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Becoming a Birder


By Jon Friedman

Forty years ago, more or less, people began asking me about my general interest in birds and watching birds, observing bird behaviors and feeding birds in particular. Even when I was a young child and an adolescent, people wondered why I was so interested in birds. I don't necessarily remember how I answered those questions but I do remember that I was a little hesitant to explain myself to others. After all, birding (the act of observing and learning about birds) was not as popular an interest with the general public when I was a young boy as it is today. Birding, back then, was considered a "nerdy" interest limited in appeal to serious students and ornithologists, nature lovers, and senior citizens. (I'm not sure why seniors seem to have been more interested in birding, perhaps because they have more time to devote, and because birding gives them mild exercise (walking), and gets them out in nature.) It was not an interest that one talked about openly. It was somewhat embarrassing to admit this to people who didn't have a clue as to how satisfying and rewarding the experience was for me. I didn't know anyone else who shared this interest, so most of my early experiences were solitary endeavors.

Jon on right at 11years

Jon on right at 11 years old

I recently came across an old black and white photograph of myself in Weequahic Park in Newark, New Jersey, where I grew up and first discovered the awesomeness of Nature and the joys of birding. I was probably about seven or eight years old when the photo was taken, but what surprised me was that I had no memory of it being taken, didn't remember ever seeing it before, and it was the first photograph that showed me wearing a pair of binoculars around my neck! 

Over the decades, many customers and others have asked me about my early birding interest and experiences. Many folks erroneously assumed I studied ornithology. As the owner and founder of The Wild Bird Store, I have fielded many questions about how I got started in birding, what inspired me, who influenced me, how did I learn so much, etc.  The fact of the matter is that I simply became aware of and fascinated with birds at an early age. Birds are, more so than any other form of wildlife, ever present in our environment - no matter where you live. In urban, suburban and rural areas birds are the most familiar form of wildlife we encounter on a daily basis. I learned early on that if you offer birds foods what they prefer, they will reward you with not only their presence, but with their beauty, colors, songs and vocalizations, flying abilities, parenting skills and family life. I learned at an early age that the wider variety of foods offered to birds, the wider variety of species will reward your efforts.

My earliest memory of my fascination with birds began around my fifth or sixth birthday when I received, among others, a card with the image of Costa Rica's national bird, the Resplendent Quetzal, on the cover. Not only was this a beautiful image of an unfamiliar (to me) bird, but the image itself was composed of cut and dyed feathers to form the shape of this particular bird with its very long trailing tail. I remember being impressed by seeing this image of a bird I had never seen in life, but that it was a tactile image fashioned from feathers! How appropriate and how beautiful, I remember thinking to myself. I also remember that the card came from a long-time family friend who I fondly remember as "Aunt" Esther. While she wasn't a true relative, I remember spending time as a boy with her when my parents weren't available. She took a real interest in me, more than most of my "real" relatives. Esther took me to Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus at Madison Square Garden. She got tickets and escorted me to the taping of The Howdy Doody Show and the Bozo the Clown, early television shows for children. And she knew of my early interest in birds and picked out a particularly appropriate notecard to write her birthday wishes in. So, I guess that's my earliest memory of being interested in birds.

As I mentioned earlier, I grew up in Newark, New Jersey. In those years, Newark and Essex County were among the most densely populated areas in the continent. I actually grew up in a very urban setting, but was fortunate in that a very large park was within walking distance. Weequahic Park (named for the Lenni Lenapi tribe of the Delaware Indian nation that originally occupied that site) offered urban dwellers their only nearby and real glimpse of nature. There were many exciting things to do in the park and over the years, as I grew up, I did them all. There was a golf course (I caddied for my father and paternal grandfather); a harness-racing horse track and the stables; Weequahic Park Lake and its rental boats; baseball fields; picnic table areas; and thousands of acres of mature chestnut, tulip, walnut, oak, elm, and other native trees, interspersed with wide open grassy areas bordered by bushes and shrubs. I went to the park for all these features, both by myself and sometimes with others. With each visit, I looked forward to seeing new birds. It wasn't long before watching birds became a welcome respite from my otherwise entirely urban existence. As I became an adolescent and early teen-ager, I began long, routine walks with my maternal grandfather. He was a musician and wood sculptor (among other things) who wanted me to accompany him on his walks through the park. Whenever he saw a downed tree limb, especially after storms, he would have me drag it back to his basement sculpture studio. Then I had the great pleasure of watching him make that tree branch or stump into an amazing sculpture. He made several bas relief sculptures of doves perched on branches. On occasion, a bird nest would be attached to the downed limb and my grandfather would tell me which bird species created that particular nest. While he wouldn't have been considered an expert on identifying birds, he did seem to know the common species of the park. And so, I guess, he was the first person to actually introduce me to the birds of my early childhood.

When we did discover nests attached to downed branches, I remember asking my grandfather what would happen to the birds that built the nest and the babies that would have been raised in the nest. He explained to me that the birds would renest in a suitable location and begin again by laying a new brood of eggs. He explained to me that I could be of help to the birds by putting out an artificial house or nesting site that he felt sure they would use. Together we built my first bird house from a waxed cardboard, half-gallon milk container. He showed me how to cut out an appropriately sized entrance/exit hole and how to position a natural branch as a perch to help the birds use the birdhouse. After building this first birdhouse together, I then went on to build several more by myself. I remember the feeling of satisfaction from the creative act of making a home for birds and the pleasure I received from seeing them actually use it. I also remember my disappointment at discovering the disappearance of one of these milk carton houses. I never knew what happened to it, whether it was blown away in the wind or if someone actually removed it. I found the disappearance very disappointing. I began making bird feeders from similar milk cartons soon thereafter.

My father was a working class, blue collar glazier who was a true city boy. He felt far more comfortable with cement and asphalt beneath his feet, unless he was on the public golf course in Weequahic Park. My desired profession, from as early as I can remember, was to become an artist - a painter specifically. This interest, and my birding hobby, was not looked upon favorably by him. When I was a young teenager, he was always telling me I should consider doing something else. Anything else. Something that I could make a lot of money from. I was a very rebellious kid and caused my parents unlimited frustration because we couldn't agree on almost anything I was interested in. I often wondered what my life might have been like if I was encouraged to pursue my passions.  Anyway, when I was approximately fifteen years old, I ran away from home and was caught by the police in rural Tennessee. They called my dad and put me on the phone with him. I told him I wasn't planning on returning home and he questioned me about how I would live on my own in the Appalachian Mountains. Where would I live? What would I eat? And, most importantly, how would I be able to support myself? I told him I would live in the woods, eats nuts and berries, and make bird houses and bird feeders to support myself. He laughed uproariously, questioning me: "You think you can support yourself making bird houses and feeders?" I heard him repeat this many times over the years until I finally did open my store featuring my designs for bird products. In the end, many years later, we patched up our relationship and after he retired, he spent part of his time feeding birds with my feeders, and making bird houses of his own design for friends and relatives. I like this story as it illustrates, at least in my case, how the father can learn from the son - something I couldn't have imagined years earlier.

With few exceptions, during most of the years that followed those early and influential years, I always had my homemade feeders and houses to offer birds at each of my homes. By the time I was in my early twenties, I had moved to Tucson. It was here that I first met my future wife, life partner, best friend and business/art partner. Within a relatively short time, we moved closer to the Mexican border, to Bisbee. It was there that we married, began raising our family, and continued living our lives as artists in the new and flourishing community of creative souls who began migrating to the former historic mining town. I was a painter and Shani was a classical musician. She received her music education at Ithaca College of Music in upstate New York and received her degree in piano studies and music theory and composition. I received both my bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Arizona combined media and arts administration. 

Once established in Bisbee, we both continued our artistic careers while bringing home steady paychecks in administrative positions. Shani became the executive director of the YWCA and I became the founding executive director of Cochise Fine Arts, a non-profit community based multi-arts presentation and exhibition center. Simultaneously, we initiated a sister organization - The Bisbee Poetry Festival, which I directed from 1979 to 1984. It was in Bisbee that our serious interest in birding began to develop and flourish.

In Bisbee, we discovered fellow nature lovers and even a couple of friends who also appreciated birding. These friends had several years' experience beyond my own so they served as mentors for me. I normally would spend three or four mornings per week birding, alone, with Shani, or with others, along the San Pedro River, usually from the Mexican border north to the Charleston Town site ruins and dam, south of Tombstone. But the stretch of river between the Palominas and Hereford bridges were the most productive part of the river. Little did I know then, in the early 1970s, that this is a world-class birding area. I think of those years and the wonderful birding experiences I had there as my introduction to serious birding. No longer was I casually looking for birds. Now, I was using more critical vision and my growing knowledge of birds to locate and identify them. I was amazed by the sheer numbers of species that used the river as a major flyway and by the many exotic and rare species who breed there. Many of the first 300 or so of the species that we identified for the first time, were initially observed along this part of the river. Back then the river had water in it year round. There were lots of frogs, salamanders, turtles, native fish, and a wide assortment of insects on the ground, in the water, and in the air to provide food for American Dippers, Green Kingfishers, Gray Hawks, Mexican Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, herons, egrets, many species of wading and shore birds, flycatchers, and a host of other species that wouldn't ordinarily be found in Bisbee itself.

Shortly after moving to Bisbee, I spent the last eight months of 1972 living, mostly by myself, at the old Wakefield Mine site at about 8500 feet on the southern slope of the Huachuca Mountains overlooking a fantastic panoramic view of Mexico. I was offered the opportunity to be the caretaker to the site, as the longtime caretakers needed a break after years of uninterrupted living in the Huachuca Wilderness Area. (Cabin fever had settled in.) I jumped at the chance to totally immerse myself in Nature. I was a fairly new arrival to Arizona from New Jersey and, growing up in the densely populated New York metro area as a city boy, realized that living in a forested wilderness would allow me to become introduced and familiar with the birds and wildlife in southeastern Arizona. Every day, weather permitting, I would spend hours hiking cow paths and wildlife trails, mostly between Parker Canyon Lake and Ramsey Canyon. I got to observe most of the mammals, reptiles, and birds that resided in the wilderness. It was serious nature study and eight months gave me ample time to get the full experience. I was able to observe most of the mammals that lived in those mountains and it was then and there that I first observed Mule Deer, Black Bears, Javelinas, Ring-tailed (Civet) Cats, Coatimundi, raccoons, several species of bats, Gray Foxes, Porcupines, Kit Foxes, Badgers, Hooded Skunks, Bobcats, Mountain Lions, Jaguar, Coyotes, and various ground squirrels. During these months, I didn't operate a bird feeding station. Instead, I had to rely on my own experiences in various habitats to learn which birds reside in each habitat. It certainly required more effort than hanging up feeders to attract birds, but the educational rewards of hiking into different habitats provided a fuller experience and better understanding of the birds and their natural histories.

Meanwhile, we always had feeding stations at the houses we bought in Bisbee. I made some rather crude and simple, yet practical and functional, wooden feeders. In that pre-internet era, there weren't any wild bird stores in existence and even mail order was very limited, expensive, and slow. So creating my own feeder designs seemed to be the right thing to do.

In early 1972, we bought our first house in Bisbee. It was located several levels up the side of "B" Mountain, above the old police station and overlooking most of Bisbee's historic downtown district. Not necessarily what one would consider a good birding location. Access meant climbing about ninety steps up a winding staircase built by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the 1930s and then a footpath between houses for about another 150 feet.

It was at this location I planted my first organic garden and a single native Cottonwood and a Christmas pine tree that I transplanted to the edge of the garden. (Both of these trees are still growing there as mature specimens - the house burned down in the early eighties.) I was able to attract a decent number of species to the hopper and platform feeders I slapped together and hung by chain or post-mounted and installed in and around the garden. I made hummingbird feeders from old wine bottles. I made tubular mesh feeders for peanuts. I made another metal mesh feeder for leftovers. My feeder birds learned that no matter what leftovers I may surprise them with, they were all edible and tasty enough that nothing remained by sundown. In addition to what I offered birds at my backyard birding stations, Bisbee was full of garden and wild foods. While undoubtedly planted by humans initially, there were, and probably still are, numerous mulberry, fig, apple, peach, pear, plum, quince, elderberry, other fruit trees, berry patches, and grasses and weeds that grow all over town - on private and public property, along roadsides and washes, long public stairs, empty lots, and the like. In other words, at certain times of the year, Bisbee is a cornucopia for birds attracted to its natural wealth of foodstuffs.

Jon & Shani at Quarry Canyon

At 6500 feet in elevation, Bisbee experiences the four seasons more distinctly than Tucson. By 1979, I bought a nicer house on Quarry Canyon, up above the Cochise County Courthouse. This area had much better habitat than downtown where we sold the house to another artist. As a result, I experienced distinct migration patterns and learned which species to expect and when. I was always thrilled each autumn to see a flock of up to 200 Cedar Waxwings alight in the grape ivy plants that cascaded down the front of a tall rock restraining wall. By fall, the small berries that the ivy plants profusely produced were past their peak and beginning to ferment. At first I was confused by the waxwings' behavior, but soon realized that all these birds flopping around on the ground were actually drunk from eating all those fermented berries. I had to man a look-out station to keep guard so the neighborhood cats didn't make easy meals of the birds. My hummingbird feeders seemed to always have dozens of hummers competing for the made-fresh- daily nectar. I had a Mexican Plum and several Royal Apricot trees on this property in Quarry Canyon. Year after year the birds (particularly orioles, tanagers, and mockingbirds) felt they had as much right to the ripening fruit as I did. I solved the problem for good by picking the fruit I wanted just before it was ripe. Once I saw the birds begin to peck at it, I would pick what I wanted and let it ripen inside the house and leave the rest for the birds. I arrived at this win-win solution that I used for many years afterward. I made some new, but still rather crude, simple wooden feeders for this location. Friends and visitors were always amazed to see so many birds at my feeders. I know some of those folks were inspired by the bird activity they observed at our house and became birders as a result of seeing my feeding stations so well used by such a wide variety of birds.

So, it was during our time in Bisbee that together we began our serious interest in birding and all that it entails. We embraced it fully and thoroughly. Much as our artistic endeavors provided us with immeasurable pleasures, we discovered that our birding interests provided us with greater knowledge, stimulation, satisfaction, and happiness that was an important part of the foundation of our shared interests for the 39 years we shared together.

By the mid-1980s, Shani and I returned to Tucson to live. First in the Sam Hughes area of mid-town and then we moved to the Tucson Mountains. In both these locations we created much more extensive feeding stations. My neighbors would joke with me about the skies darkening with birds when Cooper's Hawks would swoop in for a dove. In both locations, over time, we began noticing new species that we hadn't seen before.

In the late 1980's, we moved to Boulder to become the Executive Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art. Living at 8500 feet in the Rocky Mountains afforded me the opportunity to attract a different community of birds. Steller's Jays, Clark's Nutcrackers, Western Tanagers, Mountain Bluebirds, Townsend's Solitaires, Ruffed Grouse, nuthatches, titmice, juncos and Brown Creepers, among others, became regulars at our station. Many of these higher elevation birds created nests and broods on our five acres of mixed woods and open grassy areas.

It was in this large house surrounded by forest views, with walls of large glass windows and a wrap-around deck that I first began putting our many feeders of various sorts to really attract as many species as possible. There came a time when, at most,  I probably had more than two dozen feeders hanging and pole mounted on the deck and a fair number of suction-cupped window feeders. I also discovered the need and positive use of window decals to prevent bird collisions with the large expanses of glass picture windows that surrounded the house. And, I discovered that the black Kaibab Squirrels, raccoons, and White-tailed Deer (our forest neighbors) weren't shy near the house once they discovered that they too enjoyed the foods I put out for the birds. It was here that I learned how to protect feeders from those unwanted quests.

We returned to Tucson in 1991, happy to be back in our beloved Sonoran Desert. We decided to open The Wild Bird Store in February of that year. We wanted to work for ourselves and preferred to share our passion with others who had the same problems obtaining quality birding supplies. It was a big gamble as no such stores existed in Arizona at that time. Bankers literally laughed us out of their offices. "You can't make a living selling bird feeders and seeds!" they would exclaim - while rolling on the floor! Their response reminded me of my dad, who said the same thing for years. But, the Small Business Administration matched our private resources and we opened our first location on Grant Road a few months later.

Almost immediately, we realized the need for a regularly scheduled newsletter for the benefit of our customers. We wanted this newsletter to be more than the standard, commercial newsletter. We felt that the more informed our customers were, the better they would understand and enjoy backyard birds. We wanted to educate, stimulate, and entertain our readers in the process of creating a loyal customer base. Feature articles about the birds we see and feed quickly became the vehicle to deliver this type of information. We also realized we had to keep ourselves well-read and educated also. Our birding library grew by leaps and bounds. Our knowledge of birds continued to grow as well. In time, we became knowledgeable about the birds of our desert region. Shani and I felt we were on our way to becoming experts in backyard birding. We knew we had to continue educating ourselves in order to continue educating our customers. This is a continual process that my family fully understands and embraces. And, now that I am "semi-retired," my family is gearing up to continuing the tradition that Shani and I started nearly three decades ago. In addition to maintaining my Saturday retail schedule, I still continue to do the feature articles for the newsletters. But Clarisa and Justin are taking on more and more newsletter responsibilities, month by month. Sometime in the foreseeable future, I will take the next step and become fully retired. But my birding knowledge and experiences will continue to enable me to expand my birding abilities further as I grow older. It's never too late to learn new things and I anticipate many happy hours devoted to this passion. I can't imagine being bored in my retirement. I now have a much better understanding of why birding has become such a popular family pastime - and why the senior members of your family make good birding partners. 

Happy Birding Everyone!!!

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