The Way to Birds

by Rex Burress

Various people come to a love of birds in different ways. Olin Sewall Pettingill, Jr., wrote a book about the way he came to birds - in fact, entitling it My Way to Ornithology. His interest partly developed through his parent's chicken house, and he would spend long hours there watching the rooster-hen behavior. Watching those domestic birds helped develop patience to study the life history of several wild species in later years, including the eastern American Woodcock that became his thesis subject, and he devoted three years to completing that goal.

Pettingill progressed to attain a doctorate, which led to Cornell University, then the top spot for ornithology in America. He became Director of the Laboratory of Ornithology there from 1960 to 1973, advancing among legends in bird schools, including his best friend George Miksch Sutton, mingling among bird pioneers like Arthur A. Allen, Frank M. Chapman, and Thornton Burgess. Each of those bird devotees had their own story, and in those initial days of data accumulation, a tremendous amount of actual observation was pursued just to add to bird lore. Pettingill described sitting in a blind all day just to study woodcock, and spent another day counting the trips a pair of chickadees made in feeding their young. Three hundred and fifty-six!

It is usually the sight of an especially beautiful moment that will inspire one toward a lifelong interest in something like birds. For entomologist Ray Peterson of the Audubon Canyon Ranch, it was the moment he looked through a magnifying glass at the jeweled beauty of a beetle's back that showed the way to a lifelong passion. Each participant of a biological discipline will have their story of their way. That is why environmental education is of such importance; you never know who the story of nature subjects will touch and change a life.

In 1931 Pettingill, Sutton, and others went to the Hudson Bay area to find the nest of the Harris' Sparrow. No one had ever seen them nesting nor their eggs, and on that expedition the first nest of four eggs was discovered by George Sutton. Thus is his name recorded. Making those initial discoveries was of great importance in the perimeters of the bird world and scientific records.

The 2003 Snow Goose Festival at Chico, California, attracted a wide segment of the public and perhaps became a stimulus for some future bird watchers. Field trips were conducted in all directions from Chico - to the State of California's Gray Lodge Wildlife Area, Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, and one to the Feather River that I led. Most were novices out for something new, and I noticed a few that were unusually excited to see a hummingbird flashing its iridescent feathers. The Red-tailed Hawk that circled us against a blue sky brought exclamations of wonder, too! Maybe some will be caught up in bird watching as a life-long hobby ... or career. Interpretation is sharing and guiding. People like Skip Auger, Richard Redmond, Larry Tunstall, and J. T. Lewis, among many, know the birds and will share their enthusiasm.

My personal way to birds developed in the rural country of Missouri along the hills and creek lands of our farm. Before the wild birds there was the room full of canaries my grandma raised for the market. Like Pettingill and his chickens, canary study was another form of bird interest that was impressive. Having the freedom to ramble over the fields, the invasion of the Mississippi Valley warbler migration stirred my interest, leading to "a little blue book of birds," a cheap monocular, and eventually the colossal Birds of America.

The local game warden added to this accelerating interest by surprising me with a Christmas gift at the one-room schoolhouse. It was a marble game, but with beautiful bird pictures included. It was signed "Sid," and I shyly looked over to where he sat - (alone ... people were scared of the game warden) - and Dad made me go over and thank him. "I knew you liked to draw birds, and I thought this might help you," he said.

The truth was his son was courting my teacher, and he was trying to generate some good will, suggesting I talk to teacher Peggy about getting me enrolled in the Missouri Nature Knight program. That was the clincher. When I signed that pledge, and received a big packet of nature study pamphlets, including An Introduction to Birds, it wasn't long before I was deeply immersed in bird watching and even bird nest study. I soon knew where the Bank Swallow nested, and the crow high in a thorn tree, but I had to climb it to see the egg. That was my way to birds, and I would like to hear yours.

[Messages can be sent to Rex care of birds at folkbird dot net.]

2003 Rex Burress
February 4, 2003