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A Twitcher’s Field Guide to Ordinary Birds

A Twitcher’s Field Guide to Ordinary Birds

Michael Jinkins


Twitcher’s (as birdwatchers are known) are famous for traveling the world for a chance to see a rare bird. They may hazard a perilous boat trip or helicopter landing on a rocky island just to glimpse some species that has gotten mixed up and blown off-course in the migratory winds. Rarity is the prize. But what about common sightings of common birds?


Recently I was sitting outside eating a sandwich when a grackle showed up. I have cursed at grackles in the past, on one particular occasion after parking my car in a grackle-infested parking lot in Waco, Texas. After dinner I emerged to discover that the birds had repainted my car with poop. This does not endear any bird to me. Although they are officially defined as a variety of song bird, put a few billion of the critters among the trees of a restaurant parking lot and the musical effect is less than symphonic, and the visual results are appalling.


Sitting outside, however, with one isolated grackle hopping about nearby, I took a closer look at this critter, and discovered, to my surprise, that it is really rather beautiful. Although less celebrated than other varieties of black birds, its feathers are iridescent, a gorgeous deep black field with flashes of French Ultramarine blue and rich jade. I found my lunch partner beautiful, inquisitive, a little aggressive toward other birds that landed nearby, and downright funny. This particular bird was of the sort even called the “common grackle.” And, true, it is “common,” unlike its celebrity cousin from Asia known as the Mynah, but for those who take the time to look closely, it is worth the look.


Since that little encounter I’ve been examining other ordinary birds more closely, sparrows, for example, and seagulls, and pelicans. The purpose of this little blog today isn’t actually ornithological, however.


I suspect that the reason some people get so bored is because they have grown callouses of a sort. Their eyes and ears have become so accustomed to gaudy and flashy distractions that they have a hard time seeing and hearing and feeling the wonder of what is ordinarily present. Novelty and spectacle have made up so much of their daily diet, they have a hard time noticing, let alone appreciating and savoring, all the things that really make our lives so rich. Whenever they feel the itch to get distracted — whatever may cause it — there’s a dozen “remedies.”


A whole industry of distraction consultants has been spawned because of the social restrictions during our pandemic. Lists of diversions flourish in our newspapers and newsfeeds, ways to pass the time between rising and going back to bed.


Today I’d like to offer an alternative. My idea isn’t intended to prevent us from rewatching favorite movies or bingeing on a new Amazon Prime series, but it might make the impulse “to be distracted” feel a little less urgent.


I encourage us to linger.


If we are taking to a spouse, a parent, a child, a roommate, a friend, virtually or in person, linger a little longer, even if there’s nothing to say. Don’t assume you know what they think. You really don’t — of that I can assure you. Each individual we think we know well remains a vast uncharted continent unknown even to themselves.


Linger looking out the window in silence. Linger sitting on your porch, or in your back yard or garden, in silence. If you are free to walk in your neighborhood or park, walk more slowly and watch more fully. Notice. The resurrection fern, the drooping Spanish moss, the ridiculous squirrels, the strange fact that nature not only abhors a vacuum, but doesn’t much care for straight lines either. Find the most common and ordinary things in your line of sight, and “behold” them as though for the very first time, without judgement or categorization.


Several years ago I came across an essay by the French public intellectual and literary critic, Roland Barthes, “The Blue Guide” (originally published in his book, “Mythologies,” 1957). The Blue Guide was a popular resource for tourists in Europe, recommending sites worth seeing. Barthes, with his usual wit, critiqued the central premise of the Guide. What makes a vista of distant mountains more worthwhile to see than a shadowed creek or an urban playground? One’s assumptions determine whether one finds the commonplace interesting, not the vista itself.


Now, I love looking at a sunrise from a mountain cabin or the sunset over our golden sea marshes, but today, for all of us a bit too twitchy to sit still, I want to recommend resisting the siren call of distraction. There are gifts, as well as dangers, in this time of social isolation. And one of these gifts is the opportunity to dwell upon the ordinary.


What it is that causes the twitch in the first place, we’ll talk about later.

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