Herons. Condors. Falcons. Birds known for their majesty, their abilities and impressive stature.
And then there are pigeons.
Sky Rats. City Doves. Rats with Wings.
Perhaps the bird most in need of a new press agent.
It is unusual that this bird, often considered a pesky annoyance, would be the one to spark my interest in bird identification.
It was not the robins, wrens or chickadees I grew up with in North Carolina that piqued my interest in birds but the cacophony of cars and construction I became accustomed to after moving to Barcelona, Spain, for a semester abroad this January.
While hiking one morning, I realized I could not name any of the trees surrounding me. What few birds I saw were as unfamiliar to me as the trees. After a semi-unsuccessful attempt to identify the trees, I downloaded the Merlin Bird ID app by Cornell Lab Bird. I spent the next ten minutes waiting for a bird to fly past, ready to identify it.
The app was a game changer. Desperate to escape the suffocation I sometimes felt inside the city, I ate my lunches in the park or at the beach. There, armed with the internet, I sat and watched the birds, or more accurately the pigeons. I saw the ripples of purple and green hidden inside their feathers. I watched as they bathed together in fountains or scoured the beach for chips.
I used the bird app, which was created by Cornell Lab to identify birds based on appearance or sound. I put in the rough size of the bird, its main colors and my location. In response, the app would generate a list of potential birds. There is also a sound feature, which records my surroundings and identifies which types of birds are singing.
One day, while eating my lunch in the park, I was startled to see a medium-sized white bird with a sharp beak approaching me, its eyes trained on my sandwich. After a close call, in which I managed to keep my sandwich, I pulled out my bird app.
When I recounted the horrific (almost) attack later, I proudly told my roommate I faced off with a Cattle Egret in the park.
Later, I became familiar with the black and white Eurasian Magpie, which admittedly, I called a mockingjay for several weeks before realizing my mistake.
Upon my return to North Carolina at the end of the semester, I took up a post on my back porch each morning watching birds arrive at our feeders. I learned to recognize the Tufted Titmouse and the White-Throated Sparrow.
Now, as I spend my summer working in northern Minnesota, I watch the loons, swans, and mergansers drifting across lakes.
I would not dare call myself a birder. I am only a bird watcher in the most literal sense of the word, in that I enjoy sitting and watching the birds.
It is more often than not that I pull out my phone to check the bird that I am identifying. I often take to Google with searches like, “small gray bird with long tail, north carolina,” only to discover that I am seeing the Northern Mockingbird, apparently one of the most common birds in the state. Oops.
However, I have no interest in being the next great bird watcher. My repertoire of bird knowledge mostly contains facts about pigeons. Did you know that they are almost as smart as ravens? Or that pigeons are extremely clean and that cleanliness is partially what allows them to thrive in cities?
I like knowing about the birds not because I want to uncover the secrets of ornithology but because I want to appreciate and experience nature more deeply.
To me, birds are a promise of freedom. To look up and see the swallows, or maybe the swifts, flying around at dusk never gets old.
They are a promise of nature that surrounds us and a constant reminder to seek it out.
In Barcelona, the birds were a pause among the busy cars and constant construction.
Without the birds, I would forget to find moments of stillness in my day. I would brush past appreciation and beauty, instead focusing on the road ahead. Without the birds, I wouldn’t look up or down. Without the birds I might forget to feel awe or forget what a small part of the world I am.
There is as much beauty in the dusty streets of Barcelona as there is in the endless expanse of lakes and pines in the Boundary Waters as there is on my back deck in North Carolina as I watch the squirrels and wrens in an endless tango at the bird feeder.
My bird book sits open. My app is constantly on the same page. I have to google the most common birds in my home state.
But that’s not the point of watching the birds.
The birds remind me to seek out connection and beauty in nature, to cherish and share that beauty with others.
Even if I have to wait for my Cornell app to load first.