Cal Sport Media/AP
A male red-bellied woodpecker – one of its field marks is its red head – perches on a tree in Kenansville, Florida. Seen from the front, the woodpecker has a very pale red belly.

A listless life

I’m not going to be sure I’ve seen a “life list” bird until it’s 10 feet away and looks like a Victorian lady’s hat. But I’m OK with that.

I understand why people collect things. Collectors have fun everywhere they go. They’ll pop into junk stores looking for salt cellars, or old toys, or movie posters. Their houses are cluttered with porcelain pigs, or frogs, or owls. Some people have gun collections, which sounds a lot nicer than “arsenal.” Sometimes people give you stuff they’re sure you’re collecting, which is why I have a number of lizards that they thought were salamanders. All my friends know I like salamanders, but salamanders are not lizards, and anyway, I don’t collect them.

I don’t collect anything. Clutter can weigh down the heart. If I could collect something, it would be bird species I’ve seen. Birders call that a “life list.” That’s a collection that has the advantage of fitting into a small notebook. Or, in my case, a sticky note.

The fact is, I don’t have what it takes. You’re supposed to look for the bird’s field marks – that might be its wing bars or eye rings, its bling, its sass – whatever makes it special. I can’t remember the field marks of a bird for as long as it takes to put down the binoculars and look in the field guide. Later I can’t remember having seen the bird at all.

This sounds bad, but it’s not a sign of deterioration. I’ve always been this way. I don’t recognize my neighbors if they’re not standing under their house numbers. I’ve played piano for 60 years and have no repertoire. I look up “oligarch” at least once a week.

The other day I got my new debit card in the mail and had the opportunity to change the default PIN to one I’d be more likely to remember, so I did. Next time I used the card, I punched in the old number, then my address, my birthday, and my anniversary, and the machine ate my card. It wouldn’t give it back until I described its field marks. 

So when I’m out with real birders, sometimes they’ll point out some marvelous feathered friend, and I get all excited, and they say, “Is that a life bird for you?”

How should I know? I’m outclassed. These are people who can tell a greater yellowlegs from a lesser yellowlegs even when there’s only one of them. We have a dozen gull species on the left coast and as far as I can tell they’re peas in a pod. I’m not going to be sure I’ve seen a life bird until it’s 10 feet away and looks like a Victorian lady’s hat.

That’s why I was so tickled recently when I saw a life bird all by myself, and knew it. I didn’t know what it was; I had to look it up. But I was sure I’d never seen it before. It was a woodpecker. But not a hairy, or a downy, or a pileated, or a red-bellied (named for its red head, just to mess with you), or a black-backed, or an acorn. Those I’ve seen. This one was different. I was crowing, as it were, about my life bird later.

“What was it?” my friends asked.

Well, crumb. They had to ask. I’d just looked it up the day before, and now I couldn’t remember what it was called. I knew it was a woodpecker. I knew it had a white head.

So I looked it up again.

It was a white-headed woodpecker. And possibly an oligarch.

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