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Bill Holm - Feather Brained

My Bumbling Quest to Become a Birder
And Find a Rare Bird On My Own

Feather Brained CoverI should have listened to my parents. They had warned me about associating with the wrong sorts of people for fear of what would happen to my priorities in life. Though they had never specifically mentioned birders, I should have had the common sense to steer clear of their influence, too.

Now look what had become of me. On a sunny June morning I had ducked out of work to skulk around a sewage pond.

It was pleasant as sewage ponds go. No foul odors assaulted my nostrils as I skulked. Mallards paddled across water that looked clear enough to sit inside a drinking glass, while a flock of sheep munched on bright green lawns. If you didn’t know any better, you might consider it to be a prime spot for a picnic. But it was a sewage pond. There was no way around the fact. And I had spent an hour searching the sewage pond for birds. So far I had mostly seen sheep.

Like Finding a Dead Sea Scroll

Finding not just any bird but a rare bird of some kind in Michigan had been my Common Ternobsession for about a decade. I’d seen rarities passing through the area, from cattle egrets to greater white-fronted geese, but only because reports from the birders who had discovered them told me exactly where to look. I had yet to find a noteworthy species on my own – a bird that other birders would want to see. Ferreting out a rare bird would indicate that I had finally arrived, achieving bona fide rather than bumbling birder status. It would jolt my sad-sack soul with a surge of happiness like a bibliophile discovering a Dead Sea Scroll at a rummage sale or a fossil hunter finding a whale vertebrate poking out of a backyard boulder.

Like a broken clock that wasn’t even right twice a day because the hands had fallen off, I didn’t have much chance of success. But I loved birds more than anything in the world, with the possible exception of my wife, Linda, and our cats. So even if I failed, there really wasn’t a downside to doing what made me happy, other than the public humiliation of announcing yet another bogus identification to the online birding community and having to tearfully retract it.

As I gradually honed my mediocre skills, I was determined to keep trying to find that rare bird that would change my life in a subtle yet meaningful way.

Bob on Magee Marsh BoardwalkBob at Magee Marsh Boardwalk (photo by Bill Holm)


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"Joyful memoir"
Mark Obmascik
author of

"Laugh out loud hilarious"
Sy Montgomery
author of

Greg Miller
birder from



Published by
University of
Michigan Press