I, Birder

by Greg Neise on June 21, 2011

There were two decisive moments in my childhood.

The fall of 1973. I was in 4th grade at Lincoln Elementary School in Chicago. We had turned in our homework the day before and were now having it handed back, graded. It was a writing exercise—a sheet full of “fill in the blank” sentences— and I had gotten one wrong. The sentence to complete was this: Look at the _______ fox!

The die was cast at an early age. At age 3, I ran away from home to look for bugs. c. 1966, Beverly Hills, CA.

I completed that sentence to read, “Look at the Fennec fox!” The teacher crossed out “Fennec” and in red pencil had written, “funny“. She thought I had mis-spelled “funny”.

I hadn’t.

I walked up to her desk and explained that a Fennec Fox was a desert species found in northern Africa that ate scorpions. She rejected this, saying that she had never heard of a Fennec Fox. In that moment—one I’ll never forget—I lost all respect for school and the people running it.

I was nine. I didn’t really know what bullshit was, but I knew that this was bullshit. From that day forward, it was me against school.

The fall of 1976. I had discovered birds in 1972. By 1976 I was consumed by learning about birds, drawing and painting birds, and of course, going out to look at birds. I also had a bird-buddy, Carl. Carl was easily the most popular kid in school, with the teachers and the students…especially the girls. I was not. I had talked Carl into coming on a couple of bird walks and he was beginning to get hooked on watching birds.

The Fort Dearborn chapter of the Illinois Audubon Society led bird walks in Lincoln Park three times each week during migrations, and I never missed a Sunday walk. One particular Sunday bird walk in early October was led by Jerry Sullivan. Jerry looked like Grizzly Adams and wrote books about wildlife. He also penned a very popular weekly column in the Chicago Reader called “Field and Street” about his encounters with urban wildlife. On that sunny, cool autumn morning a paradigm shift was about to occur.

By this time I had started a life list, and so had Carl. We had a checklist of the birds of the Chicago area, and we checked off each species we saw on the walks. New birds had become hard for us to find on the Lincoln Park bird walks. But on that morning, we found something that I had only seen in books…and we found it before everyone else on the walk: a Red-breasted Nuthatch! We whooped and hollered that we had a “lifer!” The others on the walk (mostly a bunch of kindly old ladies) were getting annoyed at us kids, but Jerry just smiled and said “good job!”

And that was it. I was no longer a bird watcher, I was a birder.

By 1978, I was out of control. The year before, Carl and I had ditched school to go see our lifer Snow Goose at Montrose Harbor in Chicago. Back in school the next day, the teachers didn’t even bother talking to me. They knew it was futile. But they had an intervention with Carl, and I lost my birding buddy. Didn’t matter. We were still friends and I was on a path he couldn’t follow.

In July of that year a new birding buddy who was easily fifteen years my senior, Jeff, called to say that he was going to Delaware that weekend to look for a White-winged Tern that had been reported. Hmmm… I could do this. I was working at the Chicago Academy of Sciences, earning about $20/day. I was required by my mother to give my weekly paychecks to her—”for the house”—but I was increasingly coming to resent that, because I had things that I wanted to spend my money on that didn’t include a bottle of J&B.

I asked Jeff if I could go, and he said sure…if I had permission. I asked the only adult in my life who I truly listened to, Dr. Beecher, if I could go. He said sure…if I had permission. I called Jeff and told him I could go.

I hadn’t talked to my mother about it, knowing that if I mentioned it she would show up at the museum on Friday to confiscate my pay. That Friday afternoon I went home, packed a duffel bag and told my mother that I was going to Delaware with Jeff for the weekend. I was 15. I weathered the expected explosion—but that night I slept on the floor of a motel room in Baltimore. The next day, we got the White-winged Tern and spent the weekend birding in the area. I got 10 lifers.

That winter I rode along with two of my birding buddies, Brian and Rich, who had just started college and were going to Florida for Christmas break. Everybody knew I didn’t have any money, and (just like Jeff) they let me slide on a lot of expenses. I slept in the back seat of the car, or on the floor in a motel room. We started at Jacksonville and worked our way down the Atlantic coast to the Keys, then back up the Gulf coast to the panhandle. I came home with 31 lifers, including a “write-in”: Scarlet Ibis.

A page from my 1975 edition of the Combination List & Checklist for Birds of North America.

Shortly after that, I left home and started on a very different path. My love of birds and birding was solid as a rock, but I had a few experimental flings. A brief, but fiery affair with poison dart frogs of the Amazon, for example. But birds always showed the way home. I’m quite certain that my final thoughts on this Earth will be being pissed off that I couldn’t get out to see the…

Epilogue

The impetus for this essay was participating in a Facebook discussion about the future of the American Birding Association (ABA). I was an ABA member in the 1980s, but I let my membership lapse. I’ve recently rejoined and found that the tone of the discussion, and many of the people involved, are the same. It was like seeing an old friend who “gets it” after many years’ separation.

I read in dismay as people who probably aren’t birders—and many whom aren’t even ABA members—claimed that the ABA is “elitist”. I couldn’t think of a word that misrepresents the organization more. The ABA is focused, but not elitist.

I started out going on bird walks sponsored by the local Audubon Society. I soon outgrew that, and the walks and their leaders were able to teach me less each season. I went further afield to gain more knowledge and understanding of my exploding passion. I joined the local ornithological society and went on field trips and attended meetings.

I soon found a group of people that were birding at the level I aspired to reach. They were members of the American Birding Association. They showed me the same kindness, and helped my birding along as much as the leaders of the Sunday bird walks did. So, when I hear “elitist” it gets my dander up.

Local Audubon clubs and organized bird walks are the perfect place to start. But when you begin thinking about that trip to Florida or California in terms of the new birds you might see, you’re probably ready for the next step. Don’t hesitate.

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  • Anonymous

    Excellent Post!

  • Jeffrey Gordon

    Hey, Greg,

    This is so cool. I really appreciate the tack you take with things. And not just the endorsement of the ABA (although that rocks, too!).

    I wonder if we might have run into each other at that White-winged (then Black) Tern or somewhere when you were birding Delaware in 1978. I chased that bird, too, even though it was only an hour’s drive from home for me (of course, I wasn’t driving yet, I was also relying on the kindness of older [ABA member] birders).

    So, when are we gonna get to bird together? Are you coming to the Midwest Birding Symposium in Ohio?

    Jeff

  • David Hartley

    This is a story that should be shared around a fire at the July membership meeting in Colorado Springs! Any chance you can make it?

    • http://www.nabirding.com Greg Neise

      Thanks, David…I’d love to, but circumstances are keeping me pretty close to home for the foreseeable future.

  • Carl Bendorf

    Greg,

    Great stories. It’s so important to remember and share (as you’ve done so nicely here) the impact off our early mentors and those formative experiences which, obviously, are remembered for life.

    I am curious…is that a blood stain on the right hand pagee of your journal or just the remains of a jelly doughnut?

  • Anonymous

    Great story, Greg. I enjoy reading how your personal history coincides with your love of birding.

    Thanks for linking to the “Field and Street” book too–that looks really interesting.

  • Amar Ayyash

    Nicely told, Greg. I would have gone for that White-winged Black Tern had it not been the month I was born – July, 1978.

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  • Pat ODonnell

    I love this post. You sum up those magical feelings of getting into birding at a young age and birds being a main focus of life. When I was 14 or so, I was going to ride my BMX for 30 something miles to catch duck migration at a wildlife refuge but my parents talked me out of it (I am glad I listened to them). I would have loved to have gone to Florida or chase birds like that at the age of 15!

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