when I am old I shall wear binoculars
The Sudden Desire to Be a Birder
We laugh about this all the time: the moment in one’s life when one suddenly discovers an affinity for things assigned to a particular demographic that one deems to be very much not theirs. Off the top of my head: Birkenstocks (guilty), flowered aprons, a wardrobe filled with yoga pants, large wooden earrings, a fanny pack, reading glasses in every bathroom, black running shoes which you will wear for everyday outings because they go with everything. A sudden relentless yearning to know everything about The Birds of the Eastern United States, necessitating piles of guidebooks in every room of the house.
I have a beloved cousin who has, as long as I’ve known her, been fond of making bird calls, sometimes in public. She is a wonderful person —- possibly one of the absolute best people I know who walks this earth —- but she also very much marches to the beat of her own drummer, and with that comes a vast knowledge base of things that boggle the mind: the world’s most obscure science fiction novels published in the 50s to an audience of six, and from which she can quote chapter and verse. The lyrics to a rare and slightly raunchy Bessie Smith tune from 1923. The history of Etruscan wall art in a cave on an island in the Greek Cyclades. And various birds and their songs, which she is able to replicate with stunning accuracy.
Can you imagine? Susan and I used to say to each other. Birds, of all things. We both believed this to be a manifestation of age: the older one gets, the more interested in birds one becomes, or so it seems.
My first up-close-and-personal experience with birds happened in the 1970s when I was in middle school and my parents went to work. For reasons I’ll never understand they left the windows in their bedroom open, with the screens up. When my mother got home first, there were two city pigeons perched on the bookshelves above my parents’ bed while our Airedale cowered in the living room behind the love seat. One of the birds laid an egg between my parents’ copies of The Joys of Yiddish and Sex and the Single Girl. My grandmother, who had spent years taking care of my grandfather’s flock of homing pigeons who lived in a coop on their Williamsburg Brooklyn roof, somehow was able to herd them toward the window and out into the sky. My next weird bird experience happened when Susan and I had just gotten together and I was making the long trip up to northern Connecticut from Manhattan to see her every weekend. We all know what the first year of romance is like, and let’s just say that one drowsy late Sunday afternoon, I opened my eyes to the sound of what turned out to be a Goldfinch standing on the skylight directly over our bed, tapping on it hard with his beak; he turned to the side as though he was calling over a friend (Hey look), the second bird flew over, and they both stood there staring at us for a while until they got bored and left.