The Brown Bird

Dean Martin once asked Sinatra how he always managed to get such a great crowd reaction. Frank replied that he went out and started with three songs he knew would kill, and that after that, he could do anything he wanted, and the audience would love it.

Borrowing a page from the Chairman, I've decided to kick off my stint here with something I know you'll all love: Brown Birds.

You'll note that my nickname is non-birding Bill, and not bird-hating Bill. I rather enjoy our fine feathered friends, especially from the comfort of an air-conditioned room with a high-speed wireless internet connection and cable TV, so I can, you know, have something to do after I see the birds.

Shazz, on the other hand, loves nothing more than getting up at 4 a.m. to drive 2 hours on dirt roads and stand in the freezing cold, scanning the horizon for a bird that might be there. I keep pointing out to her (as she wakes me up) that she has books with pictures of these birds in them, but she just sighs and puts on another layer of clothing.

I think these two photos, taken last Christmas, sum up what birdwatching is like for me:


Of course, it's not just what birders consider ideal conditions for birding (cold, damp, desolate, locust plague, raining blood). It's also the fact that they love, love, love The Brown Bird.

The Brown Bird (sepia dullus) is a creature that has evolved a remarkable form of camouflage: no other bird will eat it because it looks so uninteresting. Birders, however, posses a genetic flaw that not only allows them to see The Brown Bird, but causes them to hallucinate, causing them to think that it's actually several different birds.

To wit:

To a birder, this looks like two different birds!

However, it's not enough to see The Brown Bird sitting at your feeder, where you can, you know, find them all the time. No, birders judge status amongst their kind by the conditions under which they were seen, and will often hire a skilled professional, called a "guide," to take them to the most out of the way place, show them a brown tree in a brown copse where The Brown Bird might be seen, and then strike them repeatedly about the head with a baseball bat. Kenn Kaufman, of course, rose to fame after detailing the 1% difference in brown shading found on the wingtips of The Brown Bird while being struck by lightning! David Allen Sibley countered by drawing every bird in North America while having his blood replaced with hydrochloric acid. Then the government stepped in.

Meanwhile I go off to feed the ducks, who make a pleasant quacking noise and seem to genuinely appreciate whatever bits of food (corn, salami) I toss them.

But I kid the birdwatchers. I kid, because I love. As a recovering hardcore geek m'self (comics, etc.), I see birders as, well, collectors. And like any other kind of collector, the more detail they notice about their subject, the more joy they get out of it. Sharon is, in my not-unbiased opinion, such a great ambassador for birding because she not only has a great deal of knowledge about the subject, but is genuinely excited about birds and most importantly, gets others excited about it, too.

Even, alas, me.

I was walking to work one morning and saw something bebopping around in a hedge. "Oh," says I, "that's a yellow-rumped warbler."

And then I stopped.

And then I wanted to punch myself.