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Bob Tarte - Feather Brained

Bill Holm - Feather Brained

The Birth of a Bumbling Birder

Bob Tarte at Tawas PointBumbling birder Bob Tarte at Tawas Point State Park (photo by Bill Holm)

I came to my love of birds late in life. I hadn’t been nurtured to care about nature while growing up. I was born in the 1950s in the post−World War II era of technological hubris. Scientists hoped to control the weather by covering whole cities with huge inverted glass bowls and envisioned replacing snowplows with nuclear powered zappers. Although my dad never thirsted after climate manipulation, he followed the prevailing winds of the day by choosing urban leisure activities over countryside diversions.Lesser Yellowlegs

I don’t recall my parents ever taking my sisters and me to anything resembling a woods, except for the occasional picnic—and on those occasions the hiking occurred strictly between picnic table and parking lot.

The Birding Bug Bites

The birding bug bit me in the 1980s when I first visited wife-to-be Linda’s rustic cabin. As I bent over her inoperative kitchen faucet pondering the mysteries of half-completed plumbing, I glanced through her window and spotted the songbird at her feeder that changed everything.

Hogging the perch and grazing leisurely like a contented cow sat a graphic artist’s conception of a bird. He had a jet-black head and back, white underparts, and a cream-colored bill. Tucked underneath his head was his most distinguishing feature: a fire engine−red triangular bib. This vivid addition to a crisp black-and-white body shocked me like a bolt of color in a grainy old silent movie. Imagine watching The Gold Rush and suddenly seeing Charlie Chaplin waddle into his cabin wearing a scarlet cravat.

I got wowed all over again when it flew off. A white patch near the end of each black wing appeared, giving its flight a flickering, transformative quality—turning the lazy sunflower-seed muncher into a mechanical whirligig rowing the air with flashing oars.

“What was that?” I asked.

“A Rose-breasted Grosbeak,” Linda said. “He comes to the feeder all the time. His girlfriend is streaky brown and white, and she’s just as pretty in her own way.”

I doubted that. I doubted if another bird could equal him.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was the beginning of the mysterious hold that birds would have upon my life—a hold that I’ve never been able to figure out. But isn’t love always like that?

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Rose-breasted Grosbeak showing off his scarlet cravat in Bob's yard.

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