Features & Stories

Story and photo of bird watchers by Trudy Frisk
Photo of bird watcher with binoculars by Lynne Mugford

I expected more sympathy from my coffee partner.  “That darn Lynne promised to go birding with me on Sunday, but she said it was too cold and refused to budge.”  “She knows her birds!.” , was the gruff reply.  I stared.  “She does?”  “Certainly.  It was a bitter, blustery day. Their feet were cold.  If your feet were cold, would you welcome someone coming along and peering at you through binoculars?”  Me, ”True. Their feathers would be all puffed out, too, to keep them warm.  Not pretty.” Him, “That’s right. You wouldn’t want someone staring at you under those circumstances, even if they did say they admired you.”  

Would you want to be stared at like this?
Well, I’d never thought of things quite that way. I took it for granted that birders went out in all weathers and birds tolerated them as long as they weren’t disruptive. Have I been wrong?  Do birds resent being under surveillance?  What do birds see when they look at us?  And, how about birders: what sort of person sets out on a chilly morning to track down creatures he or she doesn’t plan either to wear or to eat?

 Kamloops, B.C., where I live, is the ideal location to search for answers. Surrounded by grasslands, many of which are protected on private ranch lands, it lies on major migration routes, and is blessed, therefore, with plenty of birds and birders. Even though it was a cold day, I called my friend, Lynne again.  This time she agreed to pack binoculars, bird book and toe warmers and venture forth. Toe warmers were for the birds’ feet; an offering in place of suet.  “You’re putting them on the birds.”,she warned me , “I’ve had enough claws in my back this week!” 

I  knew that somewhere under the windy April sky there were sandhill cranes and  meadowlarks, maybe even bluebirds, so I accepted her terms. We set off for a well known small lake.

Our first stop revealed miscellaneous water fowl too far away to be identified. ”Cranes!”  I shouted as two large birds flapped by overhead, just clearing a far knoll. Clearly the flock had left a couple of decoys for late arriving birders. Way off along the fence a huge guardian raven sat stolidly monitoring us.  “So far, this isn’t much.”, Lynne’s face said clearly.  Then meadowlarks began to sing. Who could resist meadowlarks?  Territorial, it may be, but their melody is the very voice of spring.  

Ranchers, farmers and other rural residents don’t have to ‘go out birding’.  Birds comings and goings are part of their daily lives. In fact, without the ranches, it’s doubtful that  birds would find many quiet places to feed and overnight on their annual migrations.  Bob and Tracy Haughton gave us permission to bird watch on their property. Up there, where the spring plowing match is usually held, bird song accompanies shouted instructions to the teams. This year the contest was at a different location.  Tracy updated us on plowing news and sent us off to look for birds.

Keen-eyed Lynne had spotted a bluebird perched close to a shrike on an old cottonwood bole and was studying them when Bob came along to fetch the diamond harrow.  As Lynne lifted up the ends of the harrows so they could be unhooked, Bob gave us the latest bird report. Good numbers of bluebirds were back. The raven’s nest in the equipment shed was empty this spring.  Strolling over to view the raven family has been part of the annual plowing match routine.  Maybe ravens missed the action, I suggested, and had moved to the new site.  Most exciting of all, last fall two thousand sandhill cranes rested on the ranch to eat leftovers in the barley field.  Two thousand sandhill cranes! I was envious.       

 More clouds were gathering and the wind was picking up at our last stop. Too big for a stock pond, too small for a lake, this roadside water body was a haven for numerous birds, most of which proved that you can never have too comprehensive a bird book. Identifying Canada geese was easy.  Mallards weren’t a problem.  The American kestrel on the wire thoughtfully posed long enough for us to thumb through our books to the right picture.

'Lynne Mugford and Connie Harris --
"But, I thought YOU were counting the woodpecker's toes!"
Lynne’s an urban girl.  Most of her previous close encounters with birds have involved the backyard chickens next door. Out in the wild, though, she showed sharp vision and an unparalleled eye for detail. “That bird has a white collar and spots on its back like a loon,
Except, it’s NOT a loon!”,  she muttered, flipping pages as we took refuge in the car during one of the colder gusts. “”I think that diving bird is a ruddy duck.”” I replied, thoughtfully, trying to reconcile what was on the water with what was in the book.  Lynne’s English background came to the fore.  “They’re ALL ruddy ducks!” she retorted.  “No, no, ’ruddy duck’ is the bird’s official name, not an insulting adjective.”

As the wind whipped up white caps, we watched for signs the birds responded to our presence. The ducks seemed to dive at the exact moment we focused our binoculars on them.  Coincidence or bashfulness?  Previously the parent eagles, whose nest is in the tall fir tree beside the pond, had been very visible; the male swooping in with food, the female perching on the edge of the nest to feed their young.  This chill day not a pinion feather of either was visible.  We assumed both were tucked down in the nest longing for warmth, wishing the humans below, with their binoculars and cameras, would show some manners and leave.  “”Catch me sticking my head over the nest with my feathers blown about like this! How would that look in the family album?””  Lynne and I stared at the package of toe warmers.  Neither mentioned trying to offer them to the eagles. 
Our feet were cold, so we left.

I’ve been asking people, knowledgeable people; if we know birds, do birds know us?  Do they look for us in familiar places?
Knutsford farmer, George Saemerow, insisted that every spring the killdeer came to tell him it was back at the pond. When white crowned sparrows stop at my place on their way north, they send a spokesbird to perch on the balcony railing, look in at me and indicate that they would like some food, but are willing to wait till I’ve had tea.  If I take too long, the original lone bird is joined by others till there’s a line of sparrows silently staring at me. Adults must pass on the routine to their young.  My father fed chickadees.  Generations of chickadees grew up on his homestead equating humans with handouts of freshly shelled peanuts.  Anyone walking the land was accompanied by a twittering, expectant flock of chickadees which soon trained us to carry peanuts.  The ultimate evidence of their trust in people came when my brother was sighting in a gun.  A confident chickadee flew down and perched on the gun-sight, waiting for the usual treat, and got it.

These are individual stories, anecdotal evidence.  Birders frequently go out in groups, looking for flocks of birds; both people and birds are in the traditional places at the regular times every year.  Do the birds notice?  Outdoorsman Tony Brumell thinks so. “”I don’t believe birds are slaves of instinct.  I believe they remember and can reason. When they notice a gathering of naturalists all staring at them they probably think, ‘’There are those humans again, just like last year.  Where do you suppose they winter?””

Toe warmers would make for happy birds:
if we could just persuade them to hold their feet still.
Biologist and expert birder Rick Howie notes that the scientific view of bird cognition is much more restricted.  Birds see colour, of course. They certainly recognize natural features, in fact probably incorporate a landscape map in their brains to help orient themselves.  Because they remember physical locations, they can find their way back to where a feeder was. Scientists believe they are capable of learning and reacting to stimuli but do not demonstrate thought processes.  They may become accustomed to people. If they are fed and not harassed their need to eat will overcome their fear of humans. They learn that certain people in specific places won’t harm them. Scientists say this is not thinking but responding to past experiences. 

Where does this leave humans?  Except for extreme weather, one day is much like another in urban centres. But some city people recognize small natural events. Friends and co-workers share reports:  “The first bluebirds are back on the Dewdrop meadows!”.  “I saw five white birds flying east on the river.  Would they be snow geese or white pelicans?”   Others aren’t happy until they’ve been out to see for themselves. Although I notice changes in my yard, I don’t know emotionally that spring has come until I’ve heard meadowlarks and seen sandhill cranes soaring overhead. 

People  have various reasons for their yearning to experience nature.  For Mona Saemerow, naturalist and writer,  “”It’s a reminder that none of us exist in isolation, we are all connected.  There are great natural cycles and we want to relate to them. “”  My sister Linda Hicks, who lives on our family homestead, says,  “”It’s a source of  wonder and gratitude to me that I can see this renewal of life.””   I, myself, feel that seeing the great migrations, which we can’t control, though we can affect them, is an acknowledgement that some things predate human endeavors.  Rick Howie believes, “Lots of people need to be tied into the bigger cycles, the bigger driving forces; to encounter the unpredictability of nature.””

Is there an evolutionary aspect to this sensibility I asked Rick, a primitive instinct which hasn’t been totally eradicated in our technological world? After all, the tamest domestic cat will chase birds or mice.  Rick considered it.  “Humans are evolving.  As our society becomes more technical, emotions relating to nature may be more strongly developed in some people than in others. When we began to evolve as hominids we needed to recognize things that were edible, and distinguish them from things that were poisonous. We needed to recognize shapes and colours.  Humans have very sharp observational skills; not as sharp as animals, but very good indeed. These are extremely ancient skills, though, at times, we forget how to use them. Traditionally we trained our vision to look at things, if we saw an unusual shape we learned to truly look at it.  It could be a bird.””
This trained vision would explain why Rick can see a bird where others see nothing but the tree where it perches. 

As for the desire to find wildlife and record it on film, Rick thinks it could be a variant of ancient hunting techniques, necessary for survival during most of human evolution. Perhaps humans for whom contact with nature isn’t merely a desire but a necessity are a sub-set of society, who still feel great satisfaction in wild places with wild creatures. That’s what I plan to tell the eagles, next time.

Other articles by Trudy Frisk

© 2022 Interactive Broadcasting Corporation