BIRD WATCH: A look back at 50 years of columns

ON DEC. 6, this column will begin its 50th year.

It’s impossible to approach this milestone without a great deal of looking back.

Change, overwhelming change, has dominated all aspects of our lives.

How we look at birds and what we know about them, compared to 50 years ago, has changed in many ways.

Other non-related changes have also occurred. Younger readers would find it difficult to imagine the “social” scene in the ’60s. Women’s issues crept into the column’s beginning.

I really did agonize over what my byline would be when the first column appeared in print.

The custom at that time, for married women, was to list their name in newspapers as, “Mrs.”

This was followed by her husband’s first name, not hers.

I determined I was not going to write under the name of Mrs. Paul Carson.

This may sound strange, even funny, but I remember getting teased for using my name without the “Mrs.” title.

One of the local businessmen had to call attention to that fact.

That first column is mounted on the bulletin board above my desk.

I would like to share parts of it with today’s readers. Its first paragraph is one area where things haven’t changed:

“There was a time in this country when a birdwatcher was one who shot the bird out of the tree before he made a positive identification. No more. Now our members are in the millions and all ages. Most of us are people who just enjoy looking at and listening to ‘that pretty little bird.’”

That column set a theme that continues but with some embellishment.

A better way to say that would be “the column has gone farther afield in its coverage of birds and bird-watchers.”

When it began, I made a promise and feel it has been kept.

“The birds mentioned in the column can all be seen locally at various times of the year, some all year. They will be in the column at the time they are in the area.”

That “area” has, admittedly, grown larger than when this endeavor began.

A favorite bird featured in the first column: “Most familiar and overall favorite of the songbirds is the robin, named after Europe’s familiar thrush, robin redbreast. Even though everyone knows a robin, I have used him first so you may compare him with the following two birds who are often mistaken for robins. They are the varied thrush and the rufous-sided towhee.”

Here is where some change has taken place. The towhee’s name has been changed to the spotted towhee, but more important is how well-known this bird is now known.

You could almost say, “Everyone knows a towhee.”

Conservation and environmental subjects were in their infancy in the sixties, but there were some exceptions. One of these was DDT.

When writing about the robins back then, this controversy couldn’t be ignored:

“If anything threatens the robin now, it is the insecticides and DDT used in spraying trees and lawns. As the rains mix these chemicals with the soil, they are eaten by earthworms. And, as everyone knows, robins eat earthworms and therefore can consume fatal amounts of these poisons.”

I was a young mother with two youngsters under the age of six when this column began. Dave Averill, the late publisher and editor for the local weekly, took a chance on me.

He did have to struggle not to laugh when I told him I wanted to write a column on birds.

He paid me the going rate of 10 cents a column inch, and a very local column began with another promise:

“This is a local column for local readers and I would appreciate hearing from those who may have something to share. Especially when the migrating birds start coming back. It would be interesting to know who spots the first warbler, swallow or hummingbird.”

After all these years, I can say with certainty that this column’s readers have been the best at sharing something about the birds they are seeing.

As this year progresses, we’ll share more glimpses into the past, but we’ll stay mostly in the present.


Joan Carson’s column appears every Sunday. Contact her at P.O. Box 532, Poulsbo, WA 98370, with a self-addressed, stamped envelope for a reply. Email: [email protected].

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