Month: July 2016

Feathered Friends

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Well, it’s been a while since I last posted. I meant to wrap up this little series on why I like birds (and why you should too) in April, but I got whisked away to the field to start my research on woodpecker nest survival. After 3 months of hard work, I’m back at home and ready to get some more writing done! So, today, we will talk about the final (major) reason of why I like birds: to put it simply, they are my friends.

Over the summer, I was working in the Eastern Washington Cascades near Naches, WA. My work focused on monitoring the nests of the Hairy Woodpecker (Leuconotopicus villosus), Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus), Black-backed Woodpecker (Picoides arcticus), and White-headed Woodpecker (Leuconotopicus albolarvatus). I will probably write more about my research later, but I just wanted to mention this to explain the next part of the story.

While working in Washington, I was asked to give a small talk at the Wenas Audubon Campout, a retreat organized by the Washington Audubon Council for its birding members. At the campout, I basically retold the contents of these last few blog posts in an interactive format to about 100 campers organized in a semicircle of camping chairs[i]. I explained how birds reminded me of the beautiful diversity of humanity, how they were free in their ability to fly, and, finally, how they were my friends in some sort of way. I have yet to discuss this final topic of friends here at the Wise Owl, so now, I will record in writing what I said in words to my fellow Auduboners.

When I arrived to the topic of birds as friends, I asked the campers to think about the bird that first got them hooked on birding. I explained how I believed that we all had a bird species that held a special place in our hearts, that perhaps reminded us of home or our childhood. I could see them nodding their heads. I asked for a few examples, and people fondly retold stories of their initial birding experiences. My story is about the Black Phoebe (Sayornis nigricans).

The Black Phoebe is a simply-clad bird in the flycatcher (Tyrannidae) family. Like their name suggests, they are aerial insectivore specialists, able to acrobatically twist and turn in the air in pursuit of flies, gnats, and other insects. With its black head, back, and breast complemented by white underparts, the Black Phoebe isn’t particularly visually striking. Its call is rather simple as well. But, they could always be seen around my childhood house and yard at all times of the year.

For most of the year, you would see just two Black Phoebes outside the kitchen window. But, then, as spring came around, you’d start noticing a few more new additions to the avian family unit. Come fall, the kids would leave, and the parents would be left by themselves again, waiting for spring to come to start it all over again. If you were lucky, sometimes you’d stumble onto an active nest in the wood shed or the stables out back. Plastered on the wall under some eaves, it was a neat little cup made of mud and interwoven plant material. I thought it was so cool.

I love the Black Phoebe. They were a part of my home. Reliable and honest, they were always there. When we came back from family vacations, they were there. When I came back from college to visit, they were there. When I came back from studying abroad in South Africa, they were there. Whenever I see a Black Phoebe, whether at parent’s house or elsewhere in California, I feel at home. It’s that same feeling you get when you reconnect with an old friend. And so, the Black Phoebe is my friend.

Just as the Black Phoebe is my old friend, so other birds become my friends over time as well. When I was in South Africa, one of my favorite birds that I saw was the Secretary Bird (Sagittarius serpentarius). Standing at 4 ft. tall with black “leggings” and a feathered “pen” tucked behind its ear, it looks very much the part of its namesake. They are skillful hunter, well known for their ability to kill snakes hiding in the tall grass by stomping them to death. Besides the obvious fact that it’s super awesome, this bird held a deeper meaning for me.

About a month into my South Africa trip, I hurt myself stretching out on a brick wall. I was a little zealous in my stretching (we were getting ready for a soccer game), and I accidentally pulled the wall down on my leg. It hurt[ii]. Needless to say, I couldn’t do much physical activity after that, which was challenging since a good amount of our student community life was predicated on physical activity and adventure. No longer could I play soccer or volleyball or hike to the waterfall with the other students. I was confined to my bed, alone. So, when we went on safari, I was over the moon. This was something I could do with everybody else (we just sat in the Jeep), and this was a place where I could treasure something held dear to me: the birds. Seeing the Secretary Bird stalking the savannah was the highlight of my time studying abroad. It still brings a smile to my face when I think of my South African friend.

You see, the beauty of friends is that you will have some old friends that you’ve known all your life, that will always be there when you come home, and you will make more new friends as you journey along to different places at different times in your life. During my senior year of college at Azusa Pacific University (APU), one of campus pastors gave a talk about friendships after college. She said a phrase that really resonated with me: “Some friends are there for a lifetime, some friends are there for a season, and some friends are there for a reason.” I think that statement hold a lot of truth, a truth that I believe can be demonstrated through birds.

When I visit LA, my closest friends and family are all there, along with the Black Phoebe. When I travel to a new place, like South Africa, new friends and birds are there to greet me. Everywhere you go, there is the potential to see new birds you haven’t seen , and there is that same potential to meet new people and make more new friends and memories.

The great comedian Jerry Seinfeld has a bit where he talks about making friends as a kid: “You like Cherry Soda?! I like Cherry Soda! We’ll be best friends!” As adults, sometimes it seems to be hard to make a new friend. But, it doesn’t have to be this way. For me, birds are a reminder of the simplicity and joy of friendship, and I try my best to carry that to anyone I meet. Who knows what great friend you could stumble into if you just say hello.

“Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.” –Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 (ESV)

[i] There was also a guy walking around our little campout talk who wasn’t totally in his right mind. He gave me a fist bump and offered me a Coors Light, but I declined.

[ii] I also re-broke my leg when I tried to walk on it too soon. The whole ordeal was a big mess and is a story of its own.