even the city sported healthy populations of  Song Sparrows, Indigo Buntings, Flickers, Mourning Doves, and Brown Thrashers. These became friends, but soon they weren’t enough. We finally were able to wheedle field guides out of our parents, and memorized them. A front porch game, after a few innings of Whiffleball, was who could name the most warblers without looking in a book.  This is what kids did back then, and yes, still today.  It’s not all screen time.

In my tiny library were two treasures. The Audubon Bird Guide, and especially The Audubon Water Bird Guide.  Unlike today’s popular guides, these had color plates only in the middle.  Many birds on a page, arranged as if they were making room for each other on a subway platform.  What attracted my young mind was the color.  The rich tapestry of warm browns and reds on the shorebird pages, the knock-your socks-off pinks of the page with Spoonbill, Flamingo and Scarlet Ibis among the other ibises, the strange striped rears of  the rails, and the warblers…all the same in greens, grays and yellows but as you looked at them, all different.  And the harder you looked, the more differences you saw.

As I scoured these books, over and over, I couldn’t help but dream. Where are these creatures?  Would I ever be able to see them?  I can’t drive.  My dad won’t take me, and anyway, we were too poor to travel.  But they existed on those pages.  It was like going to a candy store. The overwhelming impression was of abundance, and variety.  All out there.  All there for me some day. The text had no maps, but descriptions of birds’ ranges.  These made the dreams even grander with place names like Ungava, Unalaska, Pribilof Islands, Ecuador.  Places not taught in school. Places a kid could only imagine. I often fell asleep dreaming of the reds of phalaropes, the crazy bills of curlews, or pure white Gyrfalcons.  To see these jewels, so far away, was a good reason to grow up.

I maintain that even in our screen-dominated world, children  like to construct mental images of how that world should be.  There are those who have an eye for color, a bit of wanderlust, and a reason to separate from the existence accepted by most of their friends.  From this group of kids come birders.  In this group of kids are a few who will eat up a dreamy old field guide.  And now for the best part.  Although these books are long out of print, you can still buy them.  On Amazon.  For as little as 39 cents!  Do you have a budding birder in your house?  Buy the books.  Watch them dream.  Maybe even get a little of your own childhood back.


Steve Siegel is a longtime birder, currently living in South Florida.  He spends most of his time in the field behind the lens of his camcorder, trying to find novel ways to present birds old and new.