By Joel Penkala
I realize that I have an affinity for birds. This should be by no means a revelation, but sometimes I forget how much they have influenced my life. Feathered creatures have amazed me since I was very young.
I used to watch the feeders at my parents house all winter long with great gusto. And more than once, I stole one of moms sheets and played the old “pencil on a string” trap game with those very same winter bird feeder users. I learned that an unweighted box does not work well because it falls too slow, and that most birds can exit a milk crate through the handle slots. I can’t say why exactly, but the chance to hold one of those creatures in my hands. To be able to for just a few moments see up close what a Junco looked like was reason enough to keep going back for more.
I can remember the apex moment of those formative years; what one might call the “catch and release time” as all my efforts were to bring the birds to hand. I perfected my art of bird capture until I was able to sneak up to our feeder and catch with my hands a Black Capped Chickadee that was feeding on the other side of the feeder. I think I was more surprised than the Chickadee when I was actually able to make that catch. After a brief examination of my trophy, and of course a photo op with mom I let the little guy go. He promptly flew into our tree and straightened his feathers as if the remind me that I was not worthy of catching him in the first place. I like to think maybe he learned to be more cautious as a result of the encounter, but I digress.
My interest translated into full on obsession during my high school years when I became an avid birder. I learned songs, and ID techniques, and like many new birders, I got caught up in the number of birds on my life list. It would take a number of years to move to the next phases of bird appreciation. I think that there are 5 stages of birding, as there are with hunting, and each contributes to the progression and education of the individual.
These were also the foundation years of hunting with my father, who for some reason or another, chased only birds and in particular upland birds. His interest in deer was culinary only, and he knew enough folks who could provide him with venison that deer were never part of our repertoire. Instead we focused on grouse and woodcock, pointing dogs and shotguns. I was able to spend what is the equivalent of an entire lifetime of upland hunting in the years between 10 and 18. College was only a speed bump at best in the continuation of our outdoor pursuits, and I spent may hours in the car traveling home on weekends to get out into the woods and fields.
Not coincidentally, I wound up surrounded by folks who also love birds. In college, my senior project in wildlife was a point count study for song birds. I can remember another project counting waterfowl along the Raritan River for a biometrics class. One of my college mentor-at the time grad student friends has worked his way into heading up the Cape May Bird Observatory. Right down to my first “real job” at the Ruffed Grouse Society, I realize the significance that birds have played in shaping my life, and I could not be who I am without them. As I write this, I expect emails from friends and family of the latest bird sightings from trips and around home.
Despite the fact that my bird song ID has dropped to abysmal, and I rarely get out specifically to bird, I am reminded that my affinity remains. Just the other weekend, I was in Boston visiting my Sister and new Niece, we spent some time at the Harvard Natural History Museum. There was a splendid exhibit of avian taxidermy in which I was immediately and deeply lost for some unknown amount of time. I was reminded by my wife that the last time I was so “into” a museum was at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Wyoming. Go figure.
To put its succinctly, I LOVE BIRDS!
Harvard Meseum of Natural History Avian Exhibit
Birds prints I purhcased at a local thrift shop.
Photo: Ernie Hahn
Photo: Ernie Hahn