My Bird Problem
Birds were what became of dinosaurs. Those mountains of flesh whose petrified bones were on display at the Museum of Natural History had done some brilliant retooling over the ages and could now be found living in the form of orioles in the sycamores across the street. As solutions to the problem of earthly existence, the dinosaurs had been pretty great, but blue-headed vireos and yellow warblers and white-throated sparrows—feather-light, hollow-boned, full of song—were even greater. Birds were like dinosaurs' better selves. They had short lives and long summers. We all should be so lucky as to leave behind such heirs.
The more I looked at birds, the more I regretted not making their acquaintance sooner. It seemed to me a sadness and a waste that I'd spent so many months out West, camping and hiking amid ptarmigans and solitaires and other fantastic birds, and had managed, in all that time, to notice and remember only one: a long-billed curlew in Montana. How different my marriage might have been if I'd been able to go birding! How much more tolerable our year in Spain might have been made by European waterfowl!
And how odd, come to think of it, that I'd grown up unscathed by Phoebe Snetsinger, the mom of one of my Webster Groves classmates, who later became the most successful birder in the world. After she was diagnosed with metastatic malignant melanoma, in 1981, Snetsinger decided to devote the remaining months of her life to really serious birding, and over the next two decades, through repeated remissions and recurrences, she saw more species than any other human being before or since; her list was near eighty-five hundred when she was killed in a road accident while chasing rarities in Madagascar. Back in the seventies, my friend Manley had come under Snetsinger's influence. He finished high school with a life list of better than three hundred species, and I was more interested in science than Manley was, and yet I never aimed my binoculars at anything but the night sky.
One reason I didn't was that the best birders at my high school were serious potheads and acid users. Also, most of them were boys. Birding wasn't necessarily nerdy (nerds didn't come to school tripping), but the scene associated with it was not my idea of galvanic. Of romantic. Tramping in woods and fields for ten hours, steadily looking at birds, not communicating about anything but birds, spending a Saturday that way, was strikingly akin, as a social experience, to getting baked.