Birding in the Past


(This 1095th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on March 18, 2012.)


Bird watching today is very different from what it was for me over seventy years ago. It has certainly changed now, especially with our modern technology, but is it easier for a beginner? I wonder.


I was very fortunate as an eleven year old to get my start birding with my older brother who was working on his boy scout bird study merit badge. He took me along on hikes and showed me many of the 40 species he had to identify to earn the badge. I have no idea how he learned the birds himself, but he was a good teacher and gave me plenty of opportunities to identify species once he had shown me an example. By the time he was awarded the badge, I knew almost as many birds as he did.


In those days Vern and I used the Reed Bird Guide, a soft-cover pocket-sized booklet with an artist's rendering of each species together with a paragraph of text appearing on each page. Our copy only covered what Reed called Land and Song Birds, thus it did not include waterfowl and many other species.


The Reed Guide wasn't especially useful, in particular for female birds, as its plates showed only males in spring plumage. But other books were far worse. I still have my mother's leather bound copy of Chapman's Handbook of Birds, which was of no use whatsoever as a field guide. It contains almost feather-by-feather species descriptions. Here, for example is the beginning of the text for the robin: "Top and sides of the head black, a white spot above the eye; rest of the upper parts grayish slate-color; margins of wings slightly lighter; tail black, the outer feathers with white spots at their tips;..." the rufous breast only appearing after still more of these unsorted details.


Fortunately, it was not long before I wheedled my parents into buying a first edition of the Peterson field guide for me. That book expanded my world tremendously.


In those years William Edson wrote a weekly listing of the birds in the Rochester area for the Democrat and Chronicle. My mother called Mr. Edson to tell him of my interest and asked for his help. Edson asked her to have me send him a list of the birds I could identify.


I carefully made out my list of perhaps 35 species and mailed it to him. In response I was invited to join Ambrose Secker for a spring evening birding in Tryon Park at the south end of Irondequoit Bay. That evening I must have added twenty species to my life list: among them were savannah, grasshopper and Henslowe's sparrows. Mr. Secker showed how to identify those three by their songs and his lesson stood me in good stead for many years, but sadly I can no longer hear those buzzes and chirps.


That day was evidently a kind of test because I was then invited to join the Genesee Ornithological Society, a very high honor for a pre-teen child. Birders will recognize some of the other members' names: Gordon Meade, Alan Klonick and Joe Taylor each made contributions not just to local but to state and national ornithology. The group was small and exclusive: not only was I the first youngster allowed to participate but I preceded by at least a decade the first female member. Despite the seriousness of the society's other activities, during its early years its finances were based on treasurer Howard Miller's sale for ten cents each of four-leaved clovers he collected from his lawn.


I gained much from my experience in that society. It nurtured my interest in science and it gave me my first real entre to and contacts in the adult world. My favorite example: when I was hospitalized as a high school freshman my first visitor was the head of Strong Memorial, Gordon Meade, bringing me his copy of The Hawks of North America.


You too can get started with this excellent hobby classes and hikes are scheduled at Tifft Nature Preserve, Beaver Meadow and at the Iroquois National Wildlife Reserve. Contact the museum and Buffalo Audubon for details of these and other opportunities.-- Gerry Rising