Birds and memory

The first white-crowned sparrow I saw for example, at least the first I recognized, was in an American elm tree in the neighbor’s front yard. It landed on a branch outside the screen of our upstairs porch, eye level to me sitting on the porch. The first white-throated sparrow I saw was in a woods along the river where I frequently walked. It was on the ground, fluttering along, moving from beneath one bush to another and I followed it for some time before I saw it clearly. The first Harris’s sparrow, then Harris’ sparrow though nearly everybody said Harris’s, was on the ground in the backyard of the house across the street from my home.

I lived in a small town in northwest Iowa, too far north for cardinals. At least that’s what the bird books Mother and Dad gave me showed on their range maps. But one summer a male cardinal appeared in town, not only in town but just one block from my home. It was a male and it whistled throughout the day for weeks, trying to attract a mate when there were no other cardinals, no mate for him, in town. Its picture and a story were printed on the front page of the town newspaper.

The first ducks I saw, other than tame white ones and domestic mallards and a few wild mallards, were a pair of blue-winged teal. They were on a muddy shored puddle by the river, a puddle left when the river subsided after its annual spring flood. It was along that river, which ran through town just a block from where I lived, that I also saw the first great blue heron I ever saw, the first American bittern and the first sora. I can remember the first time I saw many birds so why do I forget many other things?

The first yellow-bellied sapsucker I ever saw landed on the trunk of a tree at the corner of our garage. The first rose-breasted grosbeak landed among the potato plants in a neighbor’s garden. The first indigo bunting was near the top of a tree at the edge of a clearing near the river.

Crows led me to my first great horned owl. Again, I was walking along the river and heard the crows screaming as I’d heard them do when harassing a perched red-tailed hawk. Moving away from the river, then working my way over a couple of hills and toward the noise, I got where I could see the crows circling, diving toward something behind another hill. I crawled to the top of that hill and looked over expecting to see a hawk. Instead there was the biggest owl I had ever seen, perched on a big lower limb of a tree, turning its head one way then the other, big yellow eyes wide open.

Those are birds I remember from early years, years when I was a boy in grade school and some even before. I could go on listing birds seen and when and where. Big birds, little birds. The first bald eagle, the first marsh wren, the first white pelican. Being able to remember birds like that, why have I occasionally forgotten my wedding anniversary?

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