Naming Birds

DianaSaverin_magnamingbirds-24
Photo by Diana Saverin.

Arne Rosengren sometimes forgets a human name, but he rarely forgets a bird name. Before he learns my name, or I learn his, I watch him watch birds. He leans back, hangs his jaw open, and holds his binoculars to his glasses with age-spotted hands. Lowering his lenses, he places his hands at the small of his back, occasionally reaching into his pocket to retrieve the handkerchief he swipes across his nose. He narrates the sky. Early autumn near the shore he sees, and shows me how to see, a bald eagle, a few sharp-shinned hawks, a cast of Cooper’s hawks. He tells me that before I arrived at 10 a.m., he saw 150 birds. He says it is a quiet morning at Lighthouse Point Park.

I am not a birder. I have no field guide, no binoculars, and no idea what to call the black squiggles overhead. Arne (pronounced Ar-nee) introduces them to me, one speck at a time. He tells me that after seeing a few hundred thousand hawks, you can recognize them from far away by their silhouettes and the shape of their wings.

Between species, he tells me stories about his service in the navy during World War II (he was at the epicenter of Leyte Gulf, the world’s largest sea battle), his love life from around the same era (he danced with a girl, Yolanda Betbeze, before she became the 1951 Miss America), and his hawk-watching counts in the ’70s and ’80s (he saw more bald eagles, peregrine falcons, and osprey before DDT poisoned the fish they snacked on and thinned their eggshells).

Arne writes the tallies and names the species he sees or hears in a small notebook he keeps in a pocket of his chunky coat. He wants to donate the 57 field notebooks he has filled over the past few decades to the New Haven Bird Club when, as he puts it, he “kicks the bucket.” He is ninety-and-a-half years old.

Arne blinks his milky grey-blue eyes behind his wide bifocal glasses. He scans my face. Before I leave, he pulls out his 57th field notebook and writes my full name beneath “Oct, 7th, Lighthouse Point.” His memory, he explains, is fading.

***

Certain details stick out in Arne’s looping narrative of the past, like the cadence of a wren’s song (loud and bubbly), or the date of the article that brought him back to birds (May 1967).

Though he has lived in Whitneyville, a neighborhood in Hamden, since he was four, he spent summers as a kid in a lakeside cottage in East Hampton, Conn. He slept in a hammock on the porch below the nests of house wrens that had settled into the eaves. At 5:30 a.m. on June mornings, the wrens started to sing. Just outside the cottage, catbirds nested and laid eggs in laurel bushes. Arne listened to their squeaks and whistles.

Arne’s father tried to convince him to pick up fishing like the other men of the family, but Arne preferred paths to boats, wings to fins, and observation to harvest. Unlike the fish he caught, birds were colorful. They sang. They flew. They were around 52 weeks of the year, and every day they were different.

Decades later, when he was 49 years old, Arne walked to the East Hampton drugstore and flipped through the pages of The New Yorker. When he saw an article about birds in the table of contents, he bought the issue. Reading Peter Matthiessen’s descriptions in The Wind Birds of plovers and sand pipers — flying from northern Canada to southern Argentina, just to lay a few eggs — triggered memories about the catbirds and house wrens he’d treasured as a child.

He went to Macy’s, bought a pair of binoculars on sale for $19.99, and turned his eyes back to the sky.
Arne was working as a treasurer at the Shubert Theater in New Haven at the time. Six evenings a week, he counted how many crowd members were seated in the theater’s red velvet seats. This left his mornings open to counting birds. Many of these mornings he spent alone. While other birders arrived at offices and desks, Arne watched hawks from the parking lot at Lighthouse Point, a pair of binoculars in one hand, and a clicker in the other to keep tallies of the streams of sharp-shinned hawks overhead.

To date, Arne has identified 373 species of birds in Connecticut. 431 species, total, have been recorded in the state.
“I don’t have the unbridled enthusiasm I did when I started,” he says in the car on our way to the shore one Saturday. “When you’re really into birding, you’ll do anything to see a new species. I like the common, ordinary birds more now. Starlings, crows, blue jays, ring-billed gulls, herring gulls. I used to shrug them off. I used to say, that’s just a junk bird, as we call them. But we’re all God’s creatures — the common birds and me. We’re all here temporarily on Earth.”

After several birding Saturdays with Arne, I start to see the common birds, too: the finches on the sidewalk, the robins in my backyard, the crows by the telephone pole. They are easy to identify, unlike the dozens of shorebird species, which are impossibly similar to each other. I don’t need to spend afternoons hunched over the Sibley field guide I checked out from the library, flipping through the illustrations, searching for a clue in the curves of a wing, the speckles on a neck, the width of a tail. Names of common birds stay familiar, like the names of old friends.

***

In the Aeneid, the name of the lake at the entrance to the underworld is “Avernus,” which translates to “a world without birds.” In the Book of Job in the Old Testament, “the birds of the heavens” are cited as evidence of God’s existence. In ancient Egypt, the ibis, a white bird with black wingtips and a long beak, was considered so sacred that it was reared for sacrifice; in the burial place in Hermopolis, archaeologists found one-and-a-half million-mummified ibises.

Worship in a world with birds now involves binoculars and field guides. America’s first field guide, Birds through an Opera Glass, was published in 1888, reaching a generation of Industrial Revolution urbanites eager for a reason to return to the woods. Over a century later, in 2006, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published a study showing that one fifth of Americans were birders. Eight percent of these birders could identify more than 41 species, and 5 percent kept lists.

Arne is in that 5 percent. He has taken the vague fondness others feel toward birds, and based his life upon seeing, hearing, and naming them. For Arne, birding is one of three consistent elements of his existence, in addition to swimming four times a week (one mile of laps at six in the morning) and listening to opera once a week in the winter (the Metropolitan Opera’s Saturday matinee broadcast). Naming and listing birds makes every year count: January 1 means starting anew with a fresh “year list.”

Arne says most birders don’t bother with year lists or state lists or life lists; it’s just the ones he calls “nutty,” members of what another New Haven birder calls an obsessive “tribe.” Like other members of this local elite, Arne sometimes leaves his Peterson field guide in the backseat of his car. He can recite much of its content, such as the description of the short-billed dowitcher’s bill moving up and down like the needle of a sewing machine. He brings his field notebook of names, instead.

One Saturday in Madison, Conn., next to a marsh punctuated by osprey nests, we meet a man sinking his knees into the ground, looking for grasshoppers. The man recognizes Arne from the New Haven Bird Club. He says they have known each other for years. Arne doesn’t recognize him. Arne starts stuttering fragments about why he and I are birding and how we met.

Later, as we walk side-by-side through a trail lined with sassafras and pines, Arne shakes his head. He realizes who the man is (and recalls his name, too: Himmelman, which Arne tells me means “heavenly man”).
“It’s very strange with memory,” Arne says. “Alzheimer’s. I don’t know if many of my friends have it, but they can’t remember things. My memory is good with most things. But common names, like a high school, or John Himmelman, I just can’t think of.”

Arne sometimes stammers when conversations drift away from the sky, but he seems to remember every detail, fact, and name of the birds we see. Even when hawks fly thousands of miles south for winter, and fewer and fewer members of his birding tribe accompany him through the woods near Lighthouse Point, there is no day of the year when Arne’s New Haven is a world without birds.

***

At Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History in late October, Arne tells three people in the elevator that we are on our way to see dead birds stuffed in cages. The three people nod. We get out on the top floor.
There are 722 skinned, stuffed, and mounted specimens in the Birds of Connecticut exhibit. Arne takes me through the room bird-by-bird, name-by-name, complaining when he encounters a name that has changed. They used to call a deep diving duck with black-and-white feathers an “oldsquaw,” he tells me, but they changed it to “long-tailed duck” in 2000 due to concerns that the term “squaw” was offensive.

“I like oldsquaw better,” Arne says. “Only males have long tails.”

As he strolls past the cases, he sings in a clear, trembling baritone, giving voice to the long-dead specimens: the “hoo-h’HOO—hoo-hoo” of the great horned owl, the “blo blo blo” of the piping plover, the “chuck willow will willow” of the willet.

“If we do every bird, we’ll be here ’til midnight!” he says.

We walk next door to a building where scientists have preserved more of the dead. 124,000 birds lie on cotton paper inside steel cabinets. Unlike the taxidermied birds on display, these study skins are not mounted to look alive. They rest, dead and deflated with pinned wings and cotton eyes, inside coffin-like drawers.

Arne talks with Kristof Zyskowski, Yale’s ornithology and mammalogy collections manager, in his office. He tells Zyskowski that he taught David Sibley how to count hawks at Lighthouse Point Park when Sibley was a kid.

“You’re kidding,” Zyskowski says. A New York Times article described Sibley, of The Sibley Guide to Birds, as having changed the way people look at the world. Zyskowski asks how many birds are on Arne’s Connecticut list.

“373,” Arne says.

“Oh, my, God,” Zyskowski says. He covers his mouth with one hand and whispers to me, “That’s amazing.”

Arne tells us a story about New Haven birder Davis Finch, who, in 1969, saw a spotted redshank, a rare red-legged shorebird with a round gray body and skinny red beak. Finch ran to a pay phone and called a friend with a gun. The spotted redshank did not survive the encounter. Zyskowski spins in the chair to search his database for the exact specimen, which now lies flat in one of the collection’s 5,000 drawers. Finch’s red shank, the computer confirms, was shot near Long Wharf in November of that year.

We walk to the long white room to find the red shank. The chilly air hits us; the room’s temperature stays 60 degrees to protect the skins from being infested by moths or beetles. Zyskowski pulls a drawer open. A musty smell drifts up. About twenty birds lie with puffed-up chests and small legs crossed and tied together. Zyskowski scoops Finch’s red shank, now stiff, into his palm. He hands me the small bird. The feathers brush against my skin. They are softer than I imagined. The bumpy wing bones feel like Braille.

Zyskowski scribbles Finch’s name onto the previously incomplete label dangling from the bird’s foot.

We pace among cabinets before opening a drawer labeled “extinct birds.” The musty smell returns. One side has an array of passenger pigeons, birds some estimate to have had a population of over 3 billion in North America before Europeans arrived. They were declared extinct in 1914. The 22 pigeons have creamy chests and light brown wings folded against their sides.

“I just don’t understand how they could all be wiped out,” Arne says, his eyebrows pressing toward his eyes, his voice full of breath.

“Do you know that one?” Zyskowski asks, pointing to a small bird body with white and black patterned wings and a blaze of red along its cap and crest.

“Oh yes, that’s an ivory-billed woodpecker,” Arne says.

The woodpecker was declared extinct in 1994.

“I regret not becoming a birder until I was middle-aged,” Arne says. “I could have seen that one.”

***

Arne gets defensive when I ask why he cares so much about learning and listing the names of birds, slicing the tree of life thinner and thinner into hundreds of skinny, taxonomic sticks. Many species look the same to me, and I don’t understand why learning each of their names helps him appreciate them.

“What’s the point of learning anything?” he asks in return. “Why do people become scientists or poets?”

He says we are always identifying and classifying our surroundings; the fact that birds have both common names — like his favorite, the piping plover — and Latin names — like Charadrius melodus — does not make them any different. He says we categorize our fellow humans, too, looking at people and saying, that’s a tall person, or that’s a young girl, or that’s an old man. Some bird names, Arne says, are appreciable in themselves: the name Charadriidae, for the family that includes the plover, comes from the mythical medieval bird charadrius, who could tell a sick man whether he would live or die.

Like many amateur birders, Arne is not a biologist. “In terms of living creatures,” he says, “it’s all about birds.” He does not know the name of the tree whose wiry branch the red-tailed hawk wraps its toes around, or the species of sunflower above whose drooping stem the Carolina wren flutters and trills. Binoculars zoom in on beady eyes, underbelly plumage, and a pointy beak, providing a circular frame that crops out the rest of the world.

The skinny-stick specificity of speciation and familiarity with the names of hundreds of species allows Arne to link together the fraying roots of his past. For Arne, that sharp-shinned hawk soaring above the trees is a reminder of a man who came down from Boston and called it “shaaaaw-pee.” Those Canada Geese way out on the horizon — the faint line of dots, you can barely see them — are a reminder of Margie Pitcher, who studied at Quinnipiac University and spent mornings with Arne in the mid-70s learning how to see faraway flocks. That broad-winged hawk picking up two swallows below the telephone line is a reminder of Neil Currie, who spotted them in the ’60s from the stands of the Yale Bowl when he turned his binoculars from the football field to the sky.

Arne likes talking about his own name, too: genus, Rosengren, species, Orvar Arne. The name Orvar comes from a Viking legend of the war hero Örvar-Oddr. In his saga, a shamanic seeress tells Örvar that he will die when he is 300 years old. He tries to escape death, but eventually, a snake bites him and he dies.

Arne talks about other figures who lived into old age, too, like Methuselah of the Old Testament. He sometimes sings, “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” a song from the opera Porgy and Bess, “Methus’lah lived nine hundred years, / But who calls dat livin’ / when no gal will give in / to no man, what’s nine hundred years?” Both mythic characters eventually pass, but their names and stories remain.

***

In late October, Arne and I drive to a park in Madison, Conn. The branches are half-bare; the leaves that remain are red and orange. Arne taught an adult birding course at Amity High School for 20 years, and has been taking people who took the course birding every few Saturdays since. Today, four of them arrive with binoculars hanging from their necks as they step out of their cars.

“Hear that?” Arne asks, as we follow a dirt road into a field. I hear nothing. ”That’s the ‘cheep’ of an English sparrow.

They call it a house sparrow, but I call it an English sparrow.” Arne blames the English for bringing these sparrows to America, along with other introduced species like starlings that were released into Central Park so that New York would have all of the species of animals that appeared in Shakespeare’s plays.

Arne tells the group that we are looking for anything that flies. One member of the group says he sees a helicopter. We walk through the field, pointing our binoculars into trees and through the brush of yellowing strips of old crops.
“Hear that?” Arne asks again. “That ‘tweedle, tweedle, tweedle’? That’s a Carolina wren.”

The five of us nod. Arne plays field guide for the group: he differentiates between the song of the red-winged blackbird and that of the chickadee; he points into the reeds where a great egret bends its long neck; he spots amid the red-brown autumn world the fluttering feathers of a gold finch.

After over two decades, birds remain the group’s focus. They have awkward, jolting conversations during post-birding lunches, asking each other, “How many kids do you have, again?” and “Where do you work?”

We drive from the field toward the beach. We step through dark sand at Meg’s Point, the sea sloshing onto the shore and the green dunes swishing behind us. Arne holds his binoculars against his glasses, following the flight of a black “v” skimming the surface of the water. He says there is a double-crested cormorant in the distance, but nobody else sees it. We scan the shoreline before turning back to the parking lot, stopping to let a man and a woman jog in front of us.

“Now that’s compatibility!” Arne says, as the two runners and their brightly colored t-shirts dissolve onto a trail.

Later, when Arne and I get into the car to drive to another spot along the shore, we close the car doors and I ask if Arne ever married. He laughs.

“Oh me?” he says, as if I might have been talking to some other person who happened to appear in the backseat.

“No, no. I had some narrow escapes, some I liked who didn’t like me, and vice versa.”

He turns on the ignition. He says that when he was 23, he met a 17-year-old girl in Mobile, Alabama. She cried when he left. I ask if he is lonely.

“Oh yes,” he says. “I am lonely. I live alone. I have lots of quote-unquote friends, people I bird with, but it’s all pretty casual. I have two good friends, the Millers and John Maynard. Everyone else is gone.”

I watch him drive slowly through the bog-lined road, his wisps of white hair combed so that one drooping tuft falls onto his forehead, his nose bent downward, his neck tucked into his ribbed wool collar.

“If I didn’t have birding, I’d be really lonely,” he says. “Subconsciously I wanted to outlive everyone, but I’ve changed my mind about that. It’s not that great. All the people you’re close to are gone.”

He points to a ring gull, then some Canada geese, in a patch of grass to the right of the road.

“I go swimming, I go to the opera, I keep birding,” he says. “We’re just a speck, though. Planet Earth is what? Three, four billion years old. And the universe is how many? We’re just a dot.”

He parks the car next to a marsh where a great egret bends its long, white neck. We stay inside and watch.

***

By November, most leaves have coated the ground with a soggy mix of orange and brown and the branches have become sinewy silhouettes against the white sky. Arne adds me to his lists of hobbies: the pool, the opera, the birds, and “you.”

One Saturday morning, he drives me to a dead-end road. Ahead there is a fence. We squeeze between wires and hold our binoculars to our faces, looking toward the pond across the train tracks, following the flight of a great blue heron (a bird he calls clumsy because of its slow, bulky wing beats). The stripes of the surrounding reeds absorb its navy wings. We lower our lenses.

Back in the car, Arne hands me a piece of folded yellow paper. It is a checklist of birds in New Haven County. I take out a pen and scan the names, recalling my first red-winged blackbird at Lighthouse Point, the laughing gulls that Arne stepped along a thin wooden board while clutching surrounding brush to see pecking at the sand in East Shore Park, the cormorants hanging their wings out to dry on a barnacle-coated rock at Hammonasset beach. I write an “x” next to 21 species.

At Lighthouse Point, Arne urges me to look through the binoculars I stole from my dad.

“There’s a flicker!” he says. “It’s a woodpecker. Did you see it?”

I watch a speck lift on a shaft of wind with outstretched wings and land on a telephone line. I hold up my binoculars and see black and tan checkered wings flapping into stillness. There is a tuft of red above its eyes. I pause, watching it sit perched on the wire, its small head jerking.

“Have you ever seen one before?” he asks, as I look at the dot on the line without binoculars. I shake my head.

“Life bird!” he says.

The bare branches swing in the woods. It is windy and cold. My knuckles stiffen. Arne worries, so we walk back to his silver station wagon and drive away from the sea.

The week before, Hurricane Sandy had swept through New Haven. I stood on the second floor porch of my house, watching a thick trunk on the horizon bend and sway. Its branches twisted and its leaves shook as the wind hissed. I asked my seven roommates where they thought the birds had gone.

I called Arne the next day. He had no power, and said he was sitting alone in his apartment next to a candle and a radio. He told me that the birds knew what to do and where to go.  He told me that, like names or field notebooks, the birds found a way to stay. He said that they knew how to survive.

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