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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,
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-
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-
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-
My younger brother and I named this bird the “okie-
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-
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-
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-
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-
And how about the Laughing-
And, then there is this bird we called a catbird. It is a beautiful ground-
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-
Think of it, after more than sixty-
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 -