Everything at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex monopolizes my attention: the enormous welcome globe, the 70,000 square feet of stadiums, arenas and playing fields, and the sprawling artificiality of it all. It’s February, and I’m in Orlando on assignment for MLB.com covering the Tampa Bay Rays baseball team, which is training at the facility’s minor league ballpark.
Then I notice the Sandhill Cranes. The breeding pair live on the complex, providing one of the few reminders that this land used to be swamp. And they act at home—dancing around minivans, hammering at their reflections in gift-shop windows, filling the airstrip-sized parking lot with courtship calls that even drown out the Boat-tailed Grackle chorus. One morning, to the bemusement of everyone but the security guards, they stride unannounced through a sea of uniforms onto the fields, into a bullpen, and stand on the mounds. All around them, players stretch, play catch, and run drills. On the pitching rubbers, the four-foot birds are almost their size. They are gawked at, greeted with grins, and treated as fearless oddities of spring.
You don’t see that at the ballpark everyday.
The thing is, though, you can. If you only look. To me, the cranes are a gift. And while I don’t report them as news, they are my hands-down early highlight of the baseball season, which stretches from February to November and can take on the feel of a monotonous grind. When that happens, I often find myself diverting my gaze from the field to the sky.
In baseball circles, I’m the bird guy. As a beat reporter for the past decade, I’ve been the bird guy a lot—a rare breed in the press box and legitimately extralimital among baseball players and coaches, who in my experience are more prone to hunt ducks than photograph them. Baseball people are always texting me pictures of birds they are astounded to find brush up against their life in the game, and I’m happy to share my passion with them: ‘Those funky-looking Florida waders? White Ibis!’; ‘That long-nose fellow is an American Woodcock, and no, he doesn’t belong in your equipment shed;’ ‘Bald Eagle over the river in our nation’s capital? Yes, I believe you!’
Occasionally, birds make baseball headlines all on their own. In 2004, the plight of an unfortunate Mourning Dove hit the national news when it flew into the path of a 100-mph Randy Johnson fastball and exploded in mid-air. Last October, fans were delighted when a Greater White-fronted Goose landed on the outfield at Dodger Stadium, interrupting Game 2 of the National League Division Series—it was safely removed and released. (Unfortunately, baseball doesn’t much consider how hazardous artificial light from stadiums can be for birds, especially during migration. But hopefully, more professional sports teams will soon follow the lead of the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks, who built the world’s first bird-friendly arena in 2019).
In truth, birds have been woven into the fabric of our national pastime since its beginnings. Every fan knows the St. Louis Cardinals, Toronto Blue Jays, and Baltimore Orioles, sure. But have you heard of the Boston Doves (1907–10), Brooklyn Robins (1914–31), Columbus Blue Birds (1933), and Newark Eagles (1935–48)?
Yet avian diversity at the stadium goes well beyond mascots. The spring training ballparks of south Florida and Arizona are excellent birding sites, with vultures, hawks, Osprey, crows, and shrikes to enjoy. Once the regular season begins, I spot nighthawks filling the late-inning summer skies in places like Atlanta, attracted to feed on insects that swarm around ballpark lights. San Francisco’s Oracle Park offers a crash-course in gull identification. In St. Louis, I spent an entire summer eye-level with Busch Stadium’s resident Peregrine Falcons, who hunted pigeons over the visitor’s bullpen in the shadow of the Gateway Arch.
As I travel to ballparks around the country, I also go offsite to tick regional specialties such as Tufted Puffins (Seattle), Gray Kingbird (Tampa Bay), and California Gnatcatcher (San Diego) off my life list, all within 90-minute drives of those stadiums. A great morning bird or two soothes the blow of a night game in a domed stadium (8 of the 30 big league parks have fixed or retractable roofs).
Of course, binoculars are handy for watching baseball, too. So if you want a close-up of the action on the field and birds in the sky, bring your binoculars with your tickets. Just check your facility’s bag policy beforehand.
While I type this article from a press box, I am surprised when an editor points toward the stadium scoreboard with glee. “Great Blue Heron flying over the baseball field!” he exclaims, nearly jumping out of his seat. The glimmer in his face reads unmistakable: You don’t see that at the ballpark every day.
This story originally ran in the Summer 2023 issue as “America’s Pastime is For the Birds.” To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.