by Aaron Leatherbarrow
My brother James had me over to his house one afternoon about five years ago. He and I sat on the back porch, and he proceeded to list the names of all the birds we saw sitting there. I thought he was an alien. Why in the world would a 34-year-old man sit on the back porch with a bird guide? Was I crazy? I listened politely because I loved that guy and he had lots of cred because of his love of The Sopranos and an amazing ability to understand how to make pasta the right way, not to mention his understanding that you have to pay if you want the good mozzarella.
“See that one, Bucky? That’s a nuthatch. You can always tell because they crawl upside down.”
“Yeah, okay, James,” I said, rolling my eyes.
About two months later, I found myself noticing birds. Nothing crazy, but when he and I would play disc golf, I found myself asking about the birds we saw.
“That’s a sparrow. That’s a starling. That’s a sparrow. That’s a starling again.”
About two months after that, I found myself standing in Wild Birds Unlimited looking at suet blocks for woodpeckers and talking about the difference between premium seed and the basic black oil sunflower seed.
Okay, let’s press pause. Why do you care?
James once told me something very important. What you value changes as you get older and wiser. Normally, the thing that holds the most value in your mind is money: the more money you can acquire, the more options you have. That changes. Money will always come and will always be printed, but it’s a poor way to measure wealth, and frankly, it’s a bit prosaic.
Time truly has the most value. Those with time are those with options. To be able to sit on the back porch for an hour and watch the movement of the chickadee—the way it sneaks its little head into a hole, finds the perfect seed, and then flutters back to a nearby vine or branch to skillfully pry the shell open and enjoy the seed alone and without distraction—the man who can do that is worth so much.
When you can make your world coast, when you can throw the stick into neutral and enjoy your surroundings while rolling, is when I think you can see the true value of having time. I’ve heard many people talk about having spiritual epiphanies while alone in nature. I just produced a podcast with Dustin Curzon from 36° North, who said the best sound is summer, hearing birds and lawn mowers and wind and such. People always boast about the calm from nature or from hiking or from camping.
When I was standing in Wild Birds Unlimited, I noticed that the clientele was almost exclusively 60 years old and above. I think we should take note of the things that old people do. There is often great value in those things. The older I get, the more I find myself caring about community action groups, about finding time to watch birds, about my lawn maintenance. I have considered getting a bowl of un-cracked nuts and a nutcracker simply because I see elderly folks doing it, and when I participate in these kinds of activities, I feel an amazing sense of calm and beauty.
So there I was, standing with the old people, picking out seeds and feeders to create a bird sanctuary in my backyard. That was about five and a half years ago. Now, one of my favorite hours is when I come home, take off my socks, grab a cold drink, and sit on my back porch, watching the newly nesting eastern bluebirds and the annoying little sparrows getting in the way of the house finches, goldfinches, chickadees, and nuthatches trying to grab their snacks.
How about a list? My friend Aaron Tiger, who runs this thing, likes to tell me to put next steps on these blog articles. Well, here you go, Aaron.
- You need to make time to sit and watch.
- Get a feeder—any little feeder will do the trick. I recommend this one. However, you can get the same thing at any big box store for like 20 bucks.
- Get some bird food! I recommend this one. Again, you can just pick up any cheap food and the little guys will come.
- Provide a water source. I recommend heading over to River City Trading Post and getting a cool old person one. But frankly, you could set a bowl outside with some water in it and it will do the trick.
- Get a guide so you know what you’re seeing. There’s a pretty awesome app called Ibird that has a free version that will do wonders in helping you learn what’s what. The Peterson Field Guides are classic.
- Find a friend! Birding is social. Feel free to catch me on Twitter @sigmabreaker2 to ask me about what you see or any other questions.
I can’t help but talk about birds. I can’t help but try to get people to watch the movie The Big Year. I can’t help but look up when on the disc golf courses. I love seeing the barn swallows in Tulsa Hills, the buntings out in Glenpool, the orioles that hang out in the Riverside Parks, the tanagers and pileated woodpeckers up on the huge hill at Chandler Park, the ruby-throated hummingbirds that always come at the start of every summer.
Finally, a quick reference guide. This is very general, but I just want to mention the everyday birds.
If it’s small and brownish, it’s probably a sparrow.
If it’s shimmery black and has a yellow beak, it’s a starling (unless it’s at Walmart; then it’s a grackle—no yellow beak).
The above birds are pests and really are a pain in the world of birds. Let’s move on.
If it’s blue and little, it’s an eastern bluebird.
If it’s blue and medium-sized, it’s a blue jay.
If it’s red, it’s a cardinal.
If it’s yellow, it’s a goldfinch.
If it’s black and white and crawling around the trunk of a tree with its head up, it’s a downy woodpecker; if it’s got its head down, it’s a white-breasted nuthatch.
If it’s little and gray and hangs out on the ground, it’s a junco.
If it’s medium sized and brownish-gray with speckles on its belly, it’s a thrasher.
If it’s tiny with a black and white head, it’s a chickadee.
If it’s loud, gray, and has a white stripe on its wings, it’s a mockingbird.
If it’s medium-sized with an orange/red belly and it’s fast, it’s a robin.
If it’s medium-sized, gray, and slow, it’s a mourning dove.
If its tail looks like a V in flight, it’s the pride of Oklahoma, and a bird that I encourage you to look for. Oklahoma has a distinctive, amazing, gorgeous state bird: the scissor-tailed flycatcher. It’s definitely one to look out for.
Aaron Leatherbarrow has been birding for 6 years, has a life-list of 86 different species, cares about art and star trek, and produced the 918 podcast. He lives in Sapulpa OK, tries to drink a gallon of water everyday, and thinks that everyone should read the sustainable struggle series until they get it.