Flight Lines: Rest easy birders, the future is bright
"Hey, Keith. Hey, Keith," the voice on the other side of the fence shouted. "Guess what we saw today? A green heron," said Clay Schultze, excitedly answering his own question while popping his ballcap-covered head over the top of the fence. He had just returned from a bird outing in south Fargo and couldn't wait to share the news.
It just so happened that upon moving into a new residence in north Fargo, I immediately discovered the oldest child next door has found a love for birds. The backyard was festooned with bird houses hanging here and there. How ironic is that?
It's quite uncommon, but it does happen. In fact, I can just about count the instances on two hands. I'm speaking of the eyebrow-raising moment when I encounter a young person who has found his or her interest in birds.
Nearly 25 years ago, I met a 14-year-old boy in a weedy field in east Texas. His mother had dropped him off and was waiting in the car. The prearranged rendezvous was one where I was hoping to add a life bird to my list, a Henslow's sparrow. This young lad had located one wintering here and knew just how to find it.
In the years following this encounter, he went on to achieve greatness. Today, he is an accomplished guide, author and a respected authority on birds. Yes, he did find me the sparrow that day.
Others within birding circles are known to have begun at a young age as well. I can think of Kenn Kaufman and David Sibley right off the top of my head, both of whom I've had the pleasure of meeting and, in the case of Kaufmann, actually gone birding with.
There seems to be a common thread among these precocious giants. Somehow, at an age when most of us are still trying to figure out which hand our baseball glove goes on, they are able to identify a passion and purpose and pursue it with a singular focus.
These days, it seems every interest and organization is struggling to maintain membership. The social structures that once helped shape and define our lives are much less relevant today. The numbers at the Elks lodges and garden clubs across the country are dwindling, replaced by Facebook and Pokemon or whatever the latest craze is at the moment.
Birding is no different. The local club fights to stay alive with fewer and fewer attendees at its meetings. Those who do show up appear grayer every year. Recruitment is difficult at best. As a result, it is gratifying to know there are still young people catching the bug.
A few years ago, I helped out with the Fargo Birding Festival, an annual event passionately spearheaded by Dr. Ron Miller. People of all ages typically show up, most just wondering what it's all about. It was with more than a tad of gratification and surprise when a young boy pointed to a bird and authoritatively announced, "American goldfinch." He knew his birds.
There's Noah Kuck, too. Only after birding with this 16-year-old a few times did I learn he was the recipient of the 2015 Young Birder Award from the Minnesota Ornithologist's Union. Kuck is now actively guiding fellow birders.
It is curiously satisfying to learn from where that initial spark arises in these young birders. In the case of my neighbor, it wasn't a grandmother, an aunt or even a parent. It was boredom.
Schultze said he was looking for something to do one day and decided to build a bird feeder. "A black-capped chickadee showed up right away," he said. Several feeders and bird houses have followed along with a burgeoning interest in birds.
Every generation expresses concern for the future. Ours is no different, yet there is reassurance and satisfaction to be found in the current crop of young folks. They are motivated, they are vigorous, and they are smart. And they are ably building upon the knowledge and skills of those who have walked before them. Be assured, they will take birding to levels we are just now imagining.