Q: How did you first become interested in birds?
A: I’ve been interested since my first memories. I remember standing on a sofa in my apartment in Chicago. Outside the window was a drawbridge, and when it went up, hundreds of pigeons flew into the air and took my eyes to the sky, away from my blue-collar neighborhood.
Q: How did you begin to learn the names of birds?
A: My grandmother got an encyclopedia set, the kind with 20 volumes that you get at the grocery store. I decided I was going to read the whole thing.
Q: How old were you?
A: That was at age 3. I started with “A,” and I understood only about 2 percent of what I read, but I sounded out every word. I finished “A” and started with “B.” I got to b-i-r-d at age 4, and that’s where I stopped. I read it over and over. It was a black-and-white encyclopedia, so I had to use my imagination.
There was a bird called a resplendent quetzal and it caught my eye. It’s the national bird of Guatemala. I loved the sound of the word “resplendent,” so much that I started calling everything resplendent. I said, “These Cheerios are resplendent,” or, “I cleaned the toilet until it was resplendent.”
I had no sense of geography. So I would look for birds in my neighborhood—like peregrine falcons and bee hummingbirds and ostriches—I thought maybe they could be in the next maple tree.
Q: When did you first recognize specific birds?
A: We were in Lake Geneva in Wisconsin and I recognized my first blue jay. We had house sparrows in our yard and I loved them. We had a whole bunch that would roost in the arborvitae outside my window and when I was going to bed I could hear them chirping, telling each other about their adventures. I fell in love with their freedom and their beauty.
I went through childhood not knowing how to find birds. In high school, I was in debate and we would take the bus to downtown Chicago to go to the library. I was dating this guy who would become my husband and who was my debate partner.
We were walking and I found this greenish-brown bird, dead, on its back. It had a pure-white underside, its eyes had rings around them, and it looked so sad. I could easily see how it died in downtown Chicago, but I couldn’t see what it was doing there in the first place. The funny thing is, I was headed to the library but I didn’t know they had books that could tell me what this bird was.
After we were married, for Christmas his mother bought me binoculars and a field guide. The bird I had found was in there. It was an ovenbird, which is a warbler. And it was like floodgates had been opened. I was like Helen Keller, discovering the names for everything. Reading my field guide cover to cover was like being let out of a small world and into a much bigger one.
After that, I read another field guide, and a book about birding in Chicagoland, and a guide to birdwatching.
On March 2, 1975, I went to the woods with my dog and hiked for two hours before I finally found a bird. I couldn’t tell which bird it was—there were two that looked the same to me. But the book said you could tell them apart by their voice. Then I learned that they had bird recordings at the library, and so I went and listened to the recordings. That’s how I identified my first bird—a chickadee.
Q: Were there other people who helped you learn?
A: I’d go to the arboretum on campus. There was a woman there who was excited and would help answer my questions. And there was also a guy in one of my classes who was an active birder. Some birders can be blasé about others who find common birds, but these two were so excited.
That spring I found out that Michigan State, where I went, had ornithology classes. I was hooked from the moment I went out that first time with my dog and saw that chickadee.
I saw 40 species that spring and I was very proud of myself. Now I usually see at least 40 species a day.
Q: Did you get your degree in ornithology?
A: I was on track to be an elementary-school teacher. But I took a few classes, and I went to graduate school to learn about the other "ologies"—mammalogy, herpetology, entomology—so that I could feel confident as a teacher.
I was a junior-high-school teacher. Then I stayed home and had children and started writing about birds. I’ve written a couple of books. My third book will be out in the spring and it’s called 101 Ways to Help Birds.
Q: Is it for adults, or children?
A: It’s for adults.
I also do a local radio show about birds. I’ve been doing it for just about 20 years. Nine radio stations carry it—most are local (Wisconsin and Minnesota), but it’s also carried in South Dakota and Jamestown, New York.
Q: What do you do on the show? Do you take callers, or …?
A: I talk about birds, play sounds, and talk about a specific bird. Or I will talk about bird issues, like the bird flu.
I also have an owl for education. His name is Archimedes—my son named him. When I’m gone, my kids have to defrost a mouse for him every day.
Q: Where do you get frozen mice?
A: It’s called Cajun Mice in Louisiana. I get it from them so I know the mice are disease-free, to make a healthy meal for Archimedes.
Q: Where do you keep the owl?
A: In a huge cage in my home office. We travel to places to give programs and he travels in a cat carrier.
I won the American Ornithologists’ Union’s Bird-Calling Contest for my owl calls. I often lead owl walks. A great horned owl has a soft, mellow hoot. Barred owls are the easiest to call in with imitations.
Q: What kind of jobs do most ornithologists take?
A: Most people become researchers, for museums or educational institutions. Birders can also become guides, or do field censuses or banding. I am incredibly lucky, because I am the staff ornithologist at binoculars.com. They knew about my radio show, and since many people who buy binoculars are birders, they thought it would be a good idea.
Q: How long have you been doing it?
A: Just since last February. It’s wonderful. I get to study and do research, and I try to let regular people learn more about birding. It’s fun. I have this teacher gene in me.
Q: Do you have a favorite bird?
A: If I were on a desert island with only one species to keep me company, I would say the chickadee. They are so adorable, so friendly, and so intelligent.
Q: How can you tell that birds are intelligent?
A: Well, for example, I have two chickadees that I feed mealworms from my hand in the winter. This year I fed them until July, because they were taking the worms to feed their children. I called them George and Martha, not after George and Martha Washington, but did you ever see Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Well, they seemed to be getting a bit tired of each other.
Months after I’d stopped feeding them, the first time I whistled and held my hand out the window, in they flew. And now again they fly outside my office window, and peck at the glass to get my attention. I open the window with a worm in my hand and they take it.
Birds are not only smart but they are smart enough to train humans to be their servants.
Q: Is there anything you’d like people to know about birds?
A: Sometimes we think the only way to survive is to somehow “beat” nature. But then we end up not understanding the implications.
My grandpa had two pet canaries and he told me about how canaries saved the lives of miners, because the canaries died when there was too much carbon monoxide in the air. The miners were sad, because the canaries were their pets, but they were grateful because they saved their lives. When birds die it’s usually a warning. The bird flu is partly because we’re raising domesticated birds badly—in overcrowded conditions with high stress. And when poultry gets sick with just about any disease, they can spread it to us.
Countries that are still using DDT actually have malaria rates that are worse than ever because they used the DDT to kill mosquitoes, but it also kills dragonflies, birds, and others that feed on mosquitoes.
Our fate is so tied to nature’s. We’re all on this little planet together.