Dean of Dallas Zoo’s Wild Earth Academy, Ben Jones, guest blogs on ZooHoo!
I’m not a manic birder – no life list, no spotting scope, no yard full of bird feeders. What I am, is a believer in birds.
Birds make life better.
Fifteen years ago, I was vacationing in Mexico, lying in the sun watching clouds float and form, when a huge bird crossed the sky. As it soared, I made mental notes to help identify it when I returned to Dallas. “It’s black and bigger than most birds in the sky, its wings are long and sharply angled, forked tail, long bill. It fights with other birds in mid-air.”
Soon, I was back in the routine of city life – highways, parking lots, Starbucks – but something wasn’t so routine. I thought about that bird in Mexico and paid more attention to birds around me. That was the start of it all – a life of more beauty, more curiosity, and a deeper connection to nature.
Birds are beautiful. Their shapes, colors and sounds are among the most pleasing in nature. Mockingbird and cardinal songs, even pigeon coos, soften city clamor. My heart slows watching gulls above White Rock Lake, their wings moving in hypnotic rhythm. Huge white pelicans fish together. As if on cue, they circle-up and scoop their beaks beneath the water in perfect sync. Out over the waving grass, I glimpse scissor-tailed flycatchers dancing in blurs of pink and yellow above the prairie, long tails swirling behind.
Ever spot a red-tailed hawk perched above traffic? I watched one fly at sunset, its wings pulling it deep into the pink sky. Near Skillman Street, I snuck up on wood ducks floating side-by-side in a shadowy ditch. Radiant red bills and eyes, deep blues and greens, features outlined in bright chalky white – they must be our most beautiful ducks.
I’ve watched the painted bunting here, too. The bird looks as if it’s just flown through a wet rainbow. Beauty runs in the family; its cousin, the indigo bunting, sports the most brilliant blue I’ve ever seen.
Like good art, birds offer beauty and spark curiosity; they make me think, “Why? How? What was that? Mourning dove, white-winged, Inca? Maybe rock pigeon …nope, too small.” My first landmark ornithological discovery – all small birds are not sparrows. Chickadees, titmice, kinglets and wrens – true identities revealed at last.
Sometimes I think I make new discoveries. When I saw flickers hunting insects on the ground, I thought, “Flickers don’t feed on the ground!” Later, I read, sure enough they do, in early spring. Ok, so no new discovery for science, but a new discovery for me, and discovery is discovery.
Birds make me a better observer. I look more closely now at all nature. Thanks to birds, I now know moon phases, Trinity River levels, day length, and what’s in bloom. Birds connect me to the rhythm of the natural world. Flocks of cedar waxwings announce winter in a way no calendar can. The calendar designates autumn’s arrival, but I wait for goldfinch and junco to confirm it. Purple martin scouts arrive, chirping from the telephone wire, their oily feathers shining in the sun – spring is here, again.
Since that moment in Mexico, birds have enriched my life. Now, I carry binoculars behind my driver’s seat. They ride on top of a well-worn field guide I picked up to identify that bird in Mexico. Flipping through it for the first time, I found it! Page 48, big and jet-black; long, sharp wings, forked tail. “That’s it – a Magnificent Frigatebird.”
More beauty and curiosity, more connection and discovery … magnificent indeed.