Ordinary Birds

Maine Birds

Tookapic | PEXELS

by Franklin Burroughs

I brought Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds with me when we moved to Maine in 1968. Its preface includes his life list of all the species he had seen in the U.S. east of the Rockies. From boyhood forward, whenever I have seen a new bird, I have checked it off his list, which runs to 426 species in all. So far, I’ve seen 276 of them — not quite two-thirds. With one exception, each new species has arrived serendipitously, like the red-throated loon that suddenly popped up beside my canoe on Broad Cove, in Bremen, 40 years ago.

I have a distinct range and distinct habitat preferences within it. I make brief annual migrations to South Carolina, usually in April. From May to October, I range northward as far as Jackman. In the past decade, South Carolina has yielded the swallow-tailed kite, the hooded warbler, the red knot, and the whooping crane (the one species I didn’t encounter by chance; a wildlife biologist took me to see it). Over the same decade, northern Maine has contributed the Nashville warbler, American pipit, rusty blackbird, northern water thrush, spruce grouse, and black-backed woodpecker.

On long drives, I count the species I see along the way. When my eagle-eyed granddaughter Ana is along, we make a game of it. The inevitable crows, ring-billed gulls, and grackles are worth a point (1); blue jays, red-winged blackbirds, mourning doves, and robins (2); red-tailed hawks, tree swallows, eastern kingbirds, and bluebirds (3); ospreys, wild turkeys, great blue herons, and kestrels (4); ruffed grouse (6); catch of the day (8–20 — birds in this category aren’t necessarily rare, but are unlikely to be seen along a road: thus a green heron or sharp-shinned hawk rates an 8, a Cooper’s hawk or merlin a 10; an American bittern or goshawk a 15, and so on).

Rare birds, high-value birds, please us. But no more than the cliff swallows that once arrived in abundance every spring.

My Peterson is the third edition, published in 1947. It’s dated — asserting, for example, that cardinals, mockingbirds, tufted titmice, turkey vultures, snowy egrets, and even the common grackle do not range farther north than Connecticut. I distinctly remember the first cardinal (3), mockingbird (5), titmouse (3), turkey vulture (3), and snowy egret (8) I saw here, and how much each one pleased me — old friends from home. The snowy egrets remain somewhat uncommon, concentrated in tide flats and marshes near the coast; the others are now everywhere. Within the past five years, I’ve occasionally seen all of them as far up as Jackman.

But oh, Ana, the lengthening list of now-rare birds common in Peterson’s time and that your mother and I still took for granted when she was your age! Meadowlarks, for example, or towhees or cliff swallows or nighthawks or whip-poor-wills, their jarring calls audible even inside the car. I last heard one 21 years ago, in a riverside thicket halfway between Solon and North Anson. Nighthawks? We called them bull-bats in South Carolina, and spoke of bull-bat hour the way they speak of happy hour up here. Three decades have passed since one exploded beneath my feet, going into her crippled-wing routine to draw me away from her nest, a little scrape in the dirt. I fear you may never see that.

Rare birds, high-value birds, please us. But no more than the cliff swallows that once arrived in abundance every spring, hovering, fluttering, and squeaking — a noise like wet leather — under the eaves of the barn, building their little gourd-shaped nests of mud pellets, or congregating around puddles, to pick up more mud, or, later on, popping in and out of the nests, abundant, squabbling, communal, and busy, busy, busy: part of our household for a few months. The occasional pairs I see these days are somehow forlorn, diminished. Ordinariness, Ana, makes things special. That is about the only lesson someone my age can teach someone your age. And I strongly suspect you know it already.

More from Franklin Burroughs.


Franklin Burroughs

Franklin Burroughs is a retired professor of English at Bowdoin College.