October 21, 2005
Dancing Black-necked Stilts
Dancing Black-necked Stilts
What is it about birds that grabs us in ways that lions and tigers, newer cars, and older wines don’t?  For most of us it's the beauty of their flight, their plumage, and their song.  Man has dreamed of flying since before those knuckles left the ground.  We'd just rather not have to do it aboard U.S. Air to Cincinnati to close that deal.  Elevate straight up, like a helicopter?  Hummingbirds do it.  Stoop straight down the perpendicular face of a mountain at 200 mph?  Falcons do it.  Glide all day on currents rising off the ocean waves without once flapping?  Albatrosses do it.

Plumage is as varied as flight:  pink, green, yellow, and blue all on the same small package--Peach-faced Lovebird (several colonies in Phoenix now); snow white on a medium sized package that lives in the snow--White-tailed Ptarmigan (on the high peaks in Colorado); muted chevrons of browns and delicate striations of grays on a large package so cryptically camouflaged in the branches that you can’t see it even though you’re looking right at it--Great Horned Owl (anywhere in Phoenix where there are big trees or saguaro cactus).

And song is even more varied:  a deep forest bird, one of the thrushes, whose haunting song sounds like someone playing a flute; a grassland sparrow whose introductory notes have been likened to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony; a common neighborhood bird, our Northern Mockingbird, capable of perfectly mimicking sounds as disparate as your car alarm and your alarmed cat.

If you enjoy visual riddles that challenge your powers of observation, there are nine species of small flycatchers that are so similar you have to know their calls to distinguish them from one another.  If you’re into history, many of our western birds were named for nineteenth century naturalist/adventurers who explored the Louisiana Purchase and sent specimens of newly discovered species back east to the Smithsonian.  If you love travel, you can go to the last island in the Aleutians for Asian vagrants or the last key off south Florida for Caribbean vagrants.  If you hate travel, I have a friend in Phoenix who has observed more than 100 different species over the years, sitting at breakfast watching his backyard feeders.  He’s a hermit.  He never leaves his house.  He’s a birder.

Do you have an inquiring mind?  Wouldn’t you really like to know how the sapsuckers and the goatsuckers got their names?  Or why some Bald Eagles don’t have white heads?  Or how a large, spectacular bird like the Ivory-billed Woodpecker could disappear and be thought extinct for half a century before being rediscovered?

“Bird” is a verb.  Now that we've talked about why, in my next column we'll start exploring how.