Birdwatching as a child

by James K. Sayre

Birdwatching is probably a very natural activity for a child. Birds have color, movement and make noises. How could any child possibly not notice birds? (Actually, birds have been a great fascination to people of all ages for undoubtedly thousands of years; just visit any library and see how many books they have on their shelves that are about birds).

My memories of birds that I saw and heard when I lived in Ridgewood, New Jersey (from age three to seven and a half) are very limited. I remember the loud, raucous calls of the colorful Blue Jays. My first major bird misidentification was imaging that the cawing of some local Crows was the honking of distant migrating Canadian Geese.

In Mount Lebanon, Pennsylvania, where I lived from age seven and a half to age twenty, my observations of birds really picked up. The first bird guide that I remember seeing was, Birds: A Guide to the Most Familiar American Birds, A Golden Nature Guide, originally published in 1949. I remember their color paintings of such exotic (to me, in landlocked Mount Lebanon, Pa) as the Loon and the Great Blue Heron. Also, the illustration of a majestic Bald Eagle. overlooking its massive lakeside or seaside nest. And there were exotic birds of the West, such as the Magpie. All thrilled my juvenile imagination.

When we visited my Sayre grandparents in Detroit, I got to look at their American Bird Guide: Eastern Land Birds by Richard Pough, published in 1946. I still remember the first plate of colored paintings in that guide which featured the Smooth-billed Ani and the Groove-billed Ani, three Cuckoos and the Road-runner, none of which I had seen yet.

In 8th grade, I bought an excellent pair of 7x35 binoculars; my parents had a couple of decent bird guides, so the basics were covered. About then, my lobbying got my father to build a large outdoor feeding station that was attached to the outside of one of our dining room windows. You merely opened the window and tossed out some bird seed. This attracted many of the local winter bird residents including Cardinals, Sparrows, Chickadees, and Blue Jays.

By 9th grade, I had quit my morning paper route, so I could do some nice spring and summer bird walks around the neighborhood early before breakfast and school. In 10th grade, in was in the Advanced Placement Biology class, and one of our assignments was to make a list of all the different species of birds that we observed in a week. I tallied some total in the high sixties, I believe; about three times as many as any one else. I saw a partially-albino Robin with a white breast; I also saw a completely albino Robin: all white. Of course, I had a little advantage: I had been quite fascinated by birds and had been a dedicated birdwatcher for several years... Our Biology class went on a bird walk as a group, with the teacher pointing out several different birds. When he suggested that an odd call that we heard was a certain species of bird, I disagreed and said that it was the call of a Chipmunk. Finally, I was able to point out the small Chipmunk, that was standing up on a low stump and scolding our group for invading his territory.

In that period of intense birdwatching, I also observed a partially albino Robin that had a white breast and a totally albino Robin that was entirely white.



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Web page last updated on 25 September 2007.