Never underestimate the power of birds.
Dig as deep as I can into the past, I can't recall when I formally began to play the game and sport now called birding, but I do have vivid memories of how my husband, Red, and I upset our lives more than forty years ago. I gave him binoculars and he gave me Roger Tory Peterson's new book, A Field Guide to the Birds of Texas.
Out in our yard a bird was pecking a hole in a tree. When I focused the binoculars on it, something happened without warning. I stared at this beautifully designed work of art, with my brain cells working furiously, and the result was nothing less than complete awe. This extraordinary creature resided just outside my door, and I had never given it a glance, much less given thought to woodpecker real estate rights. Our new guide identified it as a Red-bellied Woodpecker.
When Red found some gawky neighbors in the park below our house, we matched them to the picture of the little Green Heron. Only thirteen city blocks from the Texas state capitol we watched incredulously as a nesting Greater Roadrunner stuffed an outsized lizard down its baby's throat. With the lizard's back legs and tail wiggling fiercely, baby was sure to choke, but baby sat steadfastly at attention and the lizard slid down slowly as it was digested.
As I worked at my desk, a pair of Carolina Chickadees just outside my window showed me in the most loving way that birds can be tender.
A late spring norther blustered south, and in the morning bright flashes of color moved rapidly through the trees to refuel on insects. Spotted forms rested unobtrusively under hedges, then raced across the lawn with outspread wings to pounce on small prey. From a thicket a heavenly melody ascended. Could such a harmony come from a "lowly" creature?
A strange mania grabbed me. All I wanted to do was see the creatures that were doing all these things. All I wanted to do was chase birds. Housework, children, and chores became obstacles to what was fast becoming the most compelling thing in my life. It was awful!
First and foremost it was the myriad complexes of avian beauty, design, and voice; then it was the mystery of the birds' lives in a world I had never experienced. Finally, the dread primeval hunting instinct took possession. As I unknowingly followed in the footsteps of the great John James Audubon, it became the utmost necessity that I find and see every kind of bird as expeditiously as possible to make it mine, mine, mine. I had "caught" it. I was bird-witched!
I am not the first person to thus lose sanity, and I have witnessed a series of these other fortunate souls through the years. The first was a young student, desperately needing someone, anyone, to talk to. During the peak of bird migration he had gone "crazy-wild" over birds, suffered severe indigestion due to excitement, dreamed about birds every night, and scarcely could wait for dawn so that he could spend every free moment outdoors. All else in his life had suddenly become secondary. He was having a difficult time with friends and relatives who openly let him know their judicious opinion that birdwatching was a pastime and unconscionable as a career pursuit.
"But I can't help it," he confessed. Then he almost moaned, "I don't care if I starve and I don't have a single friend or any family left. I'm going to study ornithology."
I didn't tell him there was not a single university or college that offered a major solely in that discipline. The sad fact is that this remains true today.
Like this fortunate young man, I too went crazy-wild and decided that birds should be my life work, but it was not always thus. In fact, in my young days birds and I got off to an ornery start.
The problem began on my great-uncle Walter's ranch, about fifty miles from San Antonio. My duties were setting the table, drying dishes, churning butter, and sweeping the wide veranda and the steps, each of which was a single five-foot-long block of limestone.
After that, what else could I do for entertainment?
Both aunt and uncle were widowed and without children, and it probably never occurred to them that it could be dangerous for an eleven-year-old city girl to wander alone anywhere and everywhere in the rugged countryside that my skinny legs could carry me. Of course, I had the three dogs with me and I was armed with the stout stalk of a twisted-leaf yucca. I can still remember the thrill of raising this humble scepter on high as I stood triumphantly on top of the tallest hill and declared the entire spread to be my kingdom.
There is a limit, however, to exploration, to tree climbing in the giant live oaks in the yard, and to cleaning ticks and fleas off the dogs. In that ancient time there was no radio and no TV, and the bookcase in the hall offered to my taste only Zane Grey's famous western Riders of the Purple Sage.
I resorted to our only tie to the outside world: the telephone that hung on the wall in an oaken case in the dining room. It seldom gave the number of rings for the Askey household, but never mind. I began listening in on the party line. My punishment for invading privacy? All the conversations were in German.
Thus it fell to the chickens to keep me occupied. I reveled in gathering the eggs, a glorious contest between me and each hen. The barn, with its various stables, storerooms, and huge hayloft, seemed a great castle, and like all great castles, it had its forbidden danger. I was never under any circumstance to go near Texas Ranger, Uncle Walter's greatest pride—a powerful roan stallion, a prince of horses, and a winner on the racetrack. A lowly goat shared his stall to keep him calm.
The hens made use of the whole barn, and it was a daily challenge to prove I was smarter than any wily hen that compacted her feathers in a disappearing act and at any moment could catapult into the air, powered by a din of furious cackles and chicken insults.
The chickens were not without revenge. When I brought a baby chicken home with me and cuddled the fluffy darling close to love it, it returned the favor with an excruciating peck in my eye.
The next unfortunate incident with a bird was a sudden, furious bomb attack that left my forehead bleeding. How could I know I had gotten too close to important things in a mockingbird's territory?
Finally, it was a bird that reduced me to the level of a prokaryotic slime and, even worse, a drunk one. Some stories are so odd they are bound to be lies, but it is absolutely true that birds can range over large territories. It is also true that their various activities can take place in random spots. It was a billion-to-one quirk that out in the schoolyard a bird flew over, aimed, and plopped a large nitrogen-rich gift on my head. That was the day I learned I didn't have a friend in the entire school.
But now, years later, the power of birds easily erased this inglorious ornithological past. Armed with their magic, I winged my way to ecstasy, and it seemed natural for enchantment to progress to inspiration. I had been writing since age twelve, when my first story was published in the school newsletter, and I had been publishing since 1935. So, of course, I now would write about birds. As the months passed, the decision came: I would create a feature about birds for all the newspapers in the country. With saintly generosity I would share the delight of birds with the waiting public, and Bird World would be an instant hit. How could it be otherwise? For no living being anywhere on the planet could resist the power of birds.
Incidentally, it was possible I might also make a fortune. It didn't occur to me that the formula "birds = $$" was decades into the future, and the pittance that newspapers paid was well known.
In fact, there were several minor conditions that never weighed on my brain. Foremost, we were in the predawn of the age of environmental awareness. The term "environmentalist" or "conservationist" or even "natural world" was not included in my dictionary or thesaurus. DDT and other persistent chemical compounds were being used as miracles of science. The required environmental impact statement was not even an embryo, and the job description "nongame biologist" was as rare as the proverbial hen's teeth.
There was no Greenpeace USA, United Nations Environment Program, HawkWatch International, Waterfowl USA, or Friends of the Earth. No Earth First!, Environmental Defense Fund, Rachel Carson Memorial Fund, National Park Service, or U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. No America the Beautiful Fund, Earth Day, or Bureau of Land Management. No Environmental Protection Agency, Union of Concerned Scientists, or Natural Resources Defense Council. No Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, or CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). There was not even a Ranger Rick Nature Club. Even worse, there was no American Birding Association, and birding, recognized nationally and internationally today as a game and sport with standard rules and ethics, was in the delivery room but still awaiting birth.
Another minor problem was that I didn't know much about birds.
My first bird experience had happened in elementary school. In the 1920s the city of Austin, Texas, boasted towering streetlights 165 feet tall. There had been a severe storm in the night, and the next morning below one of these lights we schoolchildren discovered dozens of dead birds. Our teacher gathered the little bodies in several boxes and told us that in the storm the birds had been attracted to the light and flew into it by mistake. I don't know if she knew anything about birds, but she appreciated them enough to mourn they had died, and she let us hold them in our hands so we could see the feather patterns and the many colors, which varied from bird to bird. It was a close encounter with feathers, the clothes birds wear...a close encounter of the bird kind.
In San Antonio my formal scientific education consisted of one class in junior high school in which our well-meaning teacher not only knew nothing about birds but also was probably teaching because the originally contracted teacher had managed to get married. All I can remember about science from this class involved the wildflowers I picked on the way to school, which were then duly identified with the current local name. The situation was somewhat better in math, English, and especially Texas history classes, which occurred in multiples. It's a sad story, but that really was school in my neighborhood in San Antonio, Texas, almost eighty years ago.
In college my interests were art and English, and I never stepped foot in the science building. And husband Red's schooling in East Texas was even worse. However, I recently came across a small brown envelope, postage one cent, addressed to me where I lived at about age twelve. Inside were some Arm and Hammer bird cards, so I must have had some interest in avian creatures even then.
As an adult, I had been studying birds sporadically for about ten years, using a book with pen-and-ink drawings of birds, some posed on their backs with feet in air, and all accompanied by wearisome scientific descriptions. I had also published an article in 1956 about the beloved Texas naturalist Roy Bedichek, titled "Bedi the Bird Man," and I was grateful for occasional advice from him.
But never mind my impoverished ornithological education. Roger Tory Peterson had opened the jailhouse door by publishing his field guides to birds. With exhilarating freedom I could find and know birds anywhere on my own.
Was it good fortune that I didn't realize how ignorant I was as I blithely proceeded to chase the living bird and do research anywhere and everywhere? Without doubt, it was good fortune for me that Red was an excellent field man who not only was willing to tolerate all this investigation but also was in his element as we shared my outdoor bird search. He had been born in the fabled Big Thicket of East Texas, had begun hunting as soon as he could drag a gun behind him, had cleverly avoided snakebite as he fished all the creeks, and had always been able to find his way home in that wilderness. Best of all, he had a keen ear and eye for birds.
In fact, Red is something of an original. Not long ago my sister-in-law, Mary Alice Valentine, said that when she came to Texas from New York in 1943, she was fascinated with Red's deep-East Texas lingo. "He never uses a cliché," she noted. "For instance, when I asked him what near beer tasted like, his answer was 'Like stump water with a bar of soap in it.'"
It was natural for Red to praise someone by saying, "You make me as proud as a stud cricket," or to note that an event happened "quicker than rain" or "wouldn't that beat a goose a-gobbling?" When we got tired, we were "running out of Cosmoline," a jelly used to clean guns. Red would commiserate by saying, "That's worse than Ned in the first reader," or he might remark on a delicious meal by saying that it "sure was a lot better than cold coon and collards." He might note that he could do a better job than the one just performed even if he had to do it "on a pair of Tom-walkers" (stilts). Soda pop was "belly wash." Red could recite long chants that began with "Born in the backwoods, suckled by a bear" or with "This is the tale of Big-bellied Ben; he could eat more meat than forty men." Red is fun.
He had his own names for birds. For instance, a Pileated Woodpecker was a "Good God!" because the bird's call was so loud that anyone who heard it would exclaim, "Good God! What was that?" A Summer Tanager was a "bee-eater." Also young Red was such a good shot that he had killed objects as small as flying wasps with a forked slingshot, a weapon called at that time by a name that is now extirpated. Red was born to be a woodsman. How lucky I have been to have him as a partner!
It was Red who won a trip to Florida, and while we were in Tavernier on the Florida Keys, we looked up Sandy Sprunt, research director of the National Audubon Society. Not only did that learned birdman tell us where we could find a Swallow-tailed Kite nest, but he also agreed to give Bird World the once-over. I had put together a sample thirteen-week supply of columns, and when he returned them, he wrote that they were accurate and should be well accepted by the reading public. His only suggestion: it possibly would be better to state that there are more Wild Turkeys today "than before the white man came."
Back home, I handed the same packet to Charles Green, editor of the Austin American-Statesman, our local newspaper, humbly asking him, "Could you please do me the favor of looking these over and giving me some advice on what to do with them?"
The good editor pointed me to a chair, then disappeared into his office. When he came out, he exclaimed, "Marjorie, I'll buy these!"
I stood there, trying to figure out what he had just said. Was it "I'll buy these"? I made every effort to look nonchalant. By setting my jaw and knuckling my fists, I managed not to hug this man I barely knew who so suddenly was changing my life more than either of us could imagine.
Soaring with encouragement, I worked with an artist to design my column logo, I had Bird World columns mimeographed into many copies, collated them by hand into piles of packets with letter, résumé, and other goodies, and mailed them to the editors of most of the better newspapers. It was solid work, considerable expense, and a total failure.
It wasn't until I began calling on editors in person that I began to see the real world. My father for a good part of his life had been a traveling salesman, so I grew up knowing that selling is a challenging job. I had done some selling myself—things like paintings or mail-order dresses during World War II, and then John Connally and Jake Pickle and Ed Syers had taught me additional lessons as we all sold advertising at radio station KVET in Austin. I had even rescued a statewide trade magazine for Texas homebuilders by not only editing it but also selling advertising for it.
The trouble was that birdwatching had yet to come out of the closet where the general public traditionally ensconced it, along with little old ladies in tennis shoes, tweedy matrons perched in trees who screeched and squabbled and were accompanied only by men of little muscle. The proposition that it could be a game, much less a sport, was vastly far-fetched, especially for a male (and all the editors were males) and especially in Texas, where, as the trite old saying goes, men are men and women are glad of it.
But on the strength of Charlie Green's purchase, Harry Provence, editor of the Waco Tribune-Herald, gave Bird World a fling. Then when I walked into Rhea Howard's office at the Wichita Falls Times, I was startled to find a man who loved birds. Not only was this miraculous and my good fortune, but Howard had also just gotten a letter from President Lyndon Johnson, thanking him for the bird feeder Howard had given Lady Bird on his last visit to the ranch. It seemed the letter also included a growl: "I'm not going to feed all those damned sparrows!" However, it was obvious that Lady Bird was keeping the feeder going full swing.
I was in business. I had three newspapers, and I was going to get a total of approximately $105 a month for it. I also had gotten myself in an excellent position to be named "Birdbrained of the Year." I never recovered, never got smart—just kept going on, maybe getting a $2 raise, maybe getting another paper, then losing a paper, then getting another. Worst of all, I was faced with losing my own hometown paper and would have if I hadn't received thirty-eight letters that week (one of them from Canada), which proved to the new features editor that I actually had readers.
Red and I had changed our lifestyle from a four-bedroom home to a twenty-two-foot travel trailer, and for business and for family reasons we traveled from Florida to California. Everywhere we went, we tried to arrange our stops at refuges, parks, or some nature-oriented spot. Everywhere we went, I tried to find "bird people" by inquiring at public libraries, zoos, refuges, museums, and the like. We were amazed and delighted by, and beholden to, people we had just met for whom we could feel an instant empathy. Sometimes a person was so starved for "bird" fellowship that he or she pleaded with us to stay just a little longer. Many people made special efforts to show us their local bird specialties, and if you are one of those and reading this page, I thank you from my heart again and again. You birders truly are exceptional folks.
It seemed fate that about this time we met James A. Tucker, the father-to-be of the American Birding Association. Red had begun chasing birds with a 16 mm camera and now had enough movie footage for us to attempt a basic film about birding as a game and a sport. We were making a presentation on this theme for the Travis Audubon Society (in the Austin area), and Jim was there, having recently moved from Florida to Texas to work on his PhD at the University of Texas. Jim had invented a book called a Combination List and Checklist for Birds of North America, which, by combining alternate full and half-pages, allowed a bird to be listed across the pages not only as a "Lifer" (a bird seen and identified for the first time in the birder's life) but also in the various states. We showed this ingenious book in our film as we checked off a bird in it.
After the program, Jim introduced himself as the book's inventor. As our friendship progressed, we learned that he had begun bird walks in his mother's womb, that birds continued to be a major part of his life, and that, like us, he wanted to make them more so.
So one day we received a journal called Bird Watcher's Digest, volume 0, number 0, proclaiming itself to be "a journal devoted to the hobby of birdwatching." It was four pages long, beautifully duplicated in purple ink by hectograph. It included an editorial titled "What Is a Birdwatcher?" and a page of "Games Birdwatchers Play," which described three general types of games that involved making different lists of the birds that the birdwatcher had seen: the Life List (a list of all the birds seen in a person's lifetime), the American Ornithologists' Union (AOU) Territory List, and the World List. There was also the Annual List (all birds seen during a calendar year within the AOU area) and State Lists (all species seen within the confines of a state, excluding Hawaii).
Only nine birders had submitted AOU lists, and the same birders were also the ones who had submitted most of the State Lists. No Life List totals were published in this first issue of the journal. There was also a half-page entitled "Bird Finding News," about the Mexican Crow's invasion of Texas, the second nesting of the Masked Duck in Texas, and the discovery of a nesting Jacana near Kingsville.
The journal promised that rules for each listing game would be forthcoming, but for the present "we would be interested in hearing what each of you feels the rules should be for each game." The subscription rate for the journal was $3 per year and would include a year's membership in the American Birdwatchers Association. A life membership was $50. This section ended with an invitation to the reader to become a member of the association "at the suggestion of myself." It was signed by Jim Tucker.
Looking back, I think that if I had any part at all in forming what is now the official birding game, it was my steadfast use of the terms "birding" and "birder" in my column Bird World, in all of our programs, in all of my birding classes, and in our general conversation. To overcome the stigma attached to the term "birdwatcher," others such as world birder Stuart Keith also decided these terms were more appropriate, and Jim Tucker changed the organization's name to American Birding Association.
However, it took a while. I found in my files a letter I wrote in 1968 to my editor at the Odessa American protesting the use of the term "birdies" by a UPI writer. Indeed, as late as 1975, I was debating the term "bird listing" as the name of the game with one of my editors at Reader's Digest.
I recall most strongly an incident bordering on the dangerous that involved the term "birder." I was one of the first women to be accepted into the Texas Outdoor Writers Association (TOWA). At my first attendance at a convention, a member was addressing the group and used the word "birdwatcher" in a derogatory tone to denote a group supposedly opposed to hunting and other truly manly sports. Without thinking, I interrupted from the back of the room: "Don't call us birdwatchers. We're birders."
Every head turned, wearing the expression, "How the [unprintable] did this [unprintable] female get in here, and what the [unprintable] is she blabbering about?"
It took a while, but the happy ending was that as time passed, I was the recipient of wonderful tales from these same sportsmen regarding their own experiences with birds in their varied outdoor lives. In fact, I have lived long enough to see a female president of TOWA.
For Jim Tucker I was able to publicize in Bird World the brand-new American Birding Association and its growing activities and to give him names and addresses of bird lovers in widely scattered locations who would make good members. The roster of the first hundred members of the ABA read almost like a who's who of the newly recognized birding world.
For Red and me for more than a dozen years it was a mighty fine journey, and along the way some good things happened. Red and I gave programs from here to there and back again. Using Bird World as their meeting place, I helped bird people meet other bird people to form the North Texas Bird and Wildlife Club in Wichita Falls. Using the same Bird World technique, I helped Victoria birders organize the Golden Crescent Nature Club. Both organizations are still functioning today.
I taught a summer enrichment class about birds and nature for young disadvantaged kids in first to fifth grades. Red helped me to take busloads of them on field trips to the sewage evaporation lagoons to discover birds with binoculars and scopes.
I also started Austin's first Beginner's Bird Walk (with participants aged eight to eighty) with the guarantee of ten bird species. We got eleven. And I taught fully booked classes on bird identification at Austin Community College.
With advice from Kathleen and Bob Zinn, ham radio operators of Wichita Falls, I tried to organize ham radio operators into at least a Texas-size rare bird alert. It is part of a license permit requirement that a ham do some public service, so it seemed a good match. Geth White of El Paso used a ham radio to report a Costa's Hummingbird seen and photographed in a nearby canyon. Doris Wyman of Port Lavaca reported more than a thousand Broad-winged Hawks flying over Woodsboro and Mountain Plovers in a rice field at Port Lavaca. Kathleen Zinn reported a Northern Shrike in Wichita Falls. I sent a message from Texas to California, and there were a number of other successes. However, the major problem was that the radio ham operator had to pass the message on by phone to a designated birder in his area—too many steps to deal with unless there was a great deal more organizing. Now e-mail can handle it in minutes.
Along the way, my column Bird World itself began to evolve. Longtime birders will understand easily what I mean, because most have experienced the same evolution from being hunters and watchers of birds to becoming conservationists and, finally, activists. Seeing birds and other life struggling to make a living in the wild world, we come to realize fully that we are part of the process and that habitat preservation is vital to all of us.
Bird World consistently began to present the visions and goals of the conservationist. This viewpoint was hazardous in those times, and one editor candidly admitted that in his area it was a viewpoint he could not pursue and thus he could never buy my column.
I remember feeling I was risking the loss of all of my papers when I submitted a column explaining (in my allotted page and a half) the Texas Water Plan. This boondoggle was supposed to cure dry West Texas by piping water there from wet East Texas. To my relief, every one of my papers published it, and one editor went so far as to tell me he hadn't fully understood the plan until he read Bird World.
The times were such that Bird World was allowed less than two typewritten pages to inform, excite, dramatize, or proselytize. Its publication always teetered on the brink of extinction, but I think I kept on writing it under difficulties and restrictions because I just couldn't help myself. It was a sort of diary tool that I used to educate myself along with my readers.
Unfortunately, this education started with a blow between the eyes on the very first day Bird World met the public. The Austin paper gave me a wonderful send-off, with a notice on the front page that Bird World was beginning that day. Included were some facts about Marjorie Adams' qualifications, and it wasn't too long before I got a phone call from my brother, Jim Valentine.
"Marj, are you really a Fellow of the American Ornithologists' Union?"
I called Edgar Kincaid Jr. None other than the great Roger Tory Peterson himself noted that Edgar Kincaid was "the most thorough fine-toothed comb among my critics . . . as he gave [the Texas field guide] manuscript a thorough going-over." In addition, Edgar's wide acquaintance with observers around the state enabled him to advise Peterson which records of bird sightings could be trusted and which were "unsanitary." Edgar was not only a brilliant ornithologist, but he had a rare wit and had formed the habit of giving fellow birders nicknames, his own being "Double-wattled Cassowary." So here I was (the humble Chatter Duck-no-such-bird) on the phone with this hero.
"I think I've committed a crime, Edgar." Then I had a difficult time continuing.
"Yes?" Cassowary prompted.
An old memory was racing through my head. It was Cassowary's uncanny sense of drama, which could come forth at sacred events such as Christmas Bird Counts. This combination of character thrust on him the responsibility and indeed the duty to be sure that all reports were accurate or, as he put it, "sanitary." His questioning could be so protracted, detailed, and repetitive that the "guilty" observer had to finally come to terms with exactly what he actually had seen. These "sanitizing" dramas, although civil, were likened by some participants to procedures on the criminal witness stand.
Alongside Edgar sat Fred Webster, for thirty years the South Texas editor for the publication now titled American Birds. If Edgar was the judge, Fred was certainly the jury in cleansing, clarifying, verifying, and recording bird sightings.
Thus it happened that early in my birding life we were shorthanded on a Christmas Bird Count, so I undertook a territory alone. My sanitizing began when I reported a Green-tailed Towhee.
"You saw a Green-tailed Towhee?" Cassowary asked, looking me as straight in the eye as a fishing heron. "You know it's a rare bird here, don't you?"
"Well, I don't know how rare it is," I confessed guiltily, "but I saw two of 'em."
Perhaps it was only an hour later, but it seemed eons before my two towhees were finally accepted. I still look back on that day as a triumph.
And now I was confessing a real crime to the Great Cassowary.
"Edgar, what does it mean to be a Fellow of the American Ornithologists' Union?" I blurted out.
There was a long silence as I hung there in space, my apprehension doubling with each second.
"A Fellow at the AOU?" The pause continued to a torturous length. Then he helpfully answered, "Why, Marjorie, that's merely someone just below the level of Jesus Christ."
"Oh," I gasped. "Oh-h-h-h-h-h," I moaned. "I thought it was just another word for member."
I had disgraced myself. I could even be called dishonest. There was only one option: I would have to jump off the granite state capitol of Texas, as hari-kari was too bloody.
I sweated out a carefully worded explanation and apology, which I mailed not only to my editors but also to dozens of knowledgeable bird folks.
That was the not-so-noteworthy beginning of a little primer used to teach myself, and my readers along with me, how to discover an amazing world. To relive some of it, we'll start here with a facsimile of Bird World's first column as it was presented to the newspapers.