When I was five years old, my mother’s sister Carol handed me a copy of Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds. Somehow she knew that I’d be interested in the subject. Over the years I purchased many other field guides that improved on the methods of the original book developed by Roger Tory Peterson. Yet I owe a sentimental debt to that first copy. It fueled my interest and taught me so much about the natural world.
With an early passion for drawing, I began tracing the birds in the Peterson’s Field Guide with a special focus on the hawks, which drew my attention the most.
By the time I was twelve years old I was painting and drawing birds on my own. And when my eldest brother came home from college on fire with interest in birds after taking an ornithology course, we all went out in the field together to identify every bird we could find. These I marked down with eagerness and pride.
Among my friends, the interest in birds was at that age a point of teasing and ridicule. The nickname “Birdman” was applied with some disdain. But I ignored those supposed insults and kept painting and drawing birds because frankly, I was by then making some money at it.
Through high school, I found a mentor in Robert Horlock, a biology teacher with whom I spent hours in the field. He introduced me to other birders. That led to my first engagement with Citizen Science as a founding member of the Nelson Lake Marsh Bird Survey team that tracked breeding and migratory species in a newly established wetland preserve. We participated in annual Audubon Christmas Bird Counts as well, a commitment that lasted for thirty consecutive years.
That bird survey team was one of the first times in my life that a seemingly childish interest felt validated in the adult world. My ability to credibly identify birds was respected by the adults with whom I met on a quarterly basis. My trips afield for that purpose felt serious and important. I was contributing to the preservation and conservation of something that I really loved. And having fun doing it. That was the right kind of pride, I thought.
Admittedly there was some ego involved in all my birding and art pursuits. As a young man with a strong need for approval, the praise earned for finding bids and doing artwork was a prized reward. So were the bragging rights in having seen twenty species of warblers on a cool spring morning, or calling in a peregrine falcon to the Rare Bird Alert phone line that served as the Internet for birders before the digital revolution began.
The thrills of birding over the years have included rare species that turned up at odd times. I wrote an article published in Bird Watcher’s Digest last year documenting the day that I found a European Stonechat in Illinois. It was the first of its kind seen in the Lower 48 United States. Lacking a camera on-site at the moment––it was before the era of cell phone cameras––I rushed home to do a painting and share it online. But unfortunately, the sighting could not be officially recognized by the Illinois Ornithological Union or any other organization because the bird was never viewed by another credible birder. Those are the rules. So the thrill of finding such a rarity remains a pleasure of my own accord.
These days I am well-equipped to document everything found in the field. Perhaps my obsession is in compensation for the frustration of losing that sighting of the Stonechat to the ether of personal history. I geared up over the years with a high-quality spotting scope to which I attached a series of digital cameras to take pictures of birds. Finally, I purchased a 150mm-600mm Sigma camera lens to use with my Canon camera. It’s not top-end gear, but it is fun to capture images of the birds I’ve studied for so many years.
It would have been nice to have that kind of camera in my early years of birding when I tried so desperately to find “references” for my bird paintings. Back in the 70s and 80s when wildlife art was a big scene, it was artists with access to detailed photography that won the day. I tried to replicate that process over the years and finally produced some relatively solid work using my own photo references. But by then the market for bird paintings was waning. Digital photography now makes wildlife imagery so commonplace that entire sites on social media fill daily with photos of birds and other creatures. In many respects, the thrill that once came with celebrating those insights of nature is gone.
That said, my interest in birds has matured. My fascination now is with their behavior, and I still love leading people into the field to share in the thrill of seeing species of birds they never imagined existed. My personal life list of American species sits just below 500 and I’ll happily accept any new species that comes along. But that’s a rarity for sure these days unless I travel to a new place such as the Pacific Coast, where I hope to bird some day.
I’ll still paint birds and have a library of 20,000 images from which to work. It is a catalog of the time spent outside staring through optics and camera lenses at living things that deserve to be protected, celebrated and appreciated. I guess that’s enough approval for a bird nerd at last.
Christopher Cudworth is author of the book The Right Kind of Pride on Amazon.com.