Learning to See

And just like that, they’re everywhere.

What? Oh, no warblers just yet for me, so don’t get excited. I’m talking about crows—fish crows, to be exact.

On the very first birding trip that I took, I remember the leader telling us about fish crows. They are common on Long Island but are visually almost identical to the American crow; the only way that they can be positively distinguished is by their call. “They look like an American crow and sound like they have a cold,” was the phrase used. “Well, that’s one bird I’ll never be able to identify myself,” I thought.

Looking at my records, my first fish crow was sighted almost 2 years ago to the day, although I honestly can’t remember it. I’m sure I saw it (it was on an Audubon walk, with experienced leaders), but I probably wrote it down without the ID fully sinking in. So in my mind, my lifer fish crow happened on Monday, April 14, while I was waiting for my train to pull in at the station. A pair of crows were calling to each other above the tracks, and I immediately knew something about them was different. There was a certain rounded but clipped, nasal quality to the calls. “Caa-uh. Caa-uh. Caa-uh.” I excitedly wrote down “Look up fish crow call!” on a scrap of paper in my purse and then went trawling the web for soundclips as soon as I got home. I was right! That was no American crow.

And now, I hear them everywhere. At the railroad station. Outside my office as I’m walking back with my cup of tea. It’s wonderful—my world is expanding, one species at a time.

One of the most gratifying things about birding for me is how it opens up your eyes and ears to the world around you. It’s why I first decided to pick up a pair of binoculars four years ago. I knew my basic backyard birds, but I wanted to put names to them all: the little brown jobs, those mysterious flashes of yellow in the spring, the ducks wintering out on the lake, the shorebirds chasing the tides.

Humans have been giving names to the natural world for millennia, for good or for ill; it’s our way of making sense of things beyond our ken and control. In some cases, this can get out of hand (particularly when tied up in imperialist and colonial narratives, ahem), but there is a deep satisfaction in being able to accurately read one’s landscape. In being able to look at something and say, “I know you. I know what you are called, and why you are here, and from whence you came. I know your cousins, and I know your call. You are not alien to me.”

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