The whole cavalcade halted violently, everybody bailed out and levelled their field glasses.

By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by Jim Frise, April 3, 1948.

Greg gives Jim a few lessons in the sport of bird-watching

“I won’t go!” announced Jimmie Frise.

“It’s the greatest sport in the world,” I assured him.

“Under no circumstances,” cried Jim flatly, “would I go! It sounds to me like the silliest, stupidest, vapidest, most infantile…”

“Go once,” I declared, “and you’ll wonder why you’ve been wasting all your life on sissy sports. Bird-watching, in another 10 years, will have 10,000,000 followers in North America. It’s sweeping the continent.”

“Bird-watching!” breathed Jimmie contemptuously.

“Some call it birding,” I informed him.

“Birding!” simpered Jim, puckering up his mouth. “Tatting. Crocheting. Birding!”

“Look:” I submitted. “I’ll take you out for a day’s bird-watching, and I’ll guarantee at the end of it you’ll be more exhausted than you’ve ever been with all your hunting and fishing in all your life.”

“Who wants to be exhausted?” snorted Jim.

“One thing at a time,” I reminded him. “You were trying to make out it is a sissy, old maid’s sport. I tell you, bird-watching is a strenuous sport, if you want it strenuous. On the other hand, if you just want to wander along country side roads, avoiding the bush and the swamps, that’s okay, too. But you won’t run up much of a score.”

“Score?” cried Jim. “Is there a score in this pretty game?”

“Certainly,” I explained. “This IS the game. It is to see how big a score of different species of wild birds you can run up in the one day. You compete with your friends who are out in the country with you. Or you can join a club of field naturalists or just a club of your own friends and connections. And then you try to beat the experts in that club.”

“It still sounds piffling to me,” muttered Jim.

“Okay” I changed direction. “What does any sport give you? What does golf give you? A day in the open air, zestful exercise, the company of your friends; and a little competition.”

“But golf calls for skill,” protested Jim.

“What do you think bird-watching calls for?” I exclaimed. “A great deal more skill than swinging a club. You’ve got to have physical skill to work your way, with economy and energy through thick swamps, dense bush, hill, cliff and valley. And you’ve got to have skill of eye and mind to identify the bird when you see it. With your field glasses.”

“How many birds are there?” asked Jim.

“Fifteen billion, by the last census,” I replied, “in North America.”

“I mean, how many different kinds?” said Jim, trying not to look impressed.

“In North America, 700 different kinds,” I informed him. “Around 500 different kinds in this particular section. But if you were to become a real expert, you might see 250 in your lifetime. So far, although I’ve been looking at them for 30 years, I’ve only seen and identified 170 kinds, from eagles to hummingbirds.”

“Gosh,” murmured Jim. “I had no idea. Heck, I don’t know more than a dozen different kinds, a crow, a robin, several kinds of duck, a hawk…”

“What kind of hawk?” I queried.

“Well, a hawk!” cried Jim. “Isn’t a hawk a hawk?”

“Certainly not,” I asserted. “There are 22 kinds of hawks. See? You talk about skill in golf. All your life you’ve been seeing birds out of the corner of your eye. You’ve never even looked at them. They’re creatures of beauty, mystery, charm. Most of them are HARD to see. It takes skill and intelligence.”

“And a lot of time,” complained Jim.

“Well, you spend a lot of time on other recreation,” I reminded.” But golf is limited by the season. So is hunting. So is fishing. Any sport you like to mention has to be given up at some season of the year. Bird- watching, on the other hand, is an all-the-year-’round game. These clubs and gangs of bird-watchers – you’ll find them in every city and town, centered around the schools or the sportsmen’s clubs – are out hunting from January 1 to the next December 31. They get a far bigger kick out of running up a score of 20 different birds on a February day than 100 on a May day.”

“You mean,” demanded Jim, “that these nuts go out in the dead of winter?”

“Certainly,” I gloated. “That’s the point. If it’s fresh air and exercise you want, a day in the country, with your friends, and with hunting as the object…”

“Queer hunting,” protested Jim.

“You mean you don’t kill anything?” I asked. “That is its chief charm. Do you know, doctors and psychiatrists are recommending bird-watching to bored and worried people all over the world?”

“The trouble is, I’m a dub,” explained Jim. “I don’t, know more than a dozen or so birds to start with. What equipment do you need?”

“Well, everybody’s a dub, when they start golf or bridge or fishing,” I pointed out. “All the equipment you need is a pair of field glasses and a pocket field guide to the birds, so you can identify them when you see them.”

Jim stared moodily out of the window. April is a funny time of year. Too early for golf. Too late for skiing. Too soon for fishing. Too muddy to start on the garden.

“I’ll go,” he announced grimly.

So, at 7 am, which is early for a Sunday anywhere, I tooted outside Jimmie’s; and he emerged in his old hunting clothes and boots, with an old pair of army field glasses around his neck and a paper bag of sandwiches in his hand. We drove to a suburban cross-roads where our particular party was to rendez-vous. There were five carloads, and the hunting party consisted of two bank managers, a fur dealer, a university professor of history, a locomotive engineer, three brokers, a plumber, a doctor, two mechanics and one poet. They were all dressed in dowdy old clothes and hunting boots. The only things they had in common were field glasses hung around their necks, long peaked caps and paper bags full of lunch.

I introduced Jim to the gang. One or two of the party had already started to score. You can pick up plenty of wild birds right within the city limits. The history professor, for instance, had detoured through a city park on his way to the rendez-vous, and he had scored already – song sparrow, bluebird, chickadee, sparrow hawk, pheasant, flicker, downy woodpecker, junco, blue jay and winter wren.

After a short palaver as to where we would all meet for lunch, in case any of us got lost chasing will o’ the wisps, we piled into our cars and the procession started away from the suburbs at a nice slow pace. You don’t race, bird-watching. Everybody is watching.

“A funny bunch,” announced Jim, as we fell in the rear of the parade.” They look like a bunch of crap- shooters.”

“Or deer-hunters,” I agreed, “or hound men going out for a fox. You see: it doesn’t matter what the game is…”

Half a mile up the road, the lead car spotted a bird hunched on a low tree off in the field. The whole cavalcade halted violently, everybody bailed out and levelled their field glasses. It was a migrant shrike. Everybody took out their score cards and entered the shrike. Jim studied the bird long and carefully; and then I showed him its color print in the little field guide.

“Never saw it before!” he stated with surprise.

“Oh, yes you have,” I assured him. “You never recognized it before. Up till now, it was just a bird of some kind. Score one, Mr. Frise.”

We dropped a little behind as I pointed out song sparrow, blue bird, junco, a pair of mourning doves rising off the road, their lovely flight so shy and wild; a chipping sparrow and a phoebe. “Just little flutters along the roadside,” marvelled Jim, “unless you stop and take a look.”

He levelled his glasses through the car window at each of them; and then took pleasure in hunting them up in the little book.

“Well, I’ll be jiggered,” he muttered, as he took out his score card and marked them down.

We overtook the main party, where they had all bailed out to identify a large hawk beating and soaring over a field some distance away. It turned out to be a red-tailed hawk, and Jim was amazed to discover, in his field glasses, that it had a red tail!

So we proceeded, by main road and occasionally turning off side roads, to do the concession square, and so back to the main road. We added savannah sparrow, tree swallow and a beautiful little sparrow hawk to our score. Jim was profoundly impressed at the comparison between the tiny, robin-sized sparrow hawk and the huge red tail he had seen a few minutes before. Both hawks! He pondered, scoring his card.

The caravan wandered up the highway, off the side roads, with distance increasing between cars from time to time as something caught the eye; and then closing up again into a compact convoy. At a dense swamp, we all got out and entered the cedars to look for some long-eared owls the history professor had seen in there the week before. But we found none.

We were about two hours out from the city when we got detached from the convoy. I had stopped the car to let Jim see a kildeer plover. He had seen lots of them before; but never through field glasses. When we took up the chase again, we came to a backwoods crossroad; and the other cars were nowhere in sight.

As we sat cogitating, something compact, brown and swift flashed across the road a few yards away. “A woodcock!” shouted Jim.

“A jack snipe,” I corrected.

“A woodcock!” insisted Jim, with newborn authority. “I guess I know a woodcock when I see it. I’ve shot plenty of them.”

I turned the car along the side road, and we coasted slowly, watching out the windows into the brushy swamp. A hundred yards down, I stopped and we got out.

“What do you say?” I suggested. “Let’s go in and try to identify it.”

“That’s my idea,” declared Jim. “That’s real bird-watching.”

So we left the car and slipped as cautiously as we could into the underbrush. Underfoot, the first hepatica, the barely open anemone. We kept close together and thrust, yard by yard, into the brushy willow and alder, watching every foot of ground ahead. We came to wet spots that we had to circle. We encountered cedar patches, which we wove through. We worked east, we worked west: but nary a woodcock nor even a jack snipe did we see; nor any other bird. And we were sweating and our legs ached. And we decided to go back out to the car.

Which we did. And when we reached the road, there was no car! We walked back to the corner. No car. We walked the full concession, with heavy feet. No car. We hailed a passing farmer in a truck and asked him had he noticed a yellow car.

“Not on the sixth line,” he confessed.

Had he seen a convoy of five cars full of bird-watchers?

“Bird what?” he asked suspiciously.

“Our car must be stolen,” I pleaded. “Could you give us a lift, while we look around?”

He drove us slowly along the side road, up and around the concession. He took us to his farm house, where we put in a call to the county constable.

“If it’s stolen,” said the constable, “they can’t get out of this area without having been seen by one of the gas stations, I’ll call you back in 20 minutes.”

We sat drinking tea with the farmer and his wife.

“What were you doing in there?” the farmer asked, cautiously.

“We’re b…”, I stuttered, “we’re naturalists.”

“Ah, bugs and things,” said the farmer, much relieved. The phone rang. It was the county constable.

“We’ve located your car,” he said. “It’s been abandoned. It’s down on the fifth line.”

So the farmer drove us down to the fifth line.

And there was our car, exactly where we had left it! It seems, when you go bird watching you can get badly turned around. What is more, you can cross a road without being aware of it. For the farmer had driven us, in his truck, entirely around the concession in which we believed we had been hunting.

“You get sort of,” said Jimmie, “sort of hypnotized by…uh…”

“Bugs and things,” agreed the farmer, gently.

We got into the car and drove back to the highway: and thus to the lunch hour rendez-vous by a stream, where we found our five carloads of fellow bird watchers deep in their paper bags.

The professor of history had a score of 48, the locomotive engineer 47, and all the rest in the forties. They all wore the relaxed and cheery air of men who had been thoroughly washed out by wild fresh air. Their legs spread out, heavy and tired. They munched their sandwiches. The winners looked cocky and proud. The losers looked subdued and defiant.

No money had changed hands. Nothing was killed. The hunt was ended. The friends were sprawled about, aware of one another.

“You’ve got something,” admitted Jim, in a low voice, from behind his ham sandwich.

Editor’s Notes: Tatting is a technique for handcrafting lace.

Hepatica and Anemone are in the buttercup family.

Any of the bird types can be searched for if you are interested.