In a 1979 National Geographic article, author A.C. Fisher Jr. wrote, "In my hand I held the most remarkable of all living things, a creature of astounding abilities that elude our understanding, or extraordinary, even bizarre senses, of stamina and endurance far surpassing anything in the animal world. Yet my captive measured a mere five inches in length and weighed less than half an ounce, about the weight of a fifty-cent piece. I held that truly awesome enigma, a bird."
From the impossibly small hummingbird to the colossal ostrich, birds are among nature's most diverse and interesting creatures. Represented by 187 families, 2,050 genera and 9,648 species, birds occupy nearly every conceivable habitat throughout the world and provide people everywhere with unlimited amounts of listening and viewing pleasure.
I cannot remember a time that I wasn't drawn to the songs and activities of our feathered friends. Aside from their fascinating and dazzling command of both the sky and color spectrum, birds of all sizes and shapes have amazed me in countless ways.
My memories as a boy growing up on the farm are dominated by times afield and the wildlife I have encountered. Thankfully, I can sit here, right now, and recall without much difficulty many of those initial meetings between bird and boy.
The first ruffed grouse encounter occurred many years ago on a spring exploration of one our woodlands. I was alone, exploring as I would, when I stopped to listen to a sound I had never heard before. It seemed ventriloquist-like, and I remember being confused as to not only where the sound was coming from, but also what it was.
"Thump-thump-thump-thump-pwrrrrr," it went, over and over. I recall standing rock-solid-still, searching the ground before me, the canopy above -- everywhere -- but I couldn't locate the unknown source, much less understand what on earth I was hearing. Could it be the old John Deere tractors on the Zimmerman farm across the hay field? Well, that's what I surmised, and so, satisfied, I left for home. At the time I had no idea that I had just heard a male ruffed grouse drumming from his favorite stump or log.
Bobolinks were very common on our farm in the early 1970s. Our alfalfa fields would be full of them during the springtime nesting season. I delighted in these birds; the males' with their skunk-pattern plumage singing their beautiful tinkling songs, flying, and alighting on other perches to sing some more. Years later, all grown up and long removed from those wonderfully informative years as a youngster on the farm, I often wonder about those bobolinks. They once seemed in numberless. Today they seem much less so.
One time on an early summer evening after dad and I finished the milking, I left on another of my excursions. Strolling on the field-road north of the barn with the alfalfa on one side and the "Little Woods," as I called it, on the other, I saw in the dense shrub growth along the fenceline separating field from woodland the reddest bird I had ever seen. It seemed impossible to me that such a tropical and exotic looking bird could occur in the wilds of our Minnesota woods.
For a moment, the brightly colored specimen remained in full view giving me the unforgettable sight and vivid memory of the breeding plumage of a male scarlet tanager. The bird's incredible redness and its black wings and tail struck me. Upon returning home I looked it up in my Golden Nature Guide of Birds, which I still have today, to learn more about that beautiful red bird.
The melodious choruses of meadowlarks are also etched in my boyhood memories. Scarcely a time can be recalled throughout the joys of those endless springs and summers whereby I was either trapping pocket gophers, exploring or toiling, that the backdrop to all those ventures did not at least contain one lone meadowlark singing from telephone wires or fenceposts. It must have been, I say, for memory says it so. And I think, too, that meadowlarks were then more numerous than they are now.
I am thankful that not all first encounters are distant memories. During my graduate work studying birds throughout the prairie potholes of North Dakota, I became anxious by what each new day would bring in the line of new species. The wolf whistles of upland sandpipers, the "per-wer-willet" call of the willet, the cry of marbled godwits and the whirligig swimming style of American avocets will forever remind me of those special days on the prairie.
And the learning -- the first encounters -- doesn't stop with the passing of youthful days. In recent times, I have been fortunate enough to observe many more first-time avian observations. In the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, for example, and only a handful of years ago, I introduced myself to the Stellar's jay, Townsend's solitaire, mountain bluebird, mountain chickadee, and the Clark's nutcracker -- every one of them different birds with different songs and calls and different behaviors to be grateful for.
In Alaska, too, about a dozen years ago, I marveled at the beauty of the Harlequin duck, the song of the golden-crowned sparrow and the nesting behavior of the semi-palmated plover. There was also a familiar species, the bald eagle; during one encounter, we walked up to a pair's ground-nest located at the edge of a high bluff overlooking the river -- a nest with a single half-grown chick sitting comfortably inside its car-sized bowl gazing at us as curiously as we gazed at it.
Life is an endless series of encounters and discoveries. And the world of birds and wildlife, all about us, is full of sights and sounds yet to be experienced. Indeed, memories will be made as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
BLANE KLEMEK is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at email@example.com.