What I Don’t Know

I have a confession.

Working as a Park Ranger for 17 years, most people assume certain things about me.

They think I know stuff.  In fact, most visitors consider Park Rangers an expert on all things living — plants, trees, flowers, wildlife.  Especially wildlife.

“How big does a black bear get?”

“Why do elk bugle?”

“Can moose swim?”

“Did you hear that bird call?  Which bird is it?”

Identifying Birds

Uh oh.  Now I’m in trouble.  Despite all my years learning about wildlife, I never learned much about birds.  I’m not sure why.  Maybe they just didn’t interest me as much, and so I didn’t make it a priority to learn about them.

Sure, I learned the most common ones people would see and ask about.

“What’s the bird with the white breast and iridescent blue and black colors?”

Black-billed magpie.  And the showy ones — the Western Tanager, the Great Horned Owl.  But after that, I felt pretty lost.

I didn’t bother to hide my ignorance.  I used the three words every Park Ranger knows very well — “I don’t know.”

“You know, I’m don’t know.  I have to confess I’m not a bird expert.  Let me see if we can figure it out through this field guide.”

I had ample opportunities to learn more.  My fellow park ranger, Ryan, was a bird afficionado.  His fantasy was having his own personal Big Year.  If you’ve seen the movie, you know what a Big Year is — traipsing all over the country, counting the number of birds you’ve seen.

Ryan begged to lead the Bird Walk ranger program.  I could have gone along with him and probably learned a lot.  But that 6 a.m. start time made me cringe.  I had over an hour-long commute, which meant getting up around 4 a.m. or so.  Ugh.

At this point, you might be thinking I’m just not that interested in birds.  But the truth is some of my “magic” moments I’ve experienced in nature have been bird spottings.  I’m as amazed as anyone upon seeing a rare bird.

One time, my husband and I were walking in our neighborhood and spotted a burned out snag.  For some odd reason, he knocked on the snag, and out popped a little owl’s head.  Fortunately, I remembered the bird and realized it was a small flammulated owl.  To this day, it’s a moment that’s etched in my head, seeing his tiny, distinct face and wide eyes.

Christmas Bird Count

If you like me aren’t particularly educated about birds, you might want to consider a new winter activity.  Or at least examining the results of it.  Each year around this time, Christmas Bird Counts are held across the country, including along the Front Range of Colorado.  Today, New Year’s Day, the Denver Urban Area held theirs.

The Christmas Bird Count has an interesting  history.  In the 1800s, the holidays brought out many hunters to kill birds for holiday dinners.  Around 1900, the conservation movement started to pick up steam, and Frank Chapman, an ornithologist with the Audubon Society, proposed a new holiday tradition.  They would count birds rather than hunt them.

Today, Christmas Bird Counts take place from December 14 to January 5.  Anyone can participate – many chapters allow online registration.  If you’ve missed your local bird count, you might want to check out the results to learn more about birds in your area.  Audubon learns more about the health of birds and how environment is affecting them, like climate change.  This in turn leads to decisions about conservation actions to take for the future.

By getting out in winter to check out the birds, you might experience your own magic moment.  My friend, Ryan, saw a Snowy Owl one day.  What’s could be more cool than that?