The year was 1973. I was working at the Sleep Disorders Center at Stanford University and living in a tiny cottage in an older section of Palo Alto, California. I regarded my little abode as charming, though admittedly it was rather run down clearly a fix-up special but what I liked most about it was that it couldn't be seen from the street. A labyrinth of shrubbery much of it dead and in desperate need of a hard prune provided a screen and gave me a sense of security.
One weekend that May I met a guy at a softball game my all-time favorite participatory sport. He was an excellent athlete versatile at either first base or left field and was also extremely tall at 6 feet 8 inches. After the game and picnic that followed some of us, including the tall guy, decided to take a road trip to the foothills of the Sierra. It was the weekend of the Calaveras County Frog Jumping Contest. I know, this is supposed to be about birds and not frogs, but it's part of the "spark." This annual cultural oddity is based upon a tall tale penned in 1865 by Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) that described happenings in Angel's Camp, a gold rush town. The story is about a frog that could out-jump all other frogs and a man who realized that people might be willing to wager bets on this activity and that he might make a buck.
After that particular weekend with the tall, handsome guy named Grant, and some subsequent dates, I realized that I was crazy in love. One day he told me that he had been a bird watcher in his early teens a hobby that, during that particular era, was looked upon with disdain by social peers.
Although always a nature lover, I had never been particularly drawn to birds. My mom always pointed out the robins and cedar waxwings that feasted upon our pyracantha berries and then staggered about in states of drunken stupor. And I guess I was vaguely aware of ducks in various park ponds; surely I fed them breadcrumbs at some stage in my development. And I do remember drawing V-shaped gulls in art class, thinking they added interest to my rather mediocre drawings.
So Grant began to show me a few birds. I didn't pay too much attention at first, but then one day, as we were relaxing in my little cottage behind the dense tangles of vegetation, he pointed out a bird that changed my life forever. It was the sound that we noticed first: not a lively song or scramble of notes, but a distinct rustling in the leaves. In addition to the swishing sounds, leaves seemed to be flying out in all different directions from one particular spot. The perpetrator was on the ground and seemed to be rather shy, never venturing far from the safety of the shrubbery. It was extremely difficult to get a good look, but we waited patiently always a challenge for me until the bird finally revealed itself. It was incredibly handsome: medium-sized, hooded in black with a light-colored belly and rusty red sides. Its dark wings were accented with speckles of white. The topper for me was the fire in its eyes, which were the color of rubies.
The bird was behaving in an engrossing fashion, hopping forward and backward with its feet, delving into the leaf litter of which there was plenty performing what Grant calls the "hop-scratch:" he has since composed a song with that very title. Between the foot action and handsome demeanor, this seemed to me to be a creature with attitude. Grant told me it was a rufous-sided towhee. This was 1973, well before the name was changed to spotted towhee. I queried Grant about the bird's behavior, and he explained that towhees were known for hunting for food on the ground, using a double scratching motion with both feet to stir up insects and seeds.
And so that was the moment when I began to notice birds. It was also my first lesson about habitat ("messy jungles in the garden are good"), about differences in bird behavior ("some birds never make it to the ground at all"), and about patience actually, I still have difficulty on that front, though I have improved.
Some time later Grant and I traveled to Oregon to visit my parents, and my appreciation was reinforced. They had just taken a bird watching course from a local naturalist, and I found myself in the company of three individuals, all of whom were captivated by the avian world. And the local show in central Oregon was mind-boggling: majestic bald eagles, fish-eating ospreys, flashy yellow-headed and red-winged blackbirds, gaudy western tanagers, tweaky nuthatches, comely mountain bluebirds, aerially adept violet-green swallows, and cryptic common nighthawks that appeared at dusk, seemingly from nowhere, to scoop up insects mid-air while uttering haunting cries.
There was no turning back. Since that time I have traveled to every continent to watch birds, and to this day I am partial to those with red eyes. Just this morning I watched several red-eyed wonders in my own backyard: a spunky cactus wren, a sleek phainopepla, a parasitic bronzed cowbird, and scores of white-winged doves, calling with that mnemonic device Who cooks for you? made famous by the great Roger Tory Peterson.
I will always be indebted to this very tall man Grant, not Roger who was pretty tall himself for "granting" me the gift of birds. My gardens will always be tangles, but only in the interests of attracting birds for they will forever enchant me with their beauty, behavior, and song.