A spouse’s guide to living with a birdwatcher

I used to be able to dismiss birdwatching as better left to birds. But my life and my wife have changed. The transformation for her was as easy as joining the Spokane Audubon Society and taking one of the club’s bird-watching classes. It hasn’t been that simple for me.

Her class continued for several evenings plus a field trip to Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge.

She’d return home describing her instructors in terms reserved for heads of state or religious figures. Her gurus were Gary Blevins, a Spokane Community College biology professor, and Kim Thorburn, a medical doctor and former Spokane Regional Health District officer.

“Dr. Thorburn knows everything about birds and their habitat,” my wife said. “And she can tell the species by their chirps without even seeing the bird!”

Was I supposed to be impressed?

“I can do that,” I said, noting that a mossy-winged nuthatch sings outside our bedroom window some mornings.

“Never heard of a mossy-winged anything. Show it to me.”

“Probably won’t see it,” I said, trying to gently lower her expectations. “It has camouflaged plumage, hence the name “mossy-winged.”

“When Kim Thorburn hears the song of a bird, she names the species, unseen, and we always find that bird after a brief search of the area. Your birds never seem to show themselves.”

“Yes, camouflaged birds are hard to spot.”

My wife ended this potentially educational spousal conversation with her own cruel observation that I could not spot a raven sitting on my shoulder.

Realizing she’d become closed-minded on the subject of birds, I pretty much avoid the topic with her. However, privately I admit she’s piqued my interest in our feathered friends. That’s a step up from my previous fowl interests, which were limited to unfeathered birds, on my plate, with a side of mashed potatoes.

Knowing there are spouses out there who can benefit from my insight and experience, here are five tips for anyone whose significant other takes a fancy to birdwatching.

1 Pick one bird species and research it in detail. With quiet confidence, inject birding facts into conversations with your spouse and his/her birding know-it-all cohorts.

I read everything that I could find about the red crossbill and then dropped little smart bombs, like “the red crossbill is a member of the finch family.” Getting nods of approval, I’d add, “I believe the Finch Arboretum was named for a member of the red cross-bill family.”

Smile and stroke your chin with your fingers at this point while they pick up the conversation. You can’t lose.

2 Don’t throw rocks when dutifully joining your loved one on a birdwatching hike. Birdwatchers are a bit intolerant. I was just trying to stir up some action, flush out the birds in hiding, add to her life list. Sheesh. You’d have thought the Clanton boys had squared off with the Earp brothers at the OK Corral. Apparently, only birds doing their natural motions are worth observing.

(Note: Some nuances of birdwatching will never be fully understood. What is more natural than avoiding an incoming rock?)

3 Buy another computer. Birdwatchers are known to take over the family PC. When they’re not combing the Net for bird sounds and species distribution maps, they’ll be signed on and monitoring certain bird-brained sites, such as hancockwildlife.org with its streaming video from cameras high up in trees focused on nests so humans all over the world can spy on the very private lives of baby bald eagles. Your house will echo with the screeches of hungry baby eagles. Anything that you may want to do with your home computer is trivial compared to watching the mother eagle and her babies.

If you should be working on the roof of your house, fall off and break a leg, use the telephone book in order to find the nearest medical treatment facility because MapQuest will not be available until after the baby eagles have eaten all their scraps of dead fish.

4 Find a new place to store vehicle registration, manufacturers maintenance manual, proof of insurance and highway maps. They’ll no longer fit in the car’s glove box, which has become the home of binoculars and the latest bird identification guides. Sooner or later you’ll get nailed for speeding to the rare species sighting that was bulletined on the local birding Web site. You can only pray that the cop who pulls you over is married to a birdwatcher.

5 Seagulls are not seagulls. Birdwatchers are nitpicky and they revel in pointing out that the big white birds we see around Spokane parks and lakes are properly called gulls. Just gulls, not “sea” gulls. Often smugly, they like to point out that there is no inland sea to make them such.

Yes, the booby has no cleavage and California quail are running rampant in our Spokane neighborhoods, but birdwatchers cannot be bothered with such logic. They will categorically demean anyone who calls a gull a seagull.

What birdwatchers really need is an infusion of objective insight of non-birdwatchers. Here’s a start.

Birdwatchers are always out in refuges and natural areas. So how would they know that the largest local gull sanctuary is the parking lot of Dick’s Drive-in, where they feed on fish, chips and burger buns dropped by careless diners until they build up the strength to return to a local landfill?

I vote to name them for what they are: dicky birds. At least everyone would know what we’re talking about.

Outdoors editor Rich Landers contributed to this story.

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