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Growing Up Without
A Bird Book

Absence Makes The Heart Grow Fonder
By Ed Keenan, Author & Poet of Nature, Birding & The Southwest


Growing up as a child, in the 1940’s, in the remote backcountry of southern California, I always had an interest in the wild birds. But, a “bird book”, as we know today, was non-existent. By “bird book” I mean a “field guide”, an identification guide to wild birds.

Until the publication of such an identification guide by Roger Tory Peterson, in the 1930’s, there was no such thing as a bird book— that is, a field guide for birders. Besides his crisp drawings of each bird, his unique ID marks, as a method of identifying wild birds in the field, became renown. His original “Field Guide To The Birds” covered only the eastern United States. It was not until the 1940’s that he eventually turned his attention to the birds of the western United States— “A Field Guide to Western Birds”.


My interest in wild birds began at this same time when I was about eight years old. As I grew up in the backcountry of eastern San Diego County, California, common farm birds like chickens, turkeys and guinea hens were the first that I understood as being different species of birds. Chickens, such as Rhode Island reds, bardrocks, and white leghorns were so different that it was evident that not all chickens were the same. There were also banty hens and roosters and there were numerous other farm-bird species.


So a natural understanding followed. Wild birds were also widely varied and different. As my interest grew in relation to my limited knowledge, my desire for some sort of a bird identification guide grew as well. But having my own personal “bird book” would be long time in coming.


In the mean time as the seasons came and went, my knowledge of wild birds and their habits grew. We were living in a well-watered valley of live oaks and white oaks, surrounded by hills of blue sage, buckwheat and chaparral.  It was a virtual haven of indigenous and seasonal birds. Long before I knew the actual names of some birds, I knew their seasons, their songs and nesting habits, even their flight patterns and food preferences.  


For instance, before I knew the correct name of the bushtit, I knew that these tiny birds moved through the trees in flocks of up to two dozen, or more.  Also, that they made a loosely knitted, sock-like nest of spider webs, leaf down and pieces of grass. It was often in a scrub oak tree where the nest hung from a branch, usually below six feet, and the adults entered from the side, near the top of the sock. Also, that for some reason, some of these birds had yellow eyes and some had brownish eyes.


My younger brother and I named this bird the “okie-bird.” Being depression-era/WW2 kids, we likened them to fruit-pickin’ okies that migrated in masse to California from Oklahoma. The insect picking habits of the bushtit reminded us of fruit pickers stripping a tree of fruit. Also, the name “oakies” and okie-birds were associated with oak trees. To this day, it is hard not to call these tiny hyperactive, upside-down bushtits, oakie-birds! That’s the kind of thing that happens when you grow up without a “bird book”. I can tell you the names of a dozen other birds that nobody has ever heard of, because the names were of our own making.


Most names used were only general terms. Hawks were all hawks or chicken hawks. Turkey vultures were buzzards and ravens and crows were lumped together as crows. Quail, woodpeckers and hummingbirds were all identified in general. But, not having a bird book or means of specific identification, we naturally gave many birds names of our own. There were “cheet-birds” and “Nazi’s”, but all sparrows were sparrows, except some were called wheat-birds because of their preference for certain grains in the chicken yard. There were big brown-birds, catbirds, wild canaries and even a laughing-bird. All jays and bluish birds were simply bluebirds. The result was that, without a bird book, some birds took years for me to correctly identify.


Here is a case in point. As a youngster, I remember being in an old orchard in the fall. I was sitting under a gnarly old pear tree in late afternoon. In came about a half a dozen very colorful birds that I had never seen before and they landed just above me in the rustic fall leaves of the pear trees. Their dominant colors were a variation of blues, tans, white and some black and reddish browns. The momentary scene was spectacular! They were slightly larger than a lesser goldfinch and more trim than a house finch. Even without having a picture in bird ID guide, this sighting left an imprint on my brain and a wonderment in my memory that would span decades before I positively identified those lovely birds. In just an instant of time I captured the colorful details of this bird…its size, shape, markings, even its grayish bill shape and dipsy flight rhythm as they took off and flew away.  Not being able to positively identify them from a bird book, their image haunted me for years. Still, I anticipated that one day I would relive this memorable visual experience and know for sure what bird I had seen.


There were numerous other birds that left a vivid and lasting impression that would take a long time to positively identify. One such bird that I remembered well, built an unusual nest in the live oak trees. The nest was spherical in shape, a deep round cup about the size of a softball. The outside was covered with a glossy down and spider webs and attached over the outside surface were many moth cocoons. It gave the nest a lumpy look. What made the nest so unique is that it was covered with moth cocoons! I surmised that the bird was actually storing a food source for their hatchlings.


I recall that the bird was mostly gray, but I had no way of identifying the bird. It would be many years, but that the unique nest would eventually clue me in to the identity that particular bird that I remembered from my childhood.


So it was that, in the 1940’s and 50’s, growing up in the west was still a pioneering birding experience of wide-open spaces with very few groomed trails and boardwalks. Waiting for a western bird guide was like country folks waiting for the Butterfield Stage to arrive from the east. That’s the way it has always been. James Audubon started in the east, U.S. birding started in the east, Roger Tory Peterson started in the east… we were birding orphans of the wild west! To this day nothing has changed, National Geographic, “Birds of North America” started in the east, even David Allen Sibley’s masterful modern-day work—they all started in the east.


Through my teenage years my interest in observing wild birds diminished. Though I maintained a natural love for them, due to the busyness of life, my interest faded in to the background. After all, I still did not have a bird book anyway. Then it was in 1961, in my late twenties, I came across a bird book in a yard sale, entitled “Handbook of California Birds” by Brown, Weston & Buzell. For about a dollar I purchased the book. What it lacked in quality color plates was made up for in useful field data. It was packed with a treasure trove of accurate birding information, including descriptions, habits and identification of species, etc. The book proved to be my first beneficial resource and guide to California bird life. The practical book holds a special place in my life, so I still make good use of the latest edition.


Shortly thereafter, I acquired an old 1927 library book entitled, “Birds of the Pacific States” by Ralph Hoffman. Basically it was a regional reference work for ornithologists. This bird book was a rare western species. It is a detailed scholarly work that introduced me to the numerous antiquated titles of birds that had been renamed. The fascinating bird descriptions were very interestingly written, even folksy at times, but the book had very few color plates, which is what I desired.






Having now my first bird books, it re-ignited my love and interest in wild birds! So, it wasn’t long before I acquired Roger Tory Peterson’s latest edition of, “A Field Guide to Western Birds”.  With the addition of Peterson’s, eastern “Field Guide To The Birds”, it opened up a whole new world of birding. I began to pour over the pictures of hundreds of species and dream of when and where I might be able to travel and to see them. I became very acquainted with the vivid plates and ID descriptions of certain birds that I especially desired to see someday. Interestingly, it was by means of Peterson’s, Western Field Guide that I finally determined for sure what those colorful birds were that I saw in the old pear orchard nearly twenty years before. For sure, they were Lazuli Buntings! How satisfying it was to have that long held mystery cleared up. But, now I was filled with anticipation to verify them again in the field. It would be like encountering a long-lost friend.


After a long absence, indeed it was a memorable meeting when I did finally verify them once again in the field—as if it were for the first time. The first meeting happened in the chaparral and blue sage covered foothills of Mt. Palomar, not far from the famous observatory. It was in the spring of 1981. A gorgeous male was staking out his fiefdom. From the tip of the highest stalks of sage and branches of scrub oak, he dazzled me for an hour by flying from point to point, pausing in the bright sun to announce his spring homestead.


All the other self-named birds of my youth were eventually seen and identified in the field as well. For example, that cheet-bird, which arrived in the fall, had been so named because of its cheet or chek sound. This warbler that actively forages in loose flocks in the sumac brush during the winter, turned out to be the Audubon Warbler! Later in life, I often wondered why we never thought of calling it, “yellow-rump”. In Southern California, the Audubon warbler is particularly active after a fresh winter rain, and it goes crazy when the flying termites emerge.


The Nazi-bird, now that’s another story. As mentioned being WW2 kids colored our vernacular. Imagine a gray, yellow-eyed bird that skulked around, always half hidden in the brush. It made itself very difficult to observe. Seldom did it come out in an in the open. It always knew you were there, no matter how still you sat. From its hideout it would engage in this soft-chatter with each other… “there they are… there they are!”  Their sneaky ways fired the imagination and made it seem as they were the enemy. So, naturally they were Nazis! From then on, these diminutive birds were never misidentified … at least not by my brother and I. This super-cautious, cocky little bird turned out to be, not a Nazi, but a Wrentit!


And how about the Laughing-bird, you ask? This name derived from the fact that, when ever we stubbed our toe or did something that hurt, during the pain of it all, there often seemed to be this incessant laugh from a canyon bird. The bird had this loud descending, “laughing trill” that would end with a “heh, heh” like a snicker. To us seven and eight year olds, it never seemed to fail. Stub your toe and bingo this bird would laugh. It happened so often that it earned the name “Laughing-bird.” Later in life, this loud-mouth bird turned out to be accurately identified as the “Canyon Wren!” The deep canyons of huge boulders in eastern San Diego County form a natural, echoing auditorium. The canyon acoustics are the envy of all the Carnegie Hall’s and Grand Ole Opry Auditoriums ever built. The rocky canyons are the perfect habitat for this yodeling virtuoso to laugh and sing in.


And, then there is this bird we called a catbird. It is a beautiful ground-bird that I eventually identified as the spotted towhee. It was given this special name by us for its distinctive cat meow sound. Then I learned that there was actually a gray-catbird in Peterson’s, ‘Field Guide To The Birds’. Now wouldn’t you know it, it was an eastern bird, so named for its catlike meow sound! There is no getting around it, when you grow up without a bird book everything starts in the east, even the birds!


Now as for that other gray bird that built such a unique nest of moth cocoons in the live oak trees…it was just this past year that I finally identified that childhood memory for sure. While birding in Madera Canyon Arizona this past spring, I observed a pair of gray birds making a routine beeline to a certain spot in an oak tree. They were obviously carrying food to their young. I located the nest in an oak tree, and lo! and behold! It was a spherical nest, a deep round cup about the size of softball. The outside was covered with a cottony plant down and spider webs over which were attached many moth cocoons. The gray bird that I had been observing during the morning is the same one that built the nest that intrigued me over sixty-five years ago! At that time it was known only as the solitary vireo. Its species has since been split and splintered. But the nest I observed in a silver-leaf oak tree was exactly the same…it has never changed. The pair of gray birds were cassin’s vireo’s!


Think of it, after more than sixty-five years, thanks to the long awaited, “Petersons Guide to Western Birds” and others, I have, without question, identified that gray bird that built such a unique nest in the live oak trees when I was kid. Even though other similar birds may also stick cocoons to their nest, the cassin’s (solitary) vireo has its own distinctive nest ID, one that is unforgettable.   


So maybe it took awhile to properly identify the birds of my childhood. Maybe not having a bird book in childhood produced another dimension of enjoyment not often experienced. There is a certain kind of enjoyment in waiting for the train to arrive from the east… the absence and anticipation, the anxiety of not knowing just exactly when, then the arrival and seeing for the first time, those whom you only saw in pictures. What a pleasure!


And so maybe, growing up without a bird book wasn’t so bad. Maybe, when it comes to the pure enjoyment of wanting to see a certain bird never seen, “absence makes the heart grow fonder” …and the fulfillment that much greater!


 

 


Ed Keenan - Emphasizing the life and lore of the southwest, Ed Keenan writes about the colorful details of desert life, both past and present. Ed is an avid “birder” (bird watcher) and outdoorsman and his poetic expressions capture the imagery of the woods and the subtleties of nature in a personal way. Ed Keenan is also the author of the sold out book “Cow Chip Poetry--Lies, Lingo & Lore” and his new book “BardSongs and Seasons.” Learn more at: www.EdKeenan.com

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