At least a couple of times a year, people ask me how I got interested in birds. The answer is pretty straightforward; I got interested in birds because of my Dad. That’s him in an aviary in Kenya in 1972. He got interested in birds while getting bird study merit badge as a boy scout growing up in New Jersey. He imparted his interest in birds to my brother and me. But imparted does not really describe it. My Dad did other things like coach little league baseball, but birding was the big thing we did. As much as I liked birds, I know I did not make it easy when I was little. Growing up, we did Christmas Bird counts; I remember not wanting to get out of the car to listen for owls. It was just too cold in southern Arizona in the winter. I remember continuing to whine about how cold it was walking around in the morning, and that my toes were frozen. What I do not remember is my Dad ever getting mad at me for this whining; he just encouraged me to keep going and I would. We did Big Day trips in the Spring to try to see as many bird species as we could on a single day. I got to visit the bird-banding station of the University of Arizona on the Santa Cruz river (The highlight was holding a male Western Tanager). Then there were those times when he would pull us out of school to go chase vagrants all over Arizona, Kentucky Warbler in Sabino Canyon, a Yellow Grosbeak at the roadside rest area near Patagonia, a trip to the Parker Dam on the Colorado River to see Barrow’s Goldeneyes. Those were the local trips, and sometimes we saw what we were looking for and other times we didn’t. We did road trips through the Northwestern U.S. and Canada and down to Palenque, Mexico near the Guatemalan border. Amazingly, my Dad did all the driving on these cross-continent romps. I think we made it to southern Mexico in two and half days. We lived out of the car and ate out of the car. We also made trips to Trinidad and Tobago, Africa and South America.
In Trinidad and Tobago. My brother is in the front. Judging by the look on my face, I'm probably whining about something. That evening we saw hundreds of Scarlet Ibis coming into roost.
On our trip to Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, I recall being completely miserable trying to sleep in the early morning on a bus traveling from Cali down to Buenventura. Every time I nodded off, I would bang my head against the sharp edge of a bus window. The only field guide we had on that trip was Meyer de Shauensee’s Birds of South America (1970) which had black-and-white heads of birds of birds for plates. We would try to decide what spinetails we had seen based on the short descriptions and I’m guessing we misidentified more than a few, but we got a lot right also. For all these trips, my Dad did the research to figure out where we needed to go and then we’d go and try to see all the birds we could. I think my Dad’s encouragement to collect stamps and do puzzles probably laid the groundwork for my interest in museum collections, but he also approached Curator Steve Russell about letting us bring bird specimens in plastic tubes from the University of Arizona’s bird collection to show-and-tells at our elementary school. I even helped my Dad comb through bird books in the U of A library when he was proofreading Ernest P. Edwards’ Checklist of Birds of the World (1974).
Still the best times were those outside looking for birds, but as I said, I know now that I did not always appreciate what I got to do. I panicked about crossing barbed wire fences to look for sparrows and longspurs. I remember being scared out of my wits in Africa when we were walking around Fort Ikoma, Tanzania. I was too worried about large mammals to be able to focus on cisticolas or any other birds. Again, he was always patient about this. Looking back, it was those opportunities that eventually gelled into the realization that I could go to even more out-of-the-way places, that I could pursue degrees in evolutionary biology and zoology, and that I could survive winters in Chicago. So for giving me this love of birds that has developed into a career I enjoy immensely, I will always be grateful. Happy Fathers’ Day to my Dad and all those other Dads who are helping and encouraging their kids to go beyond their comfort zones!