One of the joys of birding is that each new destination offers the possibility of life birds, species you’re seeing for the first time. Soon after I took up the hobby, my wife and I went to visit her grandmother in New Mexico. In anticipation, I borrowed a friend’s Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America. Just flipping through started me dreaming. As I salivated at the thought of pillowy sopapillas piped with honey and burritos served “Christmas style,” with both red and green chile, I also ogled pages full of birds I had never heard of, greedily making my list of “targets.”
At the top was Gambel’s Quail.
There are certain birds that, seeing them on the page, one can hardly believe they are real. The Elegant Trogon comes to mind, or the Hooded Merganser – birds whose odd beauty seems to fly in the face of functionality, the bird equivalent of art for art’s sake. There are birds so needlessly complicated they put one in mind of the ancient creatures found at the bottom of the sea, the ones allowed to develop their bizarre biologies free from the evolutionary pressures faced by those of us on the surface.
Gambel’s Quail is such a bird. Turning the page of the field guide, to find it staring back at me, I was transfixed. It looked like a jumble of spare parts salvaged from a half-dozen other birds and tacked together with little consideration for order or good taste. It was a patchwork of shapes and colors wholly unrelated to one another, yet somehow in harmony with each other, the work of some mad quilting genius.
Gambel’s is the second largest of the New World quail, 11 inches tall and pleasantly pear-shaped. Its chest is gray, flanked on each side by rufous wings, streaked with white. Its belly is tan with a large black patch like a total non-sequitur sitting at its center. The male’s face is a black mask outlined by sharp white lines that seem drawn on with a broad-tipped felt pen. It’s chestnut crown matches its wings, giving it the nickname “redhead.” And to top it all off, a ridiculous teardrop-shaped plume spouts from its forehead like an apostrophe. It looks like nothing else. Yet, for all its oddity, Gambel’s earns its genus name, Callipepla, from the Greek, meaning “beautifully adorned.” It is a remarkably strange and remarkably handsome bird, and as I packed my binoculars, I hoped desperately to see one.
Thanks to the time change, I woke well before the alarm in our vacation rental outside Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, just after the early summer sun. I stumbled out to the kitchen to make coffee, trying not to disturb the rest of the house on their first morning of vacation. The kitchen led through sliding glass doors onto a small back deck, and as I rooted through unfamiliar drawers for a scoop, I noticed movement on the ground outside.
Struggling with the lock, and no longer concerned with the racket I was making, I threw open the door in time to see the tail-end of what had to be a quail disappear around the corner of the house. Abandoning my need for caffeine, I bounded to the front door and out onto the dirt yard, hoping I hadn’t missed my opportunity. There they were, only a little disturbed by my arrival. Not one. Not two. Eight Gambel’s Quail, mother and father with a half dozen offspring, a full bevy, strutting in a line across the front yard.
I could not believe my luck. Overjoyed, I watched as this mythical bird from the pages of the guidebook bobbed into my life in flesh and feathers, an incredible phenomenon that one birder has named “The Unicorn Effect.” Here was my very own herd of unicorns. The red head. The black mask. The absurd tufts bouncing through the scrub in the first rays of the sun. They were truly beautifully adorned, and I was ecstatic to have them all to myself in this moment. My first life bird before 7 am.
I watched them strut around the yard a while until, without warning or fanfare, they ran single-file into some heavier scrub and disappeared up the hill. With the energy of this incredible sighting, I decided to continue down the block. Someone else could make the coffee. I heard some rustling in the undergrowth at the neighbor’s place and jogged down to investigate. To my astonishment it was another bevy of quail! Only six this time, but much closer. I laughed at the patterns they cut in the dirt, the young ones skittishly bumping along behind their parents. They poked in and out of the neighbor’s brush pile until their cautious parents decided they had had enough of the large predator looming over their chicks, and they took off into the shadows.
Before I made it another twenty yards, a third family of quail crossed the street in front of me. At the end of the following block, another. On our way to my wife’s grandmother’s later that morning, I pointed out Gambel’s Quail along the side of the road to her disinterested family. And when we crossed the street to visit her aunt, there was another line of apostrophes nodding through the dust. Everywhere we went, Gambel’s were thick on the ground. After a while, I stopped lifting my binoculars to trace the white pen lines on their faces. Then finally, as we arrived at a nature preserve late in the week, I did not even lift my head when my wife said, “Quail.” Four days after that first breathtaking glimpse of the bird, I was over the quail.
This movement, familiar to many birders, is the journey from “life bird” to “trash bird,” and it can take as little as an afternoon. The thrill of finding a new species is first tempered, and then extinguished with frequent repeated sightings. Trash bird is shorthand for a species whose ubiquity quickly makes it invisible, birds so common they can be ignored.
It is a term of some controversy for its candor. Some birders only use trash bird for invasive species who lack natural predators and thus multiply at unnatural and exponential rates, making them irritatingly common. Think European Starling. Others use trash bird for the species found most frequently in urban environments, the ones who have adapted to and thrive on the waste created by human civilization. Pigeons come to mind, as do those little sparrows you find picking through the garbage in the parking lot of any strip mall in America. (They are called House Sparrows, a species introduced from England by a well-meaning fan of Shakespeare who wanted to populate the New World with every bird mentioned by the bard. But then, who cares? They’re trash birds!)
There are, of course, more high-minded birders, who don’t use the term at all. I’m suspicious of them. When I find them along the trail, studying a Northern Cardinal or a Tufted Titmouse. Remarking on it as if I care. I’d like to believe it’s all for show, that they are performing their principled equanimity for my benefit, refusing to play favorites to teach me some kind of lesson. But they seem so sincere, so earnest, so into that damn cardinal. Is it possible they really don’t feel my contempt for the familiar?
I wish I could blame birding for my cynicism. But I suspect you bird the way you are. I bird cynical because I am cynical. I see trash birds everywhere I turn. People so familiar and steady in my life, I’ve come to take them for granted. Situations so intransigent I choose to ignore them. The headlines that used to hurt are expected, not worth a second look. A shooting. A climate report. Poverty. Racism. War. I’ve seen it too many times before, and I can’t understand the people who are able to marshal true outrage in the face of things that are so common. How do they keep up the energy?
Each week I drive by a man who stands all day at a certain intersection asking for money. He has dark, curly hair, a bulbous nose, and in winter his cheeks are wind-burned, almost frost bitten. He has a slow, bouncy walk as he moves from car to car over the course of the red light. Every time he makes the same motion. He comes to the driver’s side window, and without saying a word, he gestures toward his mouth with four fingers, meaning “food.” For weeks, even months, I would act out looking for money that I knew wasn’t there. I would mouth sorry. I would feel some pang of guilt. Now I just shake my head, try to cut him off before he signs to me, before he comes to my window.
One of the joys of birding is to recognize a bird by its GISS, General Impression of Size and Shape. The GISS of a bird is hard to put into words, less a list of identifiable features, and more a feeling, a fleeting sense of the bird that strikes you even at a glance, or from a distance, or in bad light. It is a great satisfaction to ID a bird by its GISS, to know it after only an instant and then to confirm your suspicion with a better look. It’s fun to see movement high in a tree, or a silhouette backlit on a wire, or a flash of color through a thicket and to know it without ever raising your binoculars. I’m a good enough birder to sometimes not need to look. I have learned just enough birding to make me dangerous, enough to arrogantly ignore cardinals and titmice and cynically toss around terms like “trash bird.” But to become a great birder, to become the birder I would like to be, I will have to get good enough to look anyway.
The January after that trip to New Mexico, I went on an Audubon field trip to St. Mark’s Wildlife Refuge in the Florida panhandle. The target for the day was ducks. I had been birding for almost a year, but hadn’t yet experienced these winter migrants. Over the course of an 8-hour day, I saw 13 new species. (Before taking up this hobby I’m not sure I knew there were 2 species of ducks.) Toward the end of the trip, we stopped at yet another pond, but it didn’t look like there was much going on. The possibility of adding another life bird was pretty low, and I’d gotten satisfying looks at all the usual suspects. At first glance, this final pond seemed to be almost empty, a half dozen or so teal amid the hundreds we had already found. So, after a few minutes of scanning, I put my binoculars down and started shifting my weight back and forth on tired feet, thinking it was about time to head back home.
The leader of the trip was using his spotting scope to scan the pond, and now announced that he had found a few glossy ibis. I politely ignored him, assuming he must be talking to some of the less experienced birders, those without my 11 months of practice. Anyone who has spent even minimal time looking at birds in Florida has gotten an eyeful of ibis. They are odd-looking things with long curved bills and stilt-like legs for wading. There are two varieties ever-present in our state. The white ibis has a body to match its name, with a neon pink face and ice-blue eyes. The other, the glossy, looks brown until the light hits its feathers and you see the purple-green iridescence for which it is named.
A glossy ibis is a beautiful bird, but you can certainly find them in parking lots. It was not the Northern Pintails or Common Goldeneye we had seen earlier. I had spotted the glossies in my own scan across the lake and probably mumbled their name to myself as I kept moving. I was not interested enough to take another look at them in the scope, even if they were the only birds we were seeing. I put my bins down and struck up a conversation with one of my fellow birders who seemed equally unimpressed. Behind me, our leader was still talking about the ibis, but now a note of curiosity had crept into his voice.
“Wait a minute,” he said. “Someone come take a look at this bird.” I remained skeptical but interested enough to cross back to the scope.
“Look at the one in the middle,” he said. I did. Glossy ibis. Check.
“Do you notice anything different about him?” No. Everything I saw told me this was a glossy. I hardly needed to look, and I wasn’t sure why this great birder wasn’t as certain as I was.
“Look again,” he said. “Check out his face. It’s lighter than the others. Pink, with white. And it has a red eye.”
I looked at him in disbelief. Then I lowered my eye back into the scope for another unnecessary look. And then, I saw it. Faint at a distance of 100 yards, yet unmistakable. There, where I had assumed were three glossy ibis, were now two glossy ibis and something else, something new. A Florida rarity, the white-faced ibis. A miracle. A transformation: from trash bird to life bird; something new springing forth while my eyes were trained on old things.
Someday I hope to be the kind of birder who gives every glossy ibis a second look. Not only because the ibis might turn out to be something more unusual, but because I understand that each glossy in itself holds an unexpected miracle. Someday I hope to be the kind of person who experiences each moment as a gift of grace, a fresh surprise at which to wonder. The kind of person who experiences each new injustice as an obscene affront and who expects that it can and will be righted. I want to become the kind of person who continues to look for signs of hope, even in lives that continue to present disappointment. Even in my own life. I want to shed my weariness at everything I’ve seen before and take another look.