BIRD WATCH: Remembering 50 years of birdwatching

WELL, DEC. 6 came and went.

Rockets didn’t explode overhead and there were no champagne corks popping.

I did remember what day it was — right in the middle of Christmas shopping with my sister.

Fifty years ago on that date, my first bird column was published.

It ran under the title, “Backyard Birdwatching.”

That was pretty original back then but today is a new day in the birdwatching world.

Different editors choose different titles.

That’s OK as long as “bird” is in it.

The Dec. 6, 1967, column was the first of three about birds that shared similar characteristics even though only two were related.

Our American robin was the subject of the first column.

Most of us learned to recognize it in early childhood.

It’s probably the first bird on many birders’ life lists.

My early memories of robins revolve around winter.

Maybe we had more snow during those long-ago winters.

Mom filled pie tins with chick scratch and apple chunks.

These were set atop the large hedge in the front yard.

Birds, including the robins, fed from these tins all winter.

Along with robins and juncos, another “winter” bird added color to the scene on the hedge.

The varied thrush is the robin’s cousin.

Both birds belong to the thrush family.

They share certain physical characteristics.

Most noticeable is the red-orange coloring on their breasts.

The young of both species look even more alike because of the heavy spotting on their breasts.

Their actions, manner of feeding and overall personalities also reveal their kinship.

We didn’t know the bird’s correct name but learned one of its nicknames from a neighbor who once lived in Colorado.

So similar are these two birds that it was referred to as the “Alaska robin.”

It was a natural for the second Backyard Birdwatching column.

The third column featured the rufous-sided towhee.

Today’s field guides use its current name, “spotted towhee.”

It has had other names throughout the years.

At one time the eastern and western birds were even lumped as one species.

Many of us lost a life bird when that happened.

But, later it was once again split in two.

Today, the western half of the country knows this familiar bird as the spotted towhee and the eastern half call their bird the eastern towhee.

I think that’s where we are as I haven’t heard of the American Ornithologist’s Union changing it once again.

It was a good bird to feature in the third Backyard Birdwatching column because its rufous sides were sometimes confused with the similar colored breasts of the robin and the varied thrush.

Towhees belong to the large sparrow family, Emberizine.

Birdwatchers have changed a lot since these early columns began running in local newspapers.

Today’s readers are more informed than birders in the 1960s were.

Once feeding birds began to catch on, those feeding them became more knowledgeable about birds.

It took a while, but the correct pronunciation is now more widely used.

Back in the ’70s, at a regional Audubon conference in Ellensburg, the commissioner of Public Lands was asked to speak to the group.

He began his talk with a short story about the “too-whee” in his yard.

Many in the audience visibly cringed and I formed a less-than-flattering picture of his knowledge of this state’s wildlife.

Most (not all) of the Audubon members knew the bird’s correct name was “toe-whee,”accent on the first syllable.

Yes, things have changed a great deal throughout the decades and I’m sure they will continue to do so.

________

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: joanpcarson@comcast.net.

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