Growing Up a Bird Brain

To my favourite sister, who secretly inspired my love of birds…


On safari in Kenya, Masai Mara National Park

On safari in Kenya, Masai Mara National Park



This is written on the inside cover of my copy of To See Every Bird on Earth by Dan Koeppel, a book that my sister Kiley was thrilled to send me for my birthday. The novel traces Richard Koeppel, Dan’s father, in his quest to see every bird on earth. He became one of 10 people to do so, listing more than 7,000 species documented in over 60 countries.

For Richard, it was a brown thrasher at age 12 that spurned him to learn more and see more. For me, it was a desire to one day see the blue footed booby in the Galapagos Islands. Every project I did in elementary school had some bird-based root and Galapagos link.booby

I grew up in the country, with a binocular-toting grandmother who lived just up the road from me. Her binoculars were ever present on the dining room table along with her National Geographic and Peterson Guide to Birds. She would write down the return of the robin and redwings on the calendar, and note exciting spottings of screech owls and orioles at the feeder. My mother shared the same passion, and when the three of us joined the Brantford Nature Club, it fueled our birding pursuits further. We went to the club slide shows on Botswana, Ellesmere Island and in-depth lectures on attracting bluebirds and what flowers to plant to lure hummingbirds.

I first met naturalist Shelia Smith when I was in grade four, a curious bird-brained student at the Farringdon Enrichment Centre. I had already scrapbooked years of Shelia’s weekly “Countryside” column that appeared in The Brantford Expositor, and was eager to introduce such a celebrity to my classmates. After going to her Botswana slide show, I penned her a long, desperate letter asking if she would “come teach us about birds.” And she did!

She brought mist nets (like large badminton nets tied between trees to capture birds for banding purposes) and talked to us about the importance of bird-banding and migration. Shelia led us on a woodsy walk behind the school, through Gilkinson Flats. Later that year, inspired by my celebrity birder Shelia, I held a Bird-a-Thon at my elementary school, and donated the money raised to the local nature centre (where I would later work throughout my highschool years), and to the McKeever’s Owl Rehabilitation Centre in Vineland, Ontario. The class had fundraised enough money to “adopt an owl,” specifically a tawny owl named Rufous, and we were sent a glossy picture and certificate of Rufous describing his unique traits and quirks.

The highlight of my grade four year was when Shelia asked me to be her Guest Columnist, printing my artwork alongside the column I wrote! In the years that followed she invited me to accompany her on Christmas bird counts in the Waterford, Ontario area. Her birding staples were figgy newtons and hot tea in a thermos while on the trail. At the end of the day we could be found quite satiated at Yin’s Chinese restaurant in downtown Waterford, a ritualistic stop, with doggie bags of pineapple chicken balls and wontons for later. I loved tromping around with Shelia. As I got older, and cooler (instead of wiser), I would hike without a toque (as I suddenly had hair-style concerns) wearing my dad’s size 10 Sorel boots. I was of the age where I was also too cool to put on proper footwear in the winter, but my mother insisted I had to wear boots if I was going to be out bird-watching all day.

During my volunteer work at the Apps’ Mill Nature Centre, I crossed paths with Shelia again. On the Sundays that the centre offered bird-banding demonstrations, we were swamped with curious children and adults alike. Eventually I started leading my own bird-watching hikes and owl prowls, and hunts for the elusive timberdoodle (American woodcock).

Fifteen years later, I have traveled and moved several times since my Apps’ Mill days. With each move, from the banks of the Grand River in Dunnville, to Burlington’s lakeshore, to downtown Toronto and to my current home in the Fraser Valley of British Columbia, my favourite book comes with me. That book is the Roger Tory Peterson guide that Shelia gave me when I was probably eleven. I wanted to be just like her when I grew up, writing my own weekly column talking about birds, banding them and sketching nuthatches and waxwings for a living. I wanted to be an orinthologist for as long as I can remember, and to design my own bird book, just like Peterson.

I strayed a little profession wise, as I now work as a Registered Massage Therapist. I left the condos and pavement of Toronto for the west coast in 2006, and you can imagine my excitement as I discovered pileated woodpeckers and Steller’s jays in my own backyard. I’ve seen barred and great-horned owls on hikes, and am surrounded by the gentle whispers of cedar waxwings.

My love of birds is always with me, and grows stronger with time. I can’t wait to visit Brackendale (near Whistler) to witness the migration of bald eagles. And I did see my beloved blue footed boobies last September when I spent a week in the Galapagos. I watched frigate birds trail the panga boat around Gordon’s Rock, saw Darwin’s finches hopping about, and observed nocturnal noddy gulls with beaks that glow in the dark to attract aquatic prey.

I’ve seen indigo buntings, snowy owls, and fell in love with a pair of green-backed herons who lived on the Grand during my years spent in Dunnville. I am eager to see a Harlequin duck, and two trips to Costa Rica have yet to produce the resplendent quetzel!

It’s wonderful to hear that I have secretly inspired my sister, and her new-found love of birds. Kiley will admit she spent a lot of time hating nature growing up, and anything nature-like (aquariums, conservation areas and especially marsh boardwalks). Her tear-stained face would only light up with the mention of a souvenir shop or an ice cream cone.

Kiley now has binoculars and bird guides of her own.

Kiley in Grotto Canyon, Alberta

Kiley in Grotto Canyon, Alberta

Categories: On My Bookshelf, Things with Fur and Feathers | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

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