Letter of Recommendation: Birds

Joel Oliphint
Blackburnian Warbler

Every year my wife’s aunt and uncle send out a Christmas letter, and every year it is filled mostly with birds. They are bird people (and also cat people, though this seems to cause less friction than you’d think). Having not grown up as a bird person, these letters often read as though they were written in a different language, with some sort of implied significance to every rufus rump and yellow breast. My two main takeaways from the letters: They really love birds, and they saw a whole lot of them.

At least once a year, these kind, ornithologically inclined relatives pay us a welcome visit, and a couple of years ago, soon after my family moved to a woodsy spot in Clintonville, they gifted us a backyard birding starter kit. This was no humble, cutesy bird feeder. They brought us four different feeders, in fact — sunflower, thistle, peanut and suet, complete with a stand, which they hammered into the ground with the ease of a couple that has previously pounded dozens of feeder stands into soil.

Since that awe-inspiring installation a couple of winters ago, I have faithfully filled those feeders with naked peanuts and black oil sunflower seeds and so on. Through my dining room window, I watched the birds come, and over time I could ID just about every flitting thing that landed on those feeders, from woodpeckers and nuthatches to finches and tufted titmice (though I still haven’t learned all the little brown birds.). I even made ahighly controversial list ranking backyard birds.

I’ve since also added two hummingbird feeders for the spring and summer, because hummingbirds are amazing. And an oriole feeder, though that one has sat frustratingly empty the past two years. But overall I’ve been pretty content as a backyard birder, rarely venturing outside of my property to look for birds.

Until this year.

It seems lots of Americans havecaught the birding bug during this pandemic. While practicing social distancing, people are staring out their windows and noticing these winged creatures everywhere. In that way, the pandemic came at a good time in the States. If it were January, we’d only have the regular backyard birds to look at — which is fine, but April and May is like Christmas for birders: migratory bird season.

I’d previously spotted a warbler here and there, but this year I became a bit obsessed with finding these tiny, brightly colored birds flitting about in the tops of trees. It’s as if someone pulled back a curtain and revealed a previously hidden world full of little beautiful creatures just waiting to be discovered. Of course, these birds — the warblers, grosbeaks, vireos, thrushes — have been here every spring. I just didn't notice. I was busy with the busy-ness of life. Who has time to just stand among the trees and look for birds? Well, with social engagements prohibited for the past two months, we all do. And I highly recommend it.

I’ve also been around my regular roster of backyard birds so long that I can oftenhear the differences now. I’m used to listening closely to music; it’s been part of my job for years, and it’s something I did before writing about music as a job was ever even a thought. But I think it has helped train my ears to listen to the unique songs and calls that echo through the trees this time of year. (My wife is still better at spotting them, though.)

So, this year I joined both the Central Ohio Birders and Clintonville Area Birding Enthusiasts Facebook groups. I now have three different birding apps on my phone. (Pro tip: If you’re not the type to carry around a field guide, the Merlin ID app is essential for figuring out what you’re looking at.) I can’t go on a walk without a pair of binoculars. Hardcore birders would probably just nod and smile politely at my 2020 list of fewer than 20 warblers (“You’ve never been to Magee Marsh? Do you evenbird, bro?”). But each new bird has been a thrill, whether it’s a Cape May Warbler, a Great Crested Flycatcher or (more recently) a Yellow-billed Cuckoo. And all I had to do was look around.

I also hope I don’t ever turn into the type of birder who becomes overly obsessed withcollecting birds, like a long series of hash marks. Jim McCormac is a great example of someone who truly watches (rather than spots) birds. He takes beautiful photos, but he’ll also tell you about a bird’s behavior and what kind of trees it prefers and why. He’s been documenting birds and wildlife in Ohio for years, but he seems to have retained the magical element of birding — the fascination of this unhidden world unfolding in the trees. We could probably all stand to be a little more like Jim. And a little more like my wife’s aunt and uncle.

If I ever get around to writing a Christmas letter again, I don’t know if I’ll include the birds I’ve seen. Maybe. I'm not ruling it out. But at the very least, I may finally be able to decode my relatives’ Christmas letter this year.