John Roach

Roach: On the wing

In all the clutter, there are gems to be found

Facebook has received a great deal of criticism in the past year. Much of it justified. First, it’s shifted from being a site for college kids and become social media for old people, which must be a difficult burden to bear for its founders. And then there is the political madness, endless pictures of food and unfortunate selfies. Yet in all the clutter, there are gems to be found. 

There are citizen weather people, who amass their own data and make their own predictions. There are folks who research and post historic pictures of Madison, triggering memories and offering perspective on our lives today.

And then there is a Facebook group called Wild Birds of Wisconsin.

As a young man, I did not pay much attention to birds as I was busy watching television, girls and rock bands. Later in life, I was watching children, who are a fascinating species in their own way.

It was not until my early 20s, when my parents bought a cabin in the northwoods, that I found the time and place to appreciate birds. My first observations were of the obvious in the north: eagles and loons. But then, to my amazement, the cabin began to be visited by the smallest and most miraculous of the species: hummingbirds.

Here I am, in my early 20s, sitting and watching hummingbirds, hoping to see them be still for just a moment to appreciate the iridescence of their feathers. Did you know that hummingbirds have more feathers per body size than any other bird species? Of course, you didn’t.

In my 40s we got our own cabin and began to sneak north more frequently. With more time in the natural world, two things became very clear: There are a whole lot of birds and I had no idea what most of them were called. Not even close.

So I bought a bird book, which made me feel a bit dorky. But it also helped me understand how little I knew about the natural world. Just two generations ago, when America was more rural than urban, folks knew all sorts of things about the world around them. Many could identify species of trees, birds, mammals, clouds, stars, plants and rocks in ways that make us look woefully ignorant today.

My efforts to educate myself about birds was pitiful. I learned a few new species but that was it. But then, just a few years ago, I stumbled upon a Facebook group called Wild Birds of Wisconsin, where incredibly talented, and mostly amateur, photographers post the most remarkable pictures of the birds in our state you could ever hope to see. 

Now, all of a sudden, I am being exposed to a stunning array of birds with exotic names taking up residence here or migrating through our state. Killdeer, tundra swans, great horned owls, European goldfinches, herons, pileated woodpeckers, canvasbacks, hooded mergansers, cedar waxwings, scarlet tanagers, eastern bluebirds, coots, grebes, buffleheads and dark-eyed juncos. 

And did you know that Wisconsin has pelicans? Since when did we get pelicans? Why didn’t anyone tell me this?

For the record, there are about 993 species of birds in the United States. So, yeah. Maybe it isn’t so easy to learn them all.

Along with the beauty of birds comes their songs. There is an app that helps you identify bird calls. So now, finally, I am able to credit the cardinal for its melody.

New research is also telling us that birds are descendants of the dinosaurs. There is even speculation that T. rex had feathers. Yeah. Feathers. But somewhere in the back of our brains we already knew this given the primordial calls of the loon and sandhill crane. When we hear them, we know their sound is ancient, which is why we quiet ourselves when they make their tremolo hoots and caws.

My increased interest in birds may be about my time of life. But it may also be that to observe these creatures is to escape the digital madness of the modern world for the timelessness of nature.

I have also grown to understand something. Though I am fascinated by the endless variety of bird species and their glorious plumage, these are not the reasons I am fascinated by birds.

No, the reason I watch them is to marvel at what I can only do in my dreams.

I envy birds. Because they can fly.

Madison-based television producer John Roach writes this column monthly. Reach him at johneroach@mac.com. 


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