Raise your glass for a New Year’s toast to a few of my birdy firsts! (And Millie, here’s a leftover corgi-cutout Christmas cookie to tide you over.)
The first birds that I truly remember were a flock of Evening Grosbeaks that descended upon our rural Pennsylvania backyard feeder one endless winter in the 60s. Evening Grosbeaks are robust yellow-white-and-black parrot-like seed-crackers that mostly live further north except during the winters they deign to grace us with their noisy exuberance, hence, the moniker “an irruptive species.” They’re really just looking for food, (we had box elder trees in our yard—a favorite,) and I later learned that the early 60s were record years for their “irruptions” throughout the east.
Of my own making were other memorable childhood birds. Somehow I developed an obsession with marionettes—that’s right, puppets with strings – not only looking at them, but making them. No one really knows why. But my first “show,” with a bunch of lumpy sawdust-and-flour paste birds (and a handful of my third-grade pals), was a dramatization of a Flemish legend: “How the Finch Got Her Colors.” A Great Gray Bird doles out the colors of the rainbow for the first time to a bunch of bossy likewise-gray birds each demanding, “Me first!” (green for the parrot, yellow for the canary, you get the idea,) but the lowly patient finch was last in line and there were no colors left. The Great Gray Bird called all of the others back to give a bit of their color to the finch: “Then lo and behold! Thus it came about that the most beautiful bird of the air was the little wee finch who waited her turn.” A Cinderella tale if ever there was one. I loved it.
Later, my adolescent hands stitched an owl marionette (for a marionette Nutcracker no less) with anatomically correct feather patterns in its flappable wings, and when I first moved to New York I had a stint curling feathers for Big Bird, yes, the yellow Sesame Street fellow. (Invite me to the bar at Left Bank to tell you about it sometime.) Furthermore, for years I danced in those avian-centric ballets: Swan Lake, Firebird and Two Pigeons. None of this really had anything to do with Birding with a capital B.
The first time I visited the West Village was during the summer of 1978. I walked across the old Abingdon Square when it was a wide open European plaza with incoherent traffic patterns, before its endless decade of reconstruction. I was meeting a New Yorker actress friend taking a class at HB Studios on Bank Street. If Millie’s corgi-great-grandparents had been with me that day they could have herded me through the garden-maze of streets which, at that time, I assumed one could only decode by some prescient native osmosis. Surely, ancestors of the pigeons currently circling the square circled then. (Imagine the begats.)
A flock of Glossy Ibis were the first New York birds that turned me on to wanting to see more—flying north across the sunset, seen from the deck of an Audubon Eco-Tour Water Taxi churning up the East River toward the Brother Islands. Ibis are Dr. Seuss birds to me. They have a preposterous elongated (yet somehow still chunky) shape and that extravagant down-curved bill seems like it could only have been concocted by an errant slip of the pen. Seeing these (what I had previously assumed were only tropical) birds winging their way home for the night with the Manhattan skyline flickering behind them—well, I was hooked.
The first bird that I started “counting” in the West Village—meaning, the first entry in a journal on a Saturday evening, September 9, 2006, beginning a numbered list of birds seen “within, above or from” the West Village streets, my West Village Bird #1—was a House Finch, not even a native bird but a transported escaped species from the west coast! This lovely rosy-glow of a bird chattering amiably from a tree at the southwest corner of West 4th and West 12th streets intrigued me with its unlikely rosiness when all I had noticed before on these streets were brownish sparrows and darkly-speckled starlings. (By the way, an Evening Grosbeak has still not been added to my West Village List or to my New York List for that matter. I even hesitate to include it on my North America List because I was not yet “counting” back then in my marionette-making corgi-less childhood.)
If you have read this far, and, I hope, are not too disappointed that it wasn’t about what you thought it might be, (Millie is disappointed that it hasn’t been more about her,) I’ll throw you a sunflower seed. On the night before my college graduation, the indelible exit line after my “first time,” spoken back to me from the open door: “Don’t tell anyone about this, I expect to be President of the United States one day.” Skol!
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