by Joe Meche
Since I was informed this would be my 200th Beaks and Bills column, it seemed appropriate to trace the primary subject matter of the 199 columns that came before this one. And while we’re at it, maybe I can add a few words about the column itself, and the passions that drive the author. It seemed to be a good idea to get up to speed as I head for number 250!
Keep in mind that, without our feathered friends, those true marvels of evolution, life on planet Earth would certainly be a lot less interesting. Given the fascination I’ve always had about birds, it’s no surprise humans and birds have been linked in myriad ways since the first time we began to share this celestial orb. We frequently set our seasonal clocks by the mass migration of millions of birds, and even landscape our yards to be more bird-friendly. Bird-watchers contribute almost $50 billion annually to the national economy.
The story of birds began millions of years ago, in the age of dinosaurs. Over thousands of years of evolution, the scales of small reptilians changed into soft feathers which served as insulation and increased their activity and endurance. With small, evolutionary leaps at first, the forelimbs of these new creatures developed into wings as they practiced and eventually mastered the art of flight. This major adaptation set birds apart from the rest of the animal kingdom, and opened a new world of ecological opportunities. Like the new kids on the block, a new group of vertebrates evolved into what we know now as the Class Aves … birds!
From the first known fossil bird, Archaeopteryx lithographic, to the nearly 10,000 species worldwide today, these incredible flying machines show a broad range of diversity. The size range itself is a true wonder when you consider the scale of the tiniest hummingbird next to an ostrich. Although birds generally follow a similar design, and, though all have wings, there is also a wide range of body shapes. From long-legged wading birds to swallows and swifts that spend most of their lives aloft, leg and foot designs evolved for each species. The same can be said for their beaks and bills. The evolution of every species has been a product of their individual needs.
Birds are cosmopolitan and exist on every continent. Regardless of which birds you see and wherever you go, they all became what they are today through the process of adaptive radiation. This phenomenon is at the root of the diversity of birds, and reflects the changes that occur due to different ecologies and behavior of each individual species. The feet and legs of all birds adapted to their specific needs for perching or locomotion. The webbed feet of waterfowl and the talons of raptors are perfect examples. Similarly, the bills of birds evolved to correspond with their diets. Adaptive radiation also played a large part in the design and shapes of birds’ wings. The more you learn about birds, the easier it is to understand the endless fascination that humans developed as they began to study birds in more detail.
Another aspect of evolution on the human side of things is the detailed study of birds, known today as ornithology. Birds figured in Aristotle’s “History of Animals,” written in the fourth century, BC. These writings planted the seeds of scientific research. He was followed by other authors such as the Greek, Alexander of Myndos, and the Roman, Pliny the Elder. Pliny summarized the works of as many as 500 additional writers. Until the Renaissance, these were the early field guides, if you will. Many of the early writings were not as accurate as they would become with the expanded ranks of field observers in the eighteenth century. What we know about birds today is the end result of dedicated professionals and amateurs and years of careful and precise field observations.
As the number and diversity of birds and other animals increased with more observations, it was obvious there needed to be a system to differentiate between species. Enter Carolus Linnaeus, a Swedish botanist, who assigned two Latin names to each species. These are what we know as the scientific names. The first part of the name denotes the genus, which includes a group of similar species. The second part of the name denotes the particular species. This standardized classification makes field identification much easier, since each name is unique to no other bird. Eventually, common names were added to make the process even easier. Look for the checklist of the American Ornithologists’ Union for updates on bird names. One of my favorite columns had to do with how birds were named. It offered obvious reasons and even a few of the strange variety.
Birds are an integral part of the landscape and are found everywhere. When I worked for a research company and traveled a lot, I knew I would find birds wherever I went, so binoculars always went with me. Our close relationship and fascination with birds has led to our use of them as symbols of war and peace … you’re either a hawk or a dove. Birds have been the subject of intense study when it comes to our own attempt to emulate their flight. The natural design of lift and drag in birds’ wings has been used to keep our flying machines aloft. Though we might attain flight, it will never be as effortless as it is with birds, though we can always dream. The beauty of birds and their songs have been celebrated in the arts and literature for many years. If you simply Google (new age verb) books, poetry, and songs about birds, you might find yourself overwhelmed by what you see. From Edgar Allan Poe’s raven to the nightingale of John Keats, to the Beatles’ blackbird singing in the dead of night and Alfred Hitchcock’s unforgettable birds terrorizing a small town, our feathered friends have been immortalized in many genres. This all points to what an essential part of our culture birds have become.
Birds have also been at the forefront of numerous efforts aimed at conservation and habitat protection and restoration. Other animals have benefitted from worldwide movements to protect birds. The establishment of national wildlife refuges has set aside millions of acres of habitat for resident and migratory birds, especially those that meet the criteria to become endangered species. The National Audubon Society has been a leader in the conservation movement for more than 100 years, and other organizations have joined the fight. Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” helped the movement immensely as it increased our awareness of the plight of many birds due to the use of DDT. This chemical is now banned and the affected species are recovering.
The nascent National Audubon Society was founded in 1886 by George Bird Grinnell and named after the iconic naturalist and artist, John James Audubon. Its early focus was on the conservation and preservation of birds, and eventually all animals. The society was just a fledgling organization when, in 1900, it began the annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC). The CBC began as an alternative to the Christmas Side Hunt. A small group of individuals thought it would be a better idea to simply count the birds instead of killing them. From the first effort of that small group came the longest running citizen science project in history. The CBC is still going strong today with almost 80,000 participants counting birds in the Western Hemisphere. The Bellingham CBC has been in operation since 1967.
Beaks and Bills
Beaks and Bills began as a most pleasant consequence of the first article that I wrote for Whatcom Watch after 9/11. That column, “Rediscovering Whatcom County Birds,” was written in response to the tightened security at the border. Slow-downs and long lines discouraged a lot of birders wanting to sample the greener pastures of the lower mainland of British Columbia. The idea behind that one-time column was to promote birding closer to home. The timing was perfect because I was consulting with the city of Blaine about the idea of promoting birding in the area that included Blaine, Birch Bay, and Semiahmoo.
Two months later, with encouragement from then-editor Sally Hewitt, I wrote the first Beaks and Bills column about a great road trip to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Oregon. That was in June of 2002 and in 18 years I’ve missed only two columns … listed in my files as “Vacation.” It was obvious I hadn’t developed a rhythm, yet. But once I did, I began to look forward to ideas to keep me and especially the readers interested. In the process of writing the column, I found a lot of new information to assimilate, so it’s been a great learning experience for me.
As a fun exercise before writing this milestone issue, I printed out my own compilation of all the columns. In the process of reading the titles, I found a nice range in the overall content. Many of the columns were intended to be seasonal and covered numerous locations for birders to explore, both locally and as far away as my own travels took me. My journaling over the years has gone from facile, long-handed note keeping to just absorbing the memories and putting pen to paper later.
I’m reminded of the author and long-distance hiker, Colin Fletcher, who was asked why he didn’t take a camera on his epic hikes. His simple reply was that he didn’t want to put anything between himself and what he was seeing. It’s similar to birding with your nose in a field guide and missing a lot of good birds. For what it’s worth, I never use a field guide in the field, but everyone has his/her own style, for lack of a better word. One of my columns covered that and asked whether you were a birder or a bird-watcher. It’s a fine line, but the differences, however subtle, are there.
In trying to keep the copy fresh and topical, I found that I had a tendency to pay more attention to all four seasons of birding. My wife Cindy and I traveled quite a bit, and it was known that I plotted courses to intersect with bird refuges along the way. As a matter of fact, I still do that. A three-week road trip to Louisiana became one of several two-part columns. It was a glorious trip, and there was just too much to squeeze into one column. That trip was bittersweet in so many ways. It was the last time I saw my Mom before she died, and we spent a week with her in the house where I was born … and first became interested in birds.
Introduction to Birds
My own seminal introduction to birds began with my paternal grandfather. My family owned and operated a small neighborhood grocery store, and the front porch of the store was his bailiwick when he got older. Sitting in his folding stool and sporting his trademark pith helmet, he was the precursor to the greeters we see in certain stores today. He not only taught by example how to greet everyone and “bid them the time of day,” but he also introduced me to the neighborhood birds from the front porch.
The first bird I learned was the brilliant northern cardinal. Following in the line of new birds were blue jays and northern mockingbirds … three species that are still near and dear to my heart. This introductory trio made quite an impression on an eight year old, and it was the beginning of a lifelong passion for all birds. In the process of spending time with him, he also taught me how to observe the birds. He proved time and again that, if you sit quietly and wait, you’ll see more birds — as they become accustomed to your presence and not seeing you as a threat. He pointed out it was easy to scare them away, but it took practice to be accepted. His nickname was “Duck,” and it had more to do with the way he walked as he approached his 90th year than it had to do with birds. I’d like to spend time with him today.
After 18 years of writing for Whatcom Watch, I would be remiss if I didn’t thank a few people who helped me along in the process. I’m pretty sure that I worked with quite a few editors, and I thank them all for their patience and even a bit of leniency, especially when we had discussions about titles. Most importantly, I would like to offer the biggest thank you to the Whatcom Watch layout person extraordinaire, Bill McCallum. I first met Bill when we were both involved with the North Cascades Audubon Society, maybe 25 years ago. I edited the chapter newsletter for 16 years, and Bill was as steady an influence then as he is now.
So, with number 200 tucked away on my hard drive and ready to send to Bill, one additional thanks goes to the readers who have offered feedback over the years. It’s been a fun run for me and I hope it’s been enjoyable for you as well. Now to come up with an idea for number 201!
Stay healthy and enjoy the birds every chance you get.
This column has also given me an opportunity to share my combined passions for birds and photography. Photographing birds is challenging in many respects, but the rewards are always worth the effort. I’ve also learned more about bird behavior by the attention required for successful bird photography. This issue of Beaks and Bills includes a centerfold/sampler of a few of my photographs, all of which were taken locally.
Joe Meche is a past president of the North Cascades Audubon Society and was a member of the board of directors for 20 years. He has been watching birds for more than 60 years and photographing birds and landscapes for more than 40 years. He has written over 190 columns for Whatcom Watch.