February 2012

By Linda Orkin

How many birds will we ever know as individuals? I have a flock of four crows that come to my platform feeder, and I am able to recognize two individuals, a crow tagged B-6 that I have observed for a year and a half, and a crow that has some white tertiary feathers. I like this feeling of recognizing individual birds in the wild. It is a rare occurrence.

What makes a bird recognizable? It could be some naturally occurring phenomena, such as the broken bill of the Common Loon that makes a regular appearance on the lake and is heralded each winter when it does so. There is a local Turkey Vulture with one almost totally white wing. We all get excited and post a message about the sighting whenever we are lucky enough to spot the vulture. We now have a page on our new website called “Old Friends” that has information about individual, recognizable local birds. It is a potent title for a page on wild birds.

A notable bird hanging out in an odd place could become recognizable, such as last year’s New York Public Library Prothonotary Warbler that was there for at least a month and elicited much comment and conjecture. What could we learn if we looked at every bird we encounter with such intensity?

The bird that we come to recognize could be a very rare single bird making an appearance. There have been many discoveries of such birds in the past few months: a Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch found in the Catskills, a Mountain Bluebird and a Grace’s Warbler on Long Island, a Chaffinch in New Jersey. These birds, all extremely unlikely in the Northeast, attract many birders. Of course, I know that for many, these sightings are opportunities to expand a bird list. But I think there is more to it than that. People who went to see these birds often went more than one time, and many spent long hours observing them. People enjoy being able to know a bird, to know that it is the same bird they saw yesterday, or last week, and that it will be the same bird they could see tomorrow.

I try to remember to think of each bird that I look at as an individual, even if I am not able to distinguish it in any way. It opens up a new way of observing and thinking about birds. It has been recommended that we make a point of looking at each person’s face as we make our way through our day, in order to increase our compassion for humanity. Many of us already do this with birds, observe them carefully, look at their face, and think of their life—their individual life.