Flight Lines: Picking favorites not an easy task
Upon discovering that I spend considerable time looking at birds, people I meet inevitably get around to asking the question: What is your favorite bird? After doing this for 35 years one would suppose I had a ready answer for this recurring query. The truth is I don’t.
It’s akin to asking a grandmother who her favorite grandchild is I suppose. Each one is her favorite and choosing one over the rest is difficult at best. It is quite similar with me and birds. There is simply no way to answer the question without considerable nuanced thought.
To arrive at a definitive answer let’s start by defining a boundary or two. First, let’s discount the thousands of wonderful species found in the world’s tropical regions and elsewhere and concentrate on what we have here in this country. That will narrow the scope by a factor of 10 and provide a reasonable level of familiarity.Second, by “favorite” I assume the asker is referring to characteristics making a particular species attractive in some fashion and not, for instance, favorite to eat, or favorite to hunt, or favorite to keep as a pet, etc.With the ground rules established I’ll start the process by saying that, as a lifelong aviator, I am partial to those species that stand out for their flying skills in some way, either by speed, acrobatic flight, or simply graceful soaring ability. This factor alone pretty much eliminates most passerines (perching birds), upland game birds, and others.Another factor weighing into the equation must be the bird’s inherent beauty. If it’s to be my favorite, after all, it’s got to be pleasant to look at. Its body shape and feather coloring should stand out from its brethren and evoke oohs and aahs with its appearance alone.In addition—and this is where I depart from most other bird watchers—my favorite bird must be a predator. I can’t fully recall or even explain how I came to admire the swashbuckling skills of hunting birds. I just do. There is something so exciting, so dashing, so admirable about an eagle, hawk, or falcon in pursuit of prey that it nearly takes my breath away.Finally, I believe there ought to be a degree of scarcity to my favorite bird. It should be one that isn’t seen every time you step out the door. As lovely and graceful as a red-tailed hawk can be, it fails to meet the scarcity clause since the bird is so prevalent. My favorite must be uncommon enough (at least locally) to be nearly mythical. Hey, it’s my list.According to my count we were left with roughly 33 diurnal raptors—the eagles, vultures, hawks, kites, and falcons—until I threw the element of rarity into the equation. With that factored in we are down to about 10 birds and it’s strictly a beauty contest. And the winner is…I remember well the first time I saw a Swallow-tailed Kite (Elanoides forficatus). It was early September, 1991 just west of Dennard, Ark. I was in the midst of several weeks of training at Little Rock Air Force Base when I learned of it frequenting a small ranch property a two-hour drive away. I called the ranch owner’s number and was invited to their place to chance seeing this bird.Disappointingly I missed the kite that day but the couple invited me to spend the night and give it a try the next morning. I did. After a fine night’s sleep and some breakfast I stepped out the front door. There in the dazzling morning light soared the finest piece of bird flesh I had ever seen, an adult Swallow-tailed Kite. It was a black-and-white beauty with pointed, falcon-like wings and a tail that forks like no other, a dazzling creature beyond compare.In the years since I’ve witnessed several more kites, mostly in Florida, never does the sight of one fail to make my heart race. One was found as close as Mitchell, S.D., seven years ago which thrilled many local observers for days.Each species is unique in some way and deserves our notice. Most that watch them have their favorites. Maybe it’s black-capped chickadee, or scarlet tanager, or rose-breasted grosbeak, or whatever. For me, it’s a striking faraway raptor with a distinctly forked tail and an ability to fly and maneuver like few others.