By Keith Michael
Millie is drowsing at my feet, her smiling corgi face propped upon the helter-skelter sprawl of birding field guides, dog-eared and cracked open to my latest sleuthing of the finer points of avian identification for the West Village. How idyllic.
Too idyllic. I made that up. Millie is, indeed, sleeping, but with her nose pressed against the sill of the front door, waiting for any infringement upon her privacy from the hallway, slumbering before a five-alarm warning bark-fest to any and all who go there. My field guides are tidily stashed in the bookcase upstairs, their bindings fanatically aligned.
Frankly, my thoughts are in retrograde. My 91-year-old mother, Mabel Jeannette Newlin Michael, died on October 23rd, quietly and expectedly, though profoundly, nevertheless. Time has been on an accordion journey ever since, wheezing out and in—not without its harmonic pleasures. I’d like to be able to say that, while rifling through boxes of family photograph albums before her memorial, I came upon my mother’s long-lost first family birding guide that may have ruffled my current passion for bird-watching way back when. But, no.
I did find a manila folder (bound with brass paper fasteners) of my nearly pre-school colored-pencil drawings of birds—wobbly images that were first traced from the pages of a Roger Tory Peterson Field Guide to Eastern Birds (possibly even one of the original blue-bound 1934 editions, but more likely, a later paperback incarnation). Then, I recall, enlarging them, painstakingly, freehand, and filling in the outlines with brilliant primary colors: Cardinal RED, Blue Jay BLUE, Goldfinch YELLOW. I remember an elementary school bird-themed birthday party with a bird scavenger hunt, a ‘pin-the-tail-on-the-bird’ blindfolded party game, and a Bluebird-decorated box layer cake (which, of course, I baked and on which I piped the blue-food-coloring-hued icing).
Two memorable birds from growing up in Pennsylvania include: the flocks of Evening Grosbeaks (chunky yellow, black and white seed-crackers) that descended upon our sunflower-head-stocked bird feeder in the winter of 1965—what I later learned was an ‘irruption year’ for this primarily northern species—only sporadically seen this far south then or since; and the grandeur of soaring Golden Eagles from the mountain heights of Acadia National Park in Maine on a family summer vacation (before the DDT scourge of the 1970s). I haven’t been able to add either bird to my list again in my past decade of bird-watching. They still have the fantastical elusiveness of childhood memories.
When we cleared out my mother’s apartment (she hosted bi-weekly card parties and luncheons there even into her last months), still on the walls were framed, embroidered bird tableaus that I had stitched while growing up—a flock of garden birds clustered around a backyard bird house, and a yarn-woven white swan swimming against a sunset of orange burlap. Ah, I was an eclectic fellow even then.
My mother wasn’t a birder. She said that birds moved too fast for her. She preferred wildflowers: “They stay where they are and you can look at them.” But she always kept a bird feeder outside of her kitchen window to entertain her while she did the dishes (she only got a dishwasher much later in her life). The backyard always had a birdbath that was kept meticulously cleaned and filled during the summer. Yes, she tried to get rid of the “messy” House Sparrows nesting in her porch eaves, but welcomed the Mourning Doves and the Barn Swallows. Chickadees, Juncos, Tufted Titmice, Nuthatches, Downy Woodpeckers, Flickers, and Cardinals were the regulars. Blue Jays and Crows were the pushy interlopers. And a Cooper’s Hawk, harassing the locals, was worthy of a phone call to report to me in the “big city” of New York.
My current edition of the Peterson’s Field Guide is still one of my go-to references to check out an elusive bird, along with David Allen Sibley’s Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America (right now elevating my wrist above my computer mouse), and the photographic Birds of North America by Kenn Kaufman, which I carry with me daily in my backpack (it’s lighter and I like the photos). If you’ve got someone on your list for holiday gifts, I heartily recommend: The Shorebird Guide by Michael O’Brien, Richard Crossley, and Kevin Karlson (including fun identification quizzes for a cold winter’s night); The Warbler Guide by Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle (for the obsessive minutia of warbler identification and lore); and The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds by Richard Crossley (a photographic tour de force).
Millie is trundling over to me (for real this time), pressing her head into my dangling hand for an ear scratch. She wants to go out, out where there might be a new bird taunting me to open a field guide and make my identification. My mother would have loved to hear about it.
For more information about New York City WILD! nature outings, birding, photographs, or books, visit keithmichaelnyc.com.