My father was forty-eight years old when he discovered birds.
Of course, he had always known that birds existed—cardinals and blue jays perched in our trees, robins hunted for worms on our front lawn. He was aware, I’m sure of both the variety and ubiquity of birds—but the discovery that all of this could be catalogued, could be known: this was a revelation.
He sprung this on me on a drive home from college the December of my junior year. With a sheepish grin, he cleared the front seat of a pair of binoculars that he now kept close by, just in case. From the car’s CD player, snippets of birdsong were broken up by a disembodied voice intoning the species.
Later, at home, he would show me his guidebook and his online “e-bird” account, and I would spot the floppy, dark-green hat he wore to keep the sun off his neck on long hikes and kayak rides. In the span of a few short months, he had become a full-fledged (no pun intended) birder, somebody who used bird as a verb.
I too was certainly aware of birds, but in same way I was aware of hit pop songs or off-brand cereals—I knew there were differences, but for all intents and purposes, these differences didn’t seem to be meaningful.
My father has spent the past few years studying these differences. He spends hours now walking through forests with my mother, waiting by ponds, tabulating observations on his online profile. He’s identified 180 different species in my hometown alone.
“I’ve always heard birdsong,” my father told me in the car once. “But now I listen. I’m walking down the street and I know: there’s a jay, there’s a blackbird, there’s a woodpecker.”
“They’re everywhere, once you know how to look,” he tells me. And when you pay attention, he insists, you learn that each one looks different, sings differently, cuts through the air at a different slant.
A few weeks ago, my parents flew down to Honduras to see me. It’s a trip they’d been talking about for months, but I suspect Honduras’ rich diversity of birds gave them the last little encouragement they needed to finally book the flights.
On our third or fourth day, we sit out on a little rowboat at dawn with a guide who can whistle birds out of hiding, and identify the species by a single chirp or caw.
The guide points out birds with familiar names—swifts, egrets, herons, and kingfishers. He also points out birds whose names I have never heard before—the Lesson’s Motmot, the Groove-billed Ani. We see Purple Gallinules padding through the marsh, Social Flycatchers popping their heads from their tangled nests.
In the span of a few hours we see seventy-six different species of birds, which I can hardly fathom—beforehand I didn’t even know seventy-six different bird species’ names.
We go slowly. We are attentive to every flit of movement in the treetops, every ripple in the lake. We listen for birdsong.
As our guide names each bird—trogons and tanagers, orioles and oropendolas—it’s as if he’s summoning them into existence.
The birds, of course, have always been there. The difference is that now I’m paying attention.