Witness to a Fowl Argument
December 16, 2000
(c) Copyrighted by Phil Floyd 2002

     This was my first Christmas Bird Count.  I had finished my sales calls in Tulsa on Friday and knew the CBC was going to start on Saturday @ 8:00 a.m. so I stayed over in order to participate and see how it was all done.

     First, the weather persons screwed it up royally.  Instead of it being in the 50's, it was going to start at 34 and go into the 20's.  And instead of no precipitation, the snow for about an hour was going to be blinding.  Then, there was also the wind.  The only thing I can figure out about weather people is they have the easiest job in the world because they can say anything; we will believe it and then end up as surprised as they are when it does not happen.  No one holds these people responsible for continually missing their forecasts and instead, we do not go to bed the night before until we have heard their next lie.

     Enough of that.

     Gail Storey,
Cyndie Browning, and I got our CBC assignment and we headed out.  They had the map and I was driving.  They tried to show me the map, but I informed them that men did not need maps.  I heard definite sighs of derision.

     We start down the roads, making our way slowly and carefully, the wind howling against the windshield, counting all the Starlings, Rock Doves, and House Sparrows.  Great start!  Finally, birds begin to appear as we stare into the mounds and mounds of snow in the fields, through the fog that is filling the air, and through the dirty windows of the van from two days of being passed by eighteen-wheelers whose drivers have to be chewing amphetamines as if they were M&M's.

     We persevere.

     Finally, we come to a side road and they suggest I turn down it.  I do so.  There are no tracks, only ice and snow packs that look like camel humps.  "You think I should try it?" I ask hesitantly.  "Yeah," they say in unison.  "Sure," they add.  I'm telling you, friends, Lewis & Clark would not have gone down these roads.  But like Gore before the Supreme Court, the votes were against me.  I plunge along.  One of them yells, "Stop!"  I want to ask them, "would you rather have us sidewise in the road or just go ahead and toss us into the bar ditch and get it over with?"  Thirty harrowing yards later I come to a stop.  "You're too far up," they say.  Gosh, I think, Christmas Bird Counts sure are fun.

     We stop and find a sparrow in some hay that has been spread in a driveway by a naive but optimistic homeowner who believes such an action will help them get in and out.

     The argument begins as I listen.  "Song Sparrow."  "Lincoln's Sparrow."  Ten minutes we sit there as I listen to Gail and Cyndie.  I am amazed and enthralled listening to their argument.  It's not an argument in the usual sense, but I cannot think of another word that is better.  There is absolutely no acrimony attached.  It's two positions held strongly, then less strongly, then with a great deal of leafing through identification books, admonition to look at this or that on the bird, lessening of positivity as to identification by one or the other, more leafing through the books, more definite looks at particular things on the sparrow that I did not even know a sparrow had, and finally, "Yeah, it's a Lincoln's."

     We move on.  "Stop!"  Mario Andretti would have been proud of me.  They jump out of the van and head east.  A fellow is coming out of his house toward the van.  I get out.

     "How you doin'?" he asks.

     "Great," I answer.  Snow is swirling around us, the wind is almost knocking us over, and we are dressed like polar explorers.  I feel like I'm in a scene out of "Fargo."  Behind him in the yard are three Chocolate Labs with strong bird dog lines showing in them and one Border Collie mix that is mixed with an indefinably provided head.  As we talk and he tells me of a Great Horned Owl that is "always" in the trees of the woods just to the east of the house, I watch one of the Labs behind him lift the catch on the gate with his teeth.  The other three dogs escape.  The owner, now seeing the escape, uses excessively strong and most graphic language to bring the canine refugees to a halt.  They skulk back in.  Now, the interesting part here is that the Lab that released them never left the yard.  Either his act was that of infinite charity or malicious mischief.  I know not which, but think on it even now.

     The fellow and I talk on while Gail and Cyndie purvey the fence line and adjacent woods.  Finally back in the van, I tell them of the Great Horned Owl.  "Turn around," they suggest.  Right! I think to myself.  Why don't I make the world safe for democracy first; it would certainly be easier than trying to turn around.  Amazingly, I succeed in doing so.

     No owl.

     We head down another road that has the name of "Whirlpool Drive," which is also "Yale."  No problem, because as I have learned by pure accident, all Tulsa streets have at least two names and sometimes three!  I see white in a tree.  "Look there," I tell them.  They do.  The argument begins.  "Red-tail."  "Red-shouldered."  The same scenario again as with the now well-defined Lincoln's Sparrow, except this time, Gail hauls out her scope on a tripod.  The snow is now coming down like chad in a punch-card ballot machine.  The wind is gusting at about 30 mph and the cold is enough to make an Inuit wince.  The identification books come out, they are leafed through back and forth, more looks through the scope, all the while unbeknownst to them I go and water a tree.  Finally the argument narrows and the lines of attention become more delineated.  "Juvenile Ferruginous Hawk," they declare.

     We climb back into the van, they happy with the discovery and me completely relieved.

     Down the road another bird appears.  "Horned Lark," I declare.  The argument again ensues.  "There's no yellow," Gail declares.  "Look up winter plumage," I offer limply.  The pages fly.  "Nope, the yellow is always there."  We keep looking until Gail says, "I see the yellow!"

     And so it goes.  Up and down we cross the traverse of Winter Wonderland.  By the time we finish, we have garnered thirty hard-fought and hard-won species.  The sun is out but the wind is even stronger and the cold seeps into the van through spots of which Ford is completely ignorant.

     Wearily, we make our way back to rejoin the others, pay our $5.00 for the privilege of the hunt, and add our count to the rest.  Faces are red from the wind.  Hands tightly clasped around hot cups of coffee.  There's a lot of laughter.

     The weather was absolutely miserable.  The company without peer.  But the theater.  My god, the theater.... unmatched!

Ferruginous Hawk by Steve Metz
by Phil Floyd