On the Trail & ‘Round the Campfire

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Growing Up Without A Bird Book

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"...absence makes the heart grow fonder"

Growing up as a boy 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 nonexistent. 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, pocket-size, bird book— that is, a field guide for birders. Besides his crisp, colorful, drawings of each bird, Peterson used his now famous method of ID pointers to help amateurs identify wild birds in the field. His unique method became world-renowned.

Peterson's 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 during this same time, when I was about eight years old.

As I grew up in the back country of eastern San Diego County, California, common farm birds like chickens, turkeys and guinea hens were the first I understood as being different species of birds. Chickens, such as Rhode Island Reds, Bardrocks and White Leghorns were so different 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. A neighbor raised some exotic ground birds, so I did observe some beautiful Golden Pheasants, Button Quail and Peacocks.

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 a published "bird book" would be a long time in coming.

In the meantime, as the seasons came and went, my childhood knowledge of wild birds and their habits grew. Living as we were 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 and leafy plant down and pieces of frass. It was often found 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.

These little guys were hyperactive and often hung from a limb, upside down. I also noted that for some reason, some of these birds had yellow eyes and some had brownish eyes. Years later, the Peterson Field Guide would supply the answer. That important ID mark is noted in his field guide. Yellow eyes are females and dark eyes are males.

My younger brother and I named this tiny bird the "Okie-bird." Being depression-era/WW2 kids, we likened them to fruit-pickin' Okies that migrated in mass to California from Oklahoma. The insect picking habits of the Bushtits reminded us of fruit pickers stripping a tree of fruit. Also, the name "Okies" 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 in 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.

For instance, 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 pear leaves. 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 slim than a house finch. This sighting left an imprint on my brain—a wonderment on 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 it took off and flew away. Not being able to positively identify these birds from a bird book, their indelible image haunted me for years. Still, I anticipated that one day I would relive this memorable visual experience and then 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 remember 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. For the size of the bird, it made a large nest. But, what made the nest so unique is that it was covered with whitish moth cocoons! At that young age, I surmised that the bird was actually storing a food source for their hatchlings.

I recall that the bird was mostly gray, but 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 of that particular bird that I remembered from my childhood.

Cassins-Vireo 5305So it was that, in the 1940's and 50's, growing up in the southwest was still a pioneering birding experience; wide-open spaces with very few established 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 busy-ness of life, my interest faded into the background. After all, I still did not have a bird book.

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. This 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 and academics. As a bird book, it was a rare western species, a detailed scholarly work that introduced me to the numerous antiquated titles of birds that had been renamed. Like me, it seems ornithologists don't always start by naming the birds correctly either. The fascinating bird descriptions were very interestingly written, even folksy at times. But, the book had mostly black line drawings and very few color plates, which is what I desired.

Having now my first bird books re-ignited my love and interest in wild birds! 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 pore 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 familiar with the vivid plates and ID descriptions of certain birds 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 many years before. For sure, they were Lazuli Buntings! How satisfying it was to have that long held memorable 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. This 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 territorial 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 Yellow-rumped 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 by its common name, "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 we were there, no matter how still we 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 though 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! Unlike the female Bushtit, both male and female have yellow eyes.

And how about that Laughing-bird, you ask? This name derived from the fact that, whenever 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 my 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 amphitheater. The canyon acoustics are the envy of all the Carnegie Halls 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 feline 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 wasn't until 2007 that I finally identified that childhood memory for sure. While birding in Madera Canyon Arizona during 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. So I paused to locate the nest.

Cassins-Vireo 5305There it was up 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 spiderwebs, 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 nearly seventy years ago!

At that time it was known only as the Solitary Vireo. Its species has since been split and splintered because, as I said, even the ornithologist doesn't always get it right the first time! But, regardless of that bird's ID today, the nest I observed, in a sliver-leaf oak tree, was exactly the same as what I saw as a youngster...it's visual ID has never changed. The pair of gray birds I observed feeding their young is the Cassin's Vireo!

Think of it, after nearly seventy years, thanks to the long awaited, "Petersons Guide to Western Birds" and others, I have, without question, positively 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.

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 stage 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 made the heart grow fonder" —and the fulfillment that much greater!

And so, the endless journey continues.

© Ed Keenan

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