"My Bird Problem" began as an essay for the August 8, 2005, issue of The New Yorker and became Jonathan Franzen's autobiographical exploration into the origins of his love affair with bird-watching, the environment, political climates and, not least of all, the nature of relationships.
FEBRUARY 2005, South Texas: I'd checked into a roadside motel in Brownsville and was getting up in the dark every morning, making coffee for my old friend Manley, who wouldn't talk to me or leave his bed until he'd had some, and then bolting the motel's free breakfast and running to our rental car and birding nonstop for twelve hours. I waited until nightfall to buy lunch food and fill the car with gas, to avoid wasting even a minute of birdable daylight. The only way not to question what I was doing, and why I was doing it, was to do absolutely nothing else.
At the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, on a hot weekday afternoon, Manley and I hiked several miles down dusty trails to an artificial water feature on the far margin of which I saw three pale-brown ducks. Two of them were paddling with all deliberate speed into the cover of dense reeds, affording me a view mainly of their butts, but the third bird loitered long enough for me to train my binoculars on its head, which looked as if a person had dipped two fingers in black ink and drawn horizontal lines across its face.
"A masked duck!" I said. "You see it?"
"I see the duck," Manley said.
"A masked duck!"
The bird quickly disappeared into the reeds and gave no sign of reemerging. I showed Manley its picture in my Sibley.
"I'm not familiar with this duck," he said. "But the bird in this picture is the one I just saw."
"The stripes on its face. The sort of cinnamony brown."
"It was a masked duck!"
We were within a few hundred yards of the Rio Grande. On the other side of the river, if you traveled south—say, to Brazil—you could see masked ducks by the dozens. They were a rarity north of the border, though. The pleasure of the sighting sweetened our long tramp back to the parking lot.
While Manley lay down in the car to take a nap, I poked around in a nearby marsh. Three middle-aged white guys with good equipment asked me if I'd seen anything interesting.
"Not much," I said, "except a masked duck."
All three began to talk at once.
"A masked duck!"
"Where exactly? Show us on the map."
"Are you sure it was a masked duck?"
"You're familiar with the ruddy duck. You do know what a female ruddy looks like."
I said that, yes, I'd seen female ruddies, we had them in Central Park, and this wasn't a ruddy duck. I said it was as if somebody had dipped two fingers in black ink and—
"Was it alone?"
"Were there others?"
"A masked duck!"
One of the men took out a pen, wrote down my name, and had me pinpoint the location on a map. The other two were already moving down the trail I'd come up.
"And you're sure it was a masked duck," the third man said.
"It wasn't a ruddy," I said.
A fourth man stepped out of some bushes right behind us.
"I've got a nighthawk sleeping in a tree."
"This guy saw a masked duck," the third man said.
"A masked duck! Are you sure? Are you familiar with the female ruddy?"
The other two men came hurrying back up the trail. "Did someone say nighthawk?"
"Yeah, I've got a scope on it."
The five of us went into the bushes. The nighthawk, asleep on a tree branch, looked like a partly balled gray hiking sock. The scope's owner said that the friend of his who'd first spotted the bird had called it a lesser nighthawk, not a common. The well-equipped trio begged to differ.
"He said lesser? Did he hear its call?"
"No," the man said. "But the range—"
"Range doesn't help you."
"Range argues for common, if anything, at this time of year."
"Look where the wing bar is."
"Definitely calling it a common."