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Of birds, and books, and years gone by

Bill Meredith

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Robert Frost, "The Road Less Taken"

The Weather Channel predicted last December 14 would be a miserable day. In the previous week we had 9 inches of snow followed by an ice storm; and rain from the 13th was supposed to last all day into the 14th. As it happened, the rain ended early, so the day was only semi-miserable. Wisps of fog rose from the melting snow like miasma from Wuthering Heights; the sky maintained a gray overcast all day, except on the western horizon where it took on a malevolent, jaundiced yellow. It was a day meant for staying home with a good book.

I got up at 5:30 (early, for me) and within the hour I was on the Gettysburg Battlefield at the foot of Big Round Top, listening for owls. I spent the whole day driving over every road in the battlefield at least twice, and walking a couple of miles on trails or through underbrush, looking for birds. Along with several other members of the Gettysburg Audubon Society in adjacent locales, I was taking part in the annual Christmas bird count. We stayed out all day; each of us attempted to count all of the birds in his or her assigned area.

This ritual is repeated in the days immediately before or after Christmas by local chapters of the National Audubon Society all over the country. It is a tradition that goes back for decades; I was introduced to it by John and Ruth Richards when I came to Emmitsburg in 1957. Most of the non-birding public, to the extent they are aware of it at all, see it as a mildly loony activity by a bunch of odd, if harmless, fanatics, but in fact it is the source of valuable ecological information. Since each local group canvases the same area each year, the collected records provide long-term baseline data about changes in bird populations.

The reason I am involved in this activity begins with a small book that rests on the right-hand side of my bookshelf, fourth level up. It is A Field Guide to the Birds, 1947 edition, and it has seen better days. Its spine is bound in green tape, where it started to fall apart. Some of the pages are loose; others are torn, patched with scotch tape, or water-stained from rainy field trips. Protruding from the edges are alphabetized tabs, which mark the color plates for quick access. Across the title page is scrawled, in black felt-tip, "With best wishes—Roger Tory Peterson."

What makes this book valuable to me is not the author’s autograph, but the date inscribed on the flyleaf: January 27, 1953. At that time, 50 years ago this month, I was half-way through my sophomore year at Fairmont State College, and the book was to be the text for a course in Ornithology. I had no particular interest in the topic; I signed up for that course because all biology majors took it… it was the favorite course of the Department Chairman, Prof. Paul Davisson. From that unpromising beginning came the formative event in my college education.

Before then, all of my biology courses had been the typical lab courses of that era: memorizing facts, dissecting frogs and peering into a microscope at slides… programmed activities that were all planned before the class started. Ornithology was different… radically so. It was my first experience with biology outside a classroom. At 7:30 every Tuesday and Thursday morning, rain or shine, the class marched out into the field to spend the next two hours looking for birds. Mr. Davisson amazed us; not only did he know the names of every bird we saw, but he knew their flight patterns, habitats, food preferences, mating behavior, migration patterns, seasonal color changes, and nest-building techniques. In addition to their songs for attracting mates and defending territories (which I had never heard of before), he knew their alarm calls and flocking vocalizations; he did not need to see them to achieve positive identification.

I was overwhelmed by all this the first day; the only thing that kept me from giving it up as an impossible task was the realization that the other students were even worse off that I was. As a result of growing up in the country, I could already recognize about 25 species of birds; most of my classmates could not tell an English sparrow from a starling. So we all persevered, and by the end of the semester I knew nearly 100 species by sight and sound. But, although it didn’t completely sink in until later, I had learned a lot more than that. I had begun to understand that learning in science is not just a matter of memorizing big words in textbooks and cutting up specimens stiffened by formaldehyde. Mr. Davisson was a great teacher in the classroom… the best I ever had, in fact… but he really came alive in the field, dealing with a specialty he loved. By the example of that course, he taught me that real knowledge, and real satisfaction, comes only from total immersion in a subject, and for the kind of biologist I wanted to be, this meant direct observation of living subjects in their natural habitats.

I hadn’t yet encountered Robert Frost (American Lit. came in the Junior year). But, as he said might happen, two paths were diverging before me at that time. The well-trodden path, probably followed by 9 of every 10 students who majored in biology, led toward medical or dental school; students who didn’t make it into those fields usually ended up in allied health fields or as disgruntled teachers, or left the sciences altogether. The other path led toward a field called ecology, vaguely defined and offering uncertain opportunities for secure careers in those days. It would be another decade before ecology became a household word; but I was young then, and what mattered was that I enjoyed it and had sufficient aptitude for it. How lucky it turned out to be.

So it was that I spent a semi-miserable day wandering across a water-logged landscape looking for birds that had more sense than I did when it came to staying home in such weather. The old book remained on the shelf; I carried a newer one, but it stayed in my pocket, unopened. Visibility was poor… all birds looked gray in the binoculars. But by recognizing silhouettes, postures, flight patterns and songs as Mr. Davisson taught and years of experience reinforced, by evening I had identified 34 species, about what I have found in previous years. The path that began 50 years ago made a satisfying pause on December 14. With luck, it will lead there again next year.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith