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Novice birder, part 3: Thinking more like a bird

Mar 10, 2017 By Robert H. Peck

I had decided to familiarize myself with the names of birds I could find in Hickory Hill Park in Iowa City, and some distinguishing characteristics that might help me pick them out.

I looked up a list, created by birders logging their sightings in the park over the last 30 days.

Red-winged blackbird. Rusty blackbird.

Bufflehead. Snow bunting, canvasback, brown creeper. American coot. Gadwall; cackling goose; greater white-fronted goose. Northern flicker, common grackle, dark-eyed junco. Common merganser and hooded merganser. Red-breasted nuthatch. Shrike.

Song sparrow house sparrow American tree sparrow, Harris's sparrow, swamp sparrow white-throated sparrow Eurasian sparrow white-crowned sparrow--thrush. Titmouse. Tufted titmouse. Now there's a name.

And, on my next trip, I saw a tufted titmouse. This time I went much further into the park than I had before. Hickory Hill is somewhat huge, and has land dedicated to preservation of various habitats. Deep within is a prairie recreation, lots of long yellow grass and rocks, and I walked to that and found the titmouse on the outskirts.

It was not happy to see me, and that's probably why I found it, because an angry titmouse kicks up a real racket: a shrieking series of short chirps followed by low, gargling trills, over and over and over, following you along the path from tree to tree as if demanding an apology.

I've since come to know that titmouses--titmice?--are everywhere in the park, but that day I assumed they might be a prairie bird because this one was near the prairie habitat recreation area, and loved it for that, fond as I am of the dry grasslands of my home state.

I walked slowly as it scolded me, pissing it off more and more until it grew completely fed up and shot off nimbly through the grass and low branches, dodging left and right as it cackled away. The titmouse is another bird I love.

I was getting better at thinking like a bird. That day, I also saw a cardinal, perching on the ground, foraging. I got my bins focused easily this time (I'd been practicing my quick draw), and so got a good look.

They are pretty birds but duller on their backs than their fronts; their backs are almost brown. I moved closer. The cardinal jumped up into a bush and hid, but I'm a human, and humans are smarter than birds, so I could still see it in there.

I also saw a grey-blue bird with a swoosh of hair poking up vertically from its head.

In fact, I saw two of them, and they made the most grating awful sound I'd ever heard birds making. Nails on a chalkboard recorded on a tape recorder, and then played while the recorder itself also was dragged along a chalkboard.

The birds were clearly a couple, and they really seemed to be having fun, which made me feel bad for hating them, but I did, especially because I recognized their calls: whatever this bird was had lived right outside my third floor window when I was an undergraduate in New Haven, Connecticut, where the window in my 7x10-foot bedroom (yes, it was a double) was right above an impressive stand of garbage dumpsters. That's probably what attracted the bird, which started making this same sound at about 5:30 every morning.

Of course I had looked for the bird back then but never been able to find it out there in the tree, possibly within punching distance. I thought of hefting a rock at them, but remembered my grandpa's column about the flicker and his shotgun in the corner, so I moved along.

I had been to this park dozens of times in the 18 months before I started birding. I'd gone running there, so many times in fact that I thought I had the layout of the place well.

I'd even made up a little song for myself to help memorize the turns I took: right right middle right right right left left! I had hummed in my head, zigzagging over well-trodden earth and picturing how cool I must look in my faded, red-and-orange basketball shorts and Iowa Hawkeyes hoodie, fresh from my microwaved oatmeal breakfast.

But birding in the park made me realize how wrong I was about knowing anything about any of it.

Next: In search of the mystery bird.


Editor's note: Riverton native Robert H. Peck is a graduate student in the Iowa Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa.

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