Sunday, April 24, 2016

Teachable Moments, Existential Lessons Learned From Ordinary Ol' Urban Birds

Watching urban birds go about their business entails a lot of idle standing around. Peering into trees, staring at bushes, glimpsing into private backyards. Hoping to catch a high wire act. What I'm doing might appear to be a prosaic activity, or heaven forbid! a suspicious one, recalling the time I was approached and questioned by the Director of the Jewish Community Center for aiming binoculars in a children's playground area along a sylvan stretch of protected Codornices Creek fenced in on their land.

Moments before, imagine, I had actually honed in on a Green-backed Adult Lesser Goldfinch perched resolutely on a branch, a noble little creature thinking himself hidden and secure, but in plain viewing sight. With a mixture of enthusiasm, pride and eventually relief, once I caught the subtle drift that the elderly Director was vetting my intentions, I pointed to the pretty little bird about fifty feet up and away in thick brush and invited him to have a look. He amiably accepted the binoculars, saw for himself, then handed them back, waving off the "incident" saying, "You're OK, you're OK."

As a bird aficionado, for whatever reason, I'm mostly a lone wolf and uninterested in "taking it to the next level." I see my love of birds as a poetic pastime, an aesthetic avocation, a whimsical pursuit of the magical, mysterious, and mystical aspects of birds, preferring to not know too, too much, deriving (as I do) an inordinate satisfaction from just being in the simple sacred miraculous moment, where "regular life" becomes a series of opportunities to steal away and obsess on birds - a walk to the library or grocery store or a quick garden or weather check turns into a perfect excuse to - hold life's presses! - just stand around in meditative wonderment spotting playful birds, birds at play, and birds at work.

Renowned birder David Lindo, author of Tales from Concrete Jungles: Urban Birding Around the World, writes that it took him "years to truly believe that I could find birds in cities." Then, the inevitable epiphany: "When you start to see the urban world as a habitat with cliffs, woodland, marshes, lakes, rivers and scrubland, that is when you start to see birds."

You know what Lindo means when he says see birds. Whether birding in the field, at a local park or in my backyard, it's easy to get caught up in the hoopla of "Life Lists," "Big Years" and "First Sightings" - ever hoping to up the tally and spot a new, exciting bird. But barring doing that; i.e., being a "professional hobbyist," owning high-tech sophisticated gear, joining birding groups, going on outings, taking classes . . . what's left is urban backyard birding in richly landscaped and tree dense Berkeley neighborhoods.

Where there are many, many birds to see.

Where 100 year old Interior Live Oak trees reside in the side yard (over 25 species spotted over the years).

Where overgrown back lots teem with mature pines and Chinese Lantern bushes attracting many interesting characters. I almost have to question: is this urban or wild?

Where creek-fed city parks, all within walking distance, beckon. Live Oak, Codornices, Mortar Rock, Indian Rock, and John Hinkel.

The idea of urban birding as dull, boring, prosaic can officially be laid to rest. Lindo, calling it "a bit of a mindset thing," says "there is not a day when I don't marvel at the nature that surrounds me in my urban environment." (He also goes on to write, "Birds are my life, my love, my sanctuary and my therapy.")

Sure, every twenty years or so maybe, a Painted Redstart will appear, or a freak visitation by a Northern Waterthrush. And yes, I've spotted Wild Turkeys, Western Bluebirds, Cedar Waxwings, and Cooper's Hawks in the city, and one very bizarre white Dove-cum-Pigeon I saw and photographed a couple of years ago in the neighborhood. With eyeballs peeled, I'm forever hoping to spot a passing passerine other than one on the laundry list of common urban birds I spot daily with zero / minimal effort they're so - public! The usual "pedestrian" suspects: Towhee, Jay, Sparrow, Chickadee, Robin, Finch, Crow, Pigeon, Junco, et al.

The aesthetic that Lindo captures in his worldly peregrinations is a simple, humble act of bearing witness to the insignificant (are they?) activities of mean and occult little birds (are they?) who go about their lives unnoticed, unheralded, and under-appreciated (are they?), but for the keen observer so eager to spot one of the little winged creatures livening up the urban landscaping and high voltage wires. Lindo writes, "I would be so sad if those everyday occurrences were to cease."
Well I declare: Ecce Ave! The little winged creatures in our midst provide an immeasurably nuanced thrill of real discovery, tiny cherishable moments inducing giddy joy! and irrepressible enthusiasm! at being somehow privy to birds' innermost workings, their deeply secret comings and mysterious goings, the dizzying array of doings of our little urban bird friends - truly wild creatures of Earth! (And, duly noted, hunted by other food chain predator wild creatures of the urban zone, Hawks and Falcons.)

Once you start to see birds, then will their precious natures be revealed to the keen observer, then will their quirky personalities bursting with dazzling vitality be unveiled in plain sight. Once you start to see birds, then will the magic of their lives unfold, then will their bird-brainy secrets be peeled away in layers of shared avian consciousness.

A brief Dramatis Avianae:

Take Oak Titmouse. A bouncy, handsome little guy who very seldom sits still for me. Often obscured deep in the branches, and vocally prominent, as though mocking the shit out of you. I'm forever fooled by the variegated high-pitched shrills of the Oak Titmouse, constantly thwarted in aurally ID'ing the bird. Then, once (if ever) spotted, it's like - well, of course! - an Oak Titmouse!

Consider Northern Flicker. The flighty bird's extraordinary patterning and elegant coat of splendid colors; that perfectly round red beauty mark gracing his neck. That says it all about Northern Flickers. Every time I'm lucky enough to espy a Northern Flicker, I always come away feeling like I just saw an exotic bird, feeling a special, no doubt illusory and tenuous connection.

And what is perhaps the most taken-for-granted, reviled, urban bird of all time - the Pigeon! I cry foul! Such undeserved street cred! Lindo relates how he has "found my peace" with the brilliantly plumed scruffians, noting their amenable nature and surprising high IQ, to wit, (top this Mr. Crow) they are able "to recognise the human faces that feed them in a crowd, and have even allegedly learnt to use the underground system in London by deliberately getting on trains and getting off at specific stops."

And honorable mention for yawning banality goes to those flying brown blobs of fat and feathers, AKA California Towhees! Not! Note to self: trying admiring them more.

Oh, the commonplace Crow. But what of its supernal quirkiness and intelligence of the highest order ("for a bird"?), capable of recognizing individual humans, recalling slights, and behaving altruistically. Don't despise Crow, Human!


The goofiness of Geese and silliness of Ducks is always a fun stuff. OK, so it's a bit anthropomorphic to ascribe risible traits to our resident waterfowl, but let's admit, they have a knack for eliciting chortles from even a disinterested curmudgeon.

Ah, Juncos! They come in many flavors, and they're always chirpy and chippy, flying off to reveal their split white tail, or casting off a quizzical look from a fence. When I see them in different light, from a different angle, I'm like - wait! - that isn't a Junco, is it? Sure enough is.

Mourning Doves are way cool, whether chilling on a lone branch, ground feeding, perched on a high wire (which they love), or flying off swiftly and sleekly in formation with a dozen mates. I used to not notice them. Now, I always do.

The "mundane activity of urban birding" and the "prosaic nature of urban birds" is anything but. In fact, urban birdspotting is as exciting as "wild" birding farther afield in our extensive green belt of open spaces, parks and wilderness areas. I mean, think about it - right in our midst, we are so fortunate and blessed with many exciting encounters and sightings with birds who pass through or call the urban environment their permanent home:

The quantum vibrations that are Hummingbirds.

All that Jazz of Jays and lively Bushtit festivals.

Sparrow feeding frenzies and the finicky nature of Finches.


"Goodpeckers" bangin' away in a neighbor's tree (as my Spanish-speaking amigo once called Woodpeckers).

 And the occasional "exotic" passer-throughs - Cedar Waxwings, Pacific-slope Flycatchers,  Varied Thrushes, and the Warbling Vireo.

The thing is: Every little bird on the move captures my attention and engages the engines of curiosity and pistons of wonder at so much subtle, hidden, dynamic life happening all around! And mostly without a single human being noticing, too busy they are hustling here and there and faces buried in digital devices. Except for the old school cool among you, paying homage to the most 'umble and ordinary of our birdenizens - our urban avifauna.