There is possibly no emblem of freedom so enticing as the Birds of the Air. Their movement and mastery of their medium has enchanted me from watching the haunting honkers return over decoys into the Chesapeake, to the winter birds around the feeders in the Derwood woods, to the "rara aves" spotted and wondered at in far corners of the globe. I am hard pressed to name a favorite--each one is special, and every one represents the "canary in the mine" for us fellow travellers in the same environments.
There may be as many as ten thousand species of birds on earth, with a few more than that number in species of butterflies, and still more moths, and orders of magnitude more flying things among the other insect species. The abundant speciation, and adaptation to a wide variety of niches, and relationships past counting to each other and other living things around them is not simply amazing, but astounding! Add the fluidity of their rapid mobility in the aerial arts, and they are as adaptive and still as sensitive to change as any creatures we have as exemplars among us. Particularly in the tropics, where I arise to the cacophony of dawn, the profusion of species and their colorful appearance and intriguing behaviors could be a source of endless fascination.
I appreciate birds. I am not a regulation "birder". I have not assembled a "life list" and have not ignored the panoply presented before me in any environment, to run down another new species to "tick off" and move on with my life list. Re-seeing my next turaco will be the same thrill as my first; malachite kingfishers and lilac-breasted rollers are relatively common in the parts of Africa which I have visited regularly--they are beautiful every time. The sunbirds and bee-eaters of Southern Africa, the macaws and parrots of South America, the flightless cormorants of the Galapagos, the wood duck drakes in the streams along which I run in Maryland are breath-taking on each new re- sighting.
I am probably familiar with a few dozen species of th number I have seen that must be well past a thousand (twice th number in all of America), if I were keeping count. But amon the other lists that I keep, there should be some experience reserved for just the pure joy of it rather than the scorecard. The birds and I have unlisted numbers.
Probably the foremost "birder" of the Americas and our time, if not all time everywhere, was Roger Tory Peterson. Through great good fortune, we were able to celebrate Earth Day Birthday together at Airlie, as seen here, when joined by Kurt Johnson, my more regular accompaniment on recent bird-watching expeditions. Before his recent death, he had spent a lifetime painting, photographing birds and butterflies, and had collected 43 honorary university degrees for his encyclopedic insight into the avefauna.
Many living creatures are what they are, and not only do it well, but seem to live out the joy of being very visibly in front of us. Otters love to swim, cheetahs to run, and the synchronized swooping of rollers, the raptors, the passerines all in total mastery of their element convinces the observer--jealous as he might be of their skill--that they are not wasting any life wishing to be other than what they are already, and that so well. They are, simply, birds. While watching and admiring birds of all sorts in all places, I come around again to this clumsy earthbound creature, and exclaim still again: "What a piece of work is man!" Birds have taught me more about that than angels.