A Love-Hate Relationship With Birds

The latest Peterson Field Guide to Birds is just in, dammit. To be sure, it’s a peerless guide for birders. I already have a couple of well-thumbed editions lying around. And they have company. David Sibley’s bird books keep them company on my shelves, and Sibley is every bit as skillful as the Peterson artists. Not that any of it helps.

Sure enough, as soon as I pick up the new Peterson, the book falls open—I do believe in spooks, I do believe in spooks—to the page delineating the difference between turkey vultures and eagles. My heart sinks into my shoes.

I am pretty good at identifying birds—OK, some birds—at the feeder in my front yard, because the feeder sits about five feet from the window where I stand. I can pick out house sparrows, blue jays, goldfinches. Certain other birds that don’t come to the feeder are still identifiable. I know my robins. I recognize crows, except when they look like starlings. And I am particularly good on dead birds and the stuffed varieties, anything that doesn’t move. Give me some time and I can tell you what is, or was.

This brings me back to turkey vultures and hawks and eagles. I rarely see a dead one. Now and then, because I live close to the Hudson River, I will spot a bald eagle perched in a tree down by the water. It’s pretty hard to miss a bird the size of a small child. I’m not saying I haven’t. I’m just saying that it’s hard. A few weeks ago, I was standing with some friends on their porch, and I thought I spotted some hawks in the sky. No, my friends said, those are vultures. For a split second, I felt a small surge of anger. What made them so sure? But experience got the best of me. I have such a remarkable career in misidentifying birds, why would I think I was suddenly right?

Looking at Peterson’s examples, it seemed so obvious. The silhouettes of eagles flatten out, while the wings of vultures show a dihedral curve (bird guides love throwing in words such as “dihedral,” forcing you to not only look up birds but words as well). Bald eagles show white on the heads and tails. It couldn’t be simpler, unless you are like me, and plainly can’t tell one big bird from another from several hundred feet below. Like Hamlet, I can tell a hawk from a handsaw, but after that it’s just guesswork.

A few years ago, my son presented me with one of those clocks that substitutes a different bird for every hour on the clock face. Instead of tolling the hour, a different bird call sounds the time. The oriole goes off at six, the dove at seven, the chickadee at eight, then cardinals, sparrows, nuthatches, and so on around the dial. The idea of this clock, as I understand it, is that you listen to these calls and then you begin to recognize the individual bird call when you hear it in the wild. But other than discerning the cry of doves and the screeching of blue jays, I failed at this, too. Instead, I would hear a bird singing out and think, oh, that’s five o’clock, or there goes 11. But by then I would have forgotten what bird sat at those positions on the dial. Even if I could have remembered correctly, birds almost never do you the favor of singing solos but instead all go off at once, especially when the cat’s in the yard, so it’s pretty hopeless. And lately, what with adjusting the clock for Daylight Saving Time and back again, somehow the cries have gotten scrambled. Now the dove cries at 10 when it’s supposed to cry at seven, and the mockingbird at six instead of two, and all I know is that it’s half past a finch, who’s impersonating a robin.

Despite it all, I cling to my bird books. I will faithfully study this new Peterson guide, hoping against hope that someday I will, by applying myself, learn to tell one bird from another as they graze at the feeder or peck at earthworms in the yard. If I fail, ultimately, to spot them on the fly, well, there’s always taxidermy.