Dubbed the "Bard of America's Bird-Watchers" by the Wall Street Journal, Pete Dunne knows birders and birding—instinctively and completely. He understands the compulsion that drives other birders to go out at first light, whatever the weather, for a chance to maybe, just maybe, glimpse that rare migrant that someone might have spotted in a patch of woods the day before yesterday. And yet, he also knows how . . . well . . . strange the birding obsession becomes when viewed through the eyes of a nonbirder. His dual perspective—totally engrossed in birding, yet still aware of the "odd birdness" of some birders—makes reading his essays a pure pleasure whether you pursue "the feather quest" or not.
This book collects forty-one of Dunne's recent essays, drawn from his columns in Living Bird, Wild Bird News, the New Jersey Sunday section of the New York Times, Birder's World, and other publications. Written with his signature wit and insight, they cover everything from a moment of awed communion with a Wandering Albatross ("the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen") to Dunne's imagined "perfect bird" ("The Perfect Bird is the size of a turkey, has the wingspan of an eagle, the legs of a crane, the feet of a moorhen, and the talons of a great horned owl. It eats kudzu, surplus zucchini, feral cats, and has been known to predate upon homeowners who fire up their lawn mowers before 7:00 A.M. on the weekend."). The title essay pays whimsical, yet heartfelt tribute to Dunne's mentor, the late birding legend Roger Tory Peterson.
"I think I'd like to try birding," my sister-in-law, Lindsay, observed the other day. "What do I need to get started?"
"That's wonderful," I chirped. Everyone loves it when someone affirms your choice of avocations by inviting their inclusion. My mouth twisted to offer the usual, banal reply: "All you need is binoculars and a field guide," but this time the words refused to glide from my lips.
"This," some surviving shred of human decency screamed in my mind, "is my sister-in-law. Someone I love. Someone to whom I am accountable."
Someone who could back me into a corner in front of parents and siblings and read me the riot act when the ugly truth behind the fair cloak of this foul lie is laid bare.
Lie? Yes, lie. You and I both know "binoculars and a field guide" are not the only things you need to go birding. These items are just the down payment. The real cost, measured in the currency of material goods and social compromise, could bankrupt you.
Don't I love it when an incipient birder calls and asks where they can go to test a number of different binocular makes and models before buying?
"Oh, that's easy," I reply. "Just look up any birder." All birder's have a bottom drawer filled with binoculars that they don't use anymore--instruments bought and retired as their owners climbed the ladder to the optical top of the chart.
As for " . . . and a field guide," well, I think a prerequisite for any new birder should be: room in the basement. This will serve as storage space for all the literary classics, book-of-the-month club offerings, and self-help books that your future library of general field guides, specialty field guides, and bird-finding guides is destined to displace.
"All you need. . . " says nothing about the stacks of periodicals you'll be forced to subscribe to--to keep up with the latest species splits and to learn where you (and the family) are going for your next vacation.
"Mommy, where's the Salton Sea?"
"California, darling. Shhh, Mommy's trying to decide how many field guides to bring."
It doesn't address the need for outerwear that will prove too warm for Big Bend in June, and too light for Newburyport in February, and whose pocket deficiency will force you to trade in your sedan for a sport-utility vehicle--so you will have room for the traveling birding library as well as the scope and tripod that was also never mentioned by that person who told you "all you need is . . . "
"Binoculars and a field guide!" Oh, that banal lie, that poisonous, budget-busting tantalization. It is only a matter of weeks, days, before the average incipient birder muses: "If I just had a camera, I could take pictures of birds myself!"
Camera leads to lens. Lens leads to lenses and telephoto flash systems and multiple camera bodies. Take it from someone who once bought a 600mm telephoto lens instead of a house. No matter how many thousands of dollars you spend on camera equipment, you never have the right equipment for the occasion (even after you buy it).
But you're a birder. You know this.
You also know what happened to your circle of friends after the catalytic addition of "binoculars and a field guide" to your life. How old acquaintances who once enlivened dinner parties with discussions of "impeachable offenses," and "finest exhibit of modern impressionism I've ever seen" moved out, and people who argue, tirelessly, about "arrested molt sequence" and "photo vs. illustrated field guides" moved in.
How a telephone call received at 5:30 A.M. now constitutes normal behavior, and calls received after 8:30 P.M. are greeted with a snarl.
How when commuting distance was assessed as a factor governing the location of your new home, the reference point wasn't "workplace" or "surviving parent,” it was distance to "nearest migrant trap."
I thought of all of these things, as my mouth remained slack, as my sister-in-law waited, and I could not avoid thinking about the inevitable social costs that a life of birding places on family members, too. On children! Nieces and nephews who in their efforts to garner pledges for walkathons in support of the senior class trip are destined to find that Mom beat them to aunts and uncles to get support for her Big Sit. On brother Dave, Lindsay's husband, who used to beat me up regularly (for no greater offense than using the last of the milk on my cereal) and who once observed: "You mean that there's a six o'clock in the morning, too?!" I thought . . .
You know that all of these social and financial ramifications are just too complicated to try to explain (even to a much-loved sister-in-law). Besides, I've always wanted to get back at my brother Dave.
"All you need is binoculars and a field guide," I heard myself saying through a smile. "Your life will never be the same."
The book displayed on CMBO's bookstore counter was new (meaning it hadn't been there before). I grabbed a copy as I passed because a center director should keep abreast of things that happen in his nature center.
Maybe it was the early hour. Maybe it was because the room was pre-sunrise dark. For whatever reason, it was several steps before the title registered and before the realization hit home. The impact brought my feet to a stop and a smile to my face.
Wild America. The epic birding journey of Roger Peterson and James Fisher across North America, the Moby Dick of birding had finally been reprinted. Now birders wouldn't have to root around in musty used-book stores trying to locate a not-too-thumbed copy.
If you are not familiar with the book, you should be. It is the embodiment of birding, the adventure all birders emulate in their hearts and in their dreams. Some, like Kenn Kaufman (Kingbird Highway) and wife Linda and I (The Feather Quest), are lucky enough to have lived the dream through journeys of our own.
But my surprise and my pleasure were not founded on or limited to the book and its title--not strictly. Death has come between Roger Tory Peterson and his prolific writings. His words, freshly etched in the pages of newly titled books and articles in sundry periodicals, were the primary link between the patriarch of birding and his many students. On July 28, 1996, the link was broken . . . or so, until this moment, I had assumed.
But as the book in my hand proved, Roger was too great a figure to be stopped by something as trifling as mortality. His writing vaulted the void.
With this thought in mind, I strode over to the bookstore racks, looking for more evidence of immortality. Yes, there were the field guides--Eastern Birds, Western Birds, Wildflowers . . . There too were all the books bearing the proud boast FOREWORD BY ROGER TORY PETERSON. The Complete Birder . . . The Birds of Massachusetts . . .
Hawks in Flight!
At one time, a foreword by Peterson was near-mandatory. Any book that was tacit to birds or birding seemed diminished without his legitimizing touch. And Roger took pains to honor those many requests from hopeful authors, the ones seeking the sanctifying touch conferred by his writing a foreword. He was birding's tribal chief. He felt honor-bound and duty-bound to write forewords when asked. I know this to be true. He told me so.
The man is gone. The words remain. And isn't that odd. Because if you look at words one way, as lines on paper, they seem so frail. But so long as there are printers who print and readers who read, those words and those lines will keep the door wedged open between this world and the next.
And who knows? Who is to say that the door doesn't open both ways? There are those who say it does.
If words ring true. If they engender in readers an echo. Who is to say where an echo may travel? Or how far? And whose celebrated ears may receive it?
As one who made his appearance at the tail end of creation, I wasn't around when the folks in R&D designed birds. All in all a splendid job, but despite their many achievements, they failed in one stupendous regard.
They failed to design the perfect bird.
Accordingly, and just in case creation is recast, I would like to submit the following traits and characteristics which taken in sum would make . . .
The "Perfect Bird." That's its common name. Easy to say, easy to remember. In Latin, it's the same: Aves perfectus. No subspecies. How can you have gradations of perfection?
The Perfect Bird is the size of a turkey and has the wingspan of an eagle, the legs of a crane, the feet of a moorhen, and the talons of a Great-horned Owl. It eats kudzu, surplus zucchini, and feral cats, and has been known to predate upon home owners who fire up their lawn mowers before 7:00 A.M. on the weekend.
The bill is unmistakable, combining the shape of Roseate Spoonbill, the pattern of Atlantic Puffin, and the extended lower mandible of Black Skimmer (except it appears to be the upper mandible because the bill is crossed).
Of course it has a crest.
Of course it has a long, forked tail.
Males and females are identical and have an overall plumage pattern of a drake Wood Duck except that the Perfect Bird also has golden ear tufts (like a Horned Grebe), the azure-colored eye of a Flightless Cormorant, the bill color of a Caspian Tern (same color as the gular sacs of displaying males), the gorget of a Magnificent Hummingbird, the wing pattern of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker, cerulean upperparts, vermillion underparts, and the tail pattern of an American Redstart (replicated on both tines). Everything is iridescent, and it glows in the dark.
Did I forget to mention the ruby crown and the red epaulets?
Well, it's got them.
The song is rich and varied, combining the quality of a wood thrush with the volume of a Screaming Piha and a range that goes from Ruffed-Grouse-drumroll low to Ruby-crowned-Kinglet high. An accomplished mimic, it sings the entire songs (not just snatches or phrases) of the world's most-celebrated songbirds, plus all of Jimmy Buffet's songs and Fleetwood Mac's greatest hits, in addition to "Layla," "Freebird," "Inagodadavida," Bing Crosby's "White Christmas," and "God Bless America" in stereo. Songs are usually sung in commercial-free, seven-song sets.
Between sets, and for the sake of identification, it calls its name.
The Perfect Bird is also an accomplished aerialist. It can outpace swifts in level flight, outstoop a Peregrine, outmaneuver swallows, hover, kite, and even backstroke. In migration, following a route that customarily circumnavigates the globe in a polar orbit, it flies in a diagnostic "P" (for "Perfect").
Or would, if and when enough birds could be mustered for a quorum. Needless to say, the Perfect Bird is also extremely rare. Only you and birders who have Sir Galahad's blood running undiluted in their veins have ever seen one, and the bird is invisible to anyone whose Life List exceeds your own.
Despite all its stunning visual and auditory attributes, the bird is uncommonly shy and retiring. Most observers gain little more than a tantalizing glimpse that makes them ache with longing for the rest of their lives, which is, in the case of most observers, short. The burden of knowing that the chances of ever seeing the Perfect Bird again is almost zero drives many to suicide.
You, however, know that the Perfect Bird is also extremely vain, and so realize that the species can be lured from cover by training your binoculars on the spot where the bird is hiding (designated, for your eyes only, by a large, fluorescent, orange bull's-eye superimposed over the foliage). Seeing its reflection in the objective lens, the Perfect Bird will approach to a distance equal to the minimum close focus of your instrument and begin to display.
How the Perfect Bird is able to know what binocular you are using remains a mystery.
While it only appears just when things seem hopeless and you are on the verge of giving up the search, the Perfect Bird will remain in perfect view and in good light until you go blind or decide to wander off and find a chickadee or titmouse.
Of course, any sighting of a Perfect Bird requires thorough documentation. The Perfect Bird submits its own Rare Bird Sighting report to the proper state records committee, complete with perfectly focused, point-blank photos of you standing with your arm around the bird and your calendar wristwatch (showing the time and the date) displayed. Photos are personalized and autographed by the Perfect Bird.
And in case you are worrying about the photos ever being dated by the well-considered decisions of committees dealing with classification and nomenclature, relax. The name will never be changed. Never. The Perfect Bird will never be split. It will never be renamed the Common Perfect Bird, the Northern Perfect Bird, or Cordilleran Perfect Bird. Its name will never be modified by so much as a hyphen.
The Perfect Bird is, by its nature, the Perfect Bird. Who's going to mess with perfection?
By Pete Dunne
Pete Dunne is Director of the New Jersey Audubon Society's Cape May Bird Observatory in Cape May Point, New Jersey, and a consultant to the Peterson birding field guide series.