I can’t remember how my obsession with birds began. I was probably in second grade, because by third I was telling everyone I was going to be an ornithologist when I grew up. I remember my grandparents giving me an old field guide to the Birds of North America, a hand-me-down from a retired birder that lived in their neighborhood. It was brown with age, written all over, and some of the pages were falling out. I eventually got the revised edition, and it was new, shiny, and blue. I must have spent hours just flipping through the pages of those field guides.
One day, I was in a boat with my parents, floating down the Hillsborough River. We saw a bird with a long, slightly-curved bill. It was dark brown streaked with creamy white and making a surprisingly loud honk-chirp.
“What is that?” asked my parents.
“I don’t know,” I replied.
A few minutes later it hit me.
“It was a Limpkin!”
When I got home I went straight to my field guide and confirmed it. I wish this still happened, but I like to believe a few of those pictures and associated names remain hidden somewhere deep in my brain.
Little bird-loving Alison also visited Busch Gardens, the amusement and zoological park in Tampa. There used to be a bird show, at the end of which, one kid got chosen to go up on stage. They stood there as the audience watched a bunch of birds (maybe lorikeets) fly onto the lucky child’s head and outstretched arms. A photographer snapped a picture, and everyone would laugh and clap. I dreamed of being chosen. Every time we went to Busch Gardens, I would go to the bird show in hopes that the staff member would come up to me before the show and ask if I wanted to participate. Then one day my mom delivered the devastating news.
“I think you’re probably too old for this now, hon. They pick younger kids to go up onstage.”
I was crushed and went home to write in my diary about how angry I was at Busch Gardens. How dare they not pick the most obvious of bird-lovers for the photo-op??? (I should add that I eventually forgave Busch Gardens. I later worked there as a zoo educator.)
As a college student in 2009, I studied abroad in Malaysia. During a trip to the bird park in Kuala Lumpur, I told my friends the story of my childhood bird show disappointment since we planned to see one later that day. They laughed, and we settled into our seats. Toward the end of the show, the presenter asked for a volunteer who was at least twenty years old. My friends jumped up and yelled and pointed at me. I was chosen! I went to the back of the amphitheater and held out a wooden rod with a piece of raw meat on the end. A Brahminy kite flew by and grabbed the snack right off the stick.
My childhood bird show debt continued to be repaid. In 2012, at Disney’s Animal Kingdom bird show, an African pied crow flew to me, perched on my arm and took a dollar out of my hand. It was returned by the same method a few moments later, but of course I would have let that cutie keep my money!
A couple of years after that, at the San Diego Safari Park bird show, I was chosen to go up onstage with about four other adults. We lined ourselves up according to height and a bird (I don’t remember what species) walked across our outstretched arms to receive a treat in the hand of the tallest person. Apparently, if you are patient enough, and want badly enough to be in a bird show, it will happen- again and again and again- years later.
Now I can’t help but wonder: What was little bird-nerd Alison so eagerly seeking? Why did it take me twenty years to realize that you don’t need a very curated onstage experience to connect with birds? All you have to do is go outside! Birds are everywhere- living out their fascinating lives beneath eaves and atop wreaths, among pruned bushes and even inside airports- right under our noses!
In fact, there is a barn swallow perched outside my third-story front door right now- sleeping on the fire sprinkler and pooping on my welcome mat. It’s little head is tucked into its feathers as I write this, cozy under the covers. We share a habitat, a home. I care more about that individual creature than I did any show bird who was trained to make me smile.
In hindsight, I feel a little cheap for being a part of the entertainment. Maybe that’s how the birds in the shows feel about the whole thing, too. But, if they are healthy and happy, that’s all that matters. That’s all that should have mattered all along. Try telling that to a nine-year-old wannabe ornithologist…