Inside the Strange Minds of Our Fine Feathered Friends
By Budd Titlow
A feeding group of white pelicans plies the waters of the Southern Wildlife Refuge at the mouth of the San Diego River.
Wild birds are my friends. I like talking to them. Nothing too deep, mind you. Just stuff like, “Well, hello there guys. How are you doing today? Beautiful weather we’re having, isn’t it? Your feathers are sure looking nice and fluffy this fine morning.”
And here’s the best part. I think the birds actually listen to me. They often talk—or more correctly, call or sing—back at me while I’m standing there watching them.
I did not always have such a copacetic relationship with birds. As a young boy, I roamed my rural Virginia neighborhood shooting them with my trusty Daisy air rifle (aka BB gun). But even John James Audubon shot and killed many thousands of birds. At the time (during the 1800s) it was the only way he could “collect” subjects to serve as models for his now world-famous and highly valued portraits of North America’s wild birds.
I myself limited my shooting to such undesirable, invasive birds as the English house sparrows and European starlings that liked to perch and nest on rooftops, leaving various and sundry messes in their wakes. I had a pact with my parents and my neighbors that I would never shoot any robins, cardinals, or other native songbirds.
Today, I cringe at the thought of the birds I killed. And as a homeowner myself now, I certainly would not tolerate some young boy wandering through my backyard, randomly picking birds off electric wires and rooftops.
Accompanied by my dad, I also engaged in the Southern tradition of duck hunting as a teenager in the Virginia mountains. While I do remember taking aim and firing off shotgun blasts at ducks flying overhead, I have no recollection of ever knocking a bird out of the air, much less actually killing one.
Fortunately, I ended my gun-toting ways when I matriculated to Florida State University and Virginia Tech to pursue graduate degrees in wildlife biology. Since then, I have never picked up another gun. When I moved to Colorado to begin my career with the federal government, I started hunting wildlife with a camera and telephoto lens—seeking color images to illustrate my freelance writing instead of stuffed and mounted trophies for my family-room walls.
As a professional wildlife biologist, part of my job always involved identifying as many birds as I could whenever I conducted a field assessment. I was highly envious of those who could readily idenftify every birdsong and call they heard. No matter how much I listened to the traditional bird song identification tapes—birdsong, bird name—birdsong, bird name—birdsong, bird name—on and on ad infinitum—I just couldn’t get the hang of it. I just found them boring.
Then came my true epiphany as a birder. I discovered Richard Walton’s Birding by Ear program and my career as a serious birder was born. I suddenly began hearing and recognizing individual birdsongs out of the cacophony of sounds that flooded spring woodlands and summer fields. Before long, I was able to identify more than 90 percent of wild birds by songs and calls alone. Actually seeing them became just an extra added benefit.
My identification skills—and thus my enjoyment—increased exponentially. Now it’s amazing to me how most people—even those with highly trained ears—don’t seem to hear or respond to individual birdsongs. To many, these wondrous sounds just seem to be part of nature’s background noise. In his book, Music of the Birds, nature recordist Lang Elliott eloquently describes it this way: “To the naïve ear, the sounds all mix together to create a pleasurable sensation, but this is like listening to an orchestra without knowing the musical instruments.”
My newfound expertise to hear, listen to, and identify wild birds any time I’m outdoors—no matter the time of day or the season of the year—allowed me to finally fully understand the widespread allure of bird-watching or, as it’s known to the purists, simply “birding.” According to US Fish and Wildlife Service, there are currently more than fifty-one million birders in the United States alone, and this number continues to grow annually.
To me now, birds are nature’s great communicators. They always let me know when they’re around—by both sight and sound. And they provide a window to the natural world, giving me open looks into the wide variety of natural habitats they call home.
This point was vividly driven home to me during a trip to Fort De Soto Park in Pinellas County (near St. Petersburg), Florida. Late one afternoon, I was standing near the end of the park’s long fishing pier. I was photographing brown pelicans, terns, and gulls placidly diving for fish in the aquamarine waters of the Gulf of Mexico when suddenly the birds all swooped together over the water in one huge flock and started going berserk—shrieking and wildly flailing their wings while they tumbled and collided with one another in a frenzied state unlike anything I had ever seen. When I looked into the water beneath the birds, I saw the reason for their wild antics. Millions of fingerling fish shimmered like glass shards across every square inch of the water’s surface. The birds were going crazy competing for them. Plus just below the fingerlings, thousands of larger fish flashed silver as they boiled up to the surface and gorged themselves full of the minnows. Meanwhile, all fifty or so people fishing from the pier started catching fish as fast as they could cast their lines out—reeling in three and four fish they called “jacks” at a time. It was nature in the raw—a classic oceanic feeding frenzy, complete with a human element. And it was the birds that first alerted me to everything else that was going on below the surface of the water.
In my forty-plus years as a professional wildlife biologist, I’ve watched birds do some pretty extraordinary and, in some cases, just plain wacky things. I’ve seen sage grouse strutting like pimps in a parking lot high in the Colorado Rockies, marsh wrens merrily celebrating the onset of spring in Massachusetts, blue-footed boobies diving like blazing skyrockets in the Galapagos Islands, and a great blue heron subduing and swallowing a monstrous water snake in Florida. These observations—plus many others—provided the impetus and idea for creating this book, one hundred of my most memorable birding moments. These were times when I most vividly saw inside the minds of our feathered friends.
It’s my profound hope that through my book, “Bird Brains”, the wonderful world of wild birds will inspire you to take your family out and explore nature. To, just for a while, leave your cell phones, computers, and other assorted electronic devices behind and join the great and revered naturalists of yesteryear—John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Henry David Thoreau, Charles Darwin, Carl Linnaeus—in “networking with nature.” Watch, observe, introduce yourself, and even get to know the wild birds and other marvelous creatures with which we share life on earth.
Text excerpted from book: BIRD BRAINS: Inside the Strange Minds of Our Fine Feathered Friends, written by Budd Titlow and published by Lyons Press (an imprint of Globe Pequot Press). Photo caption & credit: A feeding group of white pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhyncos) plies the waters of the San Diego River Channel.
Text excerpted from book: BIRD BRAINS: Inside the Strange Minds of Our Fine Feathered Friends, written by Budd Titlow and published by Lyons Press (an imprint of Globe Pequot Press).
Photos & Text: Copyright Budd Titlow, NATUREGRAPHS.
Author’s bio: For the past 50 years, professional ecologist and conservationist Budd Titlow has used his pen and camera to capture the awe and wonders of our natural world. His goal has always been to inspire others to both appreciate and enjoy what he sees. Now he has one main question: Can we save humankind’s place — within nature’s beauty — before it’s too late? Budd’s two latest books are dedicated to answering this perplexing dilemma. PROTECTING THE PLANET: Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change, a non-fiction book, examines whether we still have the environmental heroes among us — harking back to such past heroes as Audubon, Hemenway, Muir, Douglas, Leopold, Brower, Carson, and Meadows — needed to accomplish this goal. Next, using fact-filled and entertaining story-telling, his latest book — COMING FULL CIRCLE: A Sweeping Saga of Conservation Stewardship Across America — provides the answers we all seek and need. Having published five books, more than 500 photo-essays, and 5,000 photographs, Budd Titlow lives with his music educator wife, Debby, in San Diego, California.