“How to Know Birds”

The place you’re in
The time of year

How they move and where in the meadows, brush, forest,
            rocks, reeds, are they hanging out
            alone or in a group or little groups?

Size, speed, sorts of flight

Quirks. Tail flicks, wing-shakes, bobbing –
Can you make out what they’re eating?

Calls and songs?

Finally, if you get a chance, can you see their colors,
details of plumage – lines, dots, bars

That will tell you the details you need to come up with a name

You already know this bird.

Gary Snyder
This Present Moment
Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2015. Page 25.

Gary Snyder, zen poet, naturalist, proclaimer of the power of place, Pulitzer prize winner, a writer should should know and prize. He writes truth, clearly. As here.

Many years ago, Roger Tory Peterson wrote a book entitled How to Know the Birds. 1948. Long before most of his books, or most bird books. It is almost never looked at, but has much more personal, almost poetic descriptions of common birds. He describes exactly what Snyder reminds us to look for. Don’t just try to name the bird – see the bird.

The greatest birder I ever birded with, perhaps the greatest living California birder, used to say if a birder pulled out a field guide too soon, “Don’t look in a BOOK! Look at the BIRD!” Guy McCaskie was nothing if not direct. His point, in more abrupt language, was exactly Snyder’s, get to know what the bird looks like, acts like, sounds like, then look it up, not before.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *