Outside my California hotel room, the cobalt bird perched on a low branch of an evergreen tree, not 15 feet from where I stood. It had a dark mask and a white line across its eyes, with dark gray on its back and light-gray underparts. It wasn’t a blue jay. It wasn’t a bluebird. It wasn’t anything I had seen before. What was it? I shrugged my shoulders and hustled to my next meeting.
Months later and back in my home state of New York, another unfamiliar bird, this one green and chestnut with bright-yellow legs, drove me to my bookshelf, where a dusty Reader’s Digest field guide informed me I had been watching a green heron—a widespread and common bird, according to the book. That didn’t make sense at all. How could I not know about a widespread and common bird? This needed investigating!
Birds are wonderful because they are everywhere: a hawk that streaks over your head after prey, a hummingbird feeding on your yard’s flowers, a woodpecker hammering away on a dead tree. There are urban birds, rural birds, mountain birds, seabirds—birds for every season, habitat, and location. Their sheer ubiquity makes them unavoidable. They signify the possibility of an awakening to the natural world that many people have not yet experienced.
Most places have insects and reptiles, mammals and plants. Yet insects and reptiles are too far removed from the human experience, too alien, maybe too gross. Wild mammals are too scarce and too secretive for a long-term bond with nature. Plants don’t move, and they lack faces.
Birds though—birds are just right! Birds make sense. They migrate great distances to find a safe place to raise their young. They wear gaudy plumage and sing their hearts out to woo a mate, proclaim their existence, and lay claim to their land. Birds build homes, sometimes right outside our windows. We can see ourselves in birds and that works for our brains, our hearts, our souls. Not only that but most birds fly. While we see ourselves in birds, we also aspire to achieve what they do as a matter of course.
Most of all, birds arouse and inspire a sense of mystery, of curiosity, of discovery. At first simply putting a name to a bird is a success. Then questions arise. Why is that bird here and not there? What does it eat? How does it find its way back to this place year after year? Each question successfully answered raises three or four more. You can spend a lifetime watching one species and still be surprised by its behavior. Watching birds doesn’t require specialized training or a degree: You just need to be willing to get outside and spend time watching them. What could be better, or more important, than that?