I enjoy asking people to name their favorite species of bird. It's especially fun to watch an avid birder squirm and scrunch up their faces as they go over in their minds a checklist of possibilities. For some people it's an easy choice, but for most folks choosing a favorite bird among the multitude of species (423 or so in Minnesota alone!) is difficult at best.
Of interest to me are not only the answers I get from people, but the types of people who are giving the answers. For instance, if you enjoy walking through county or state fair 4-H barns that house the barnyard fowl, ask one of the 4-H kids who are showing their chickens, ducks, geese and turkeys what their favorite birds are and you'll likely get the answers you'd expect.
As well, ask a hunter who hunts upland game birds or waterfowl what his or her favorite bird is and you'll probably also get the answer you would expect -- the pheasant hunter loves a cackling rooster pheasant, the ruffed grouse hunter loves "Ol' Ruff," the woodcock hunter loves the timberdoodle and the duck hunter loves the "green head" drake mallard or the "bluebill" drake scaup.
But I dare you to ask any avid birder (some say "fanatical" birder) what his or her favorite bird is and you'll likely get as variable an answer as there are species of birds. From my experience, birders are often conflicted about which species to choose; as if by choosing one species over another that it will somehow offend the species not selected!
Don't read me wrong here, because if anyone is at odds it's yours truly. As a 4-H kid, hunter, naturalist, biologist and birder, I should probably start a "Bird of the Month" recognition program. Indeed, my favorite birds tend to change like the weather, from week to week, month to month, and year to year. Truth be told, I have all kinds of favorite birds.
I'll never forget the first time I heard a ruby-crowned kinglet sing. I was working as a park naturalist in Itasca State Park. At the time, I had just finished an outdoor campfire program when an incredibly loud and beautiful birdsong filled the woodland and my ears.
I was captivated by the song, but could not locate the source. Over and over again, the bird sang its song while I stood below those pine trees looking for it. I had no idea what I was searching for, but I believed the owner of the lovely song must be a large bird.
After arriving home that night, I listened to my audiocassette tape of bird songs and calls. After several minutes of listening I identified the song and its creator -- the ruby crowned kinglet. Finding the bird in the field guide, I was astonished by its small size. No wonder I couldn't see the bird in the canopies of those trees!
The black-capped chickadee is another favorite of mine. I find its gregarious and bold nature delightful. Many times I have called springtime singing males right to me by imitating their whistled two- and three-note songs.
On numerous occasions, I have brought a silent woodland to life with the chorus of many singing chickadees by simply whistling their springtime mating song. I have also been thrilled by their friendly disposition when they've landed on my open hand filled with sunflower seeds, or at times when a lone chickadee has alighted on the bill of my hat, my knee, and even my boot. These encounters always leave me feeling blessed.
The gray jay is yet another special bird to me. They seem almost ghostlike when they fly, generally in pairs, from tree to tree. Like chickadees, these birds stick around during Minnesota's winters. That is endearing to me as well. While so many birds migrate to warmer climates, these birds endure the harshest of weather, just like we do.
Gray jays are docile birds that will often come very close to people. They seem to have no worries or fears. A true northland bird, gray jays are common throughout northern Minnesota and Canada. Only during years of low food supplies will gray jays actually migrate further south. And even then, it's not very far.
So many other birds could be my favorite on any given day. I am enthralled by upland sandpipers and their wolf whistles. I smile at the upside-down nuthatches and their curious behaviors. I thoroughly enjoy the amazing repertoire of the common raven and its acrobatic antics. I even like the brown-headed cowbird. It amazes me that such unusual nesting behavior evolved in this bird.
I delight in the effortless flight of the barn swallow and the adaptive nesting behavior inside our barns and garages. Hummingbirds, magpies, pileated woodpeckers and the whip-poor-whil and nighthawk are all favorites, too. And of course, who among us doesn't look forward to that first sighting of a robin after a long winter and rejoice in the male robin's early-morning and evening song?
For sure, a favorite bird for most of us is likely a long list of feathered friends.
As such, choosing one over another isn't something to take lightly as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.