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  • Writer's pictureBackyard Birding

My Spark Bird Saga

Updated: Jan 14, 2019

By Jeremy Schwartz

Sometimes things aren’t what they seem.

Pretty cliche, right? Well, it’s true for my purposes too, so bear with me.

I’d like to tell you a story about my own spark bird.

What’s a spark bird, you might be thinking? I touched on it my Birder Code article, but here’s a refresher. A spark bird is the bird that triggers a fascination with these wonderful and strange flying creatures. Spark bird stories abound in the birding community, and I’d like to share mine.

The Quest for A Spark

I began thinking about my spark bird in the context of my own journey toward becoming a birder a little more than a year after I started birding “seriously.” I soon realized that I could not pin down a specific species that sparked my interest. I had always had a general fascination with the natural world, honed from thousands of afternoons spent watching the Discovery Channel (when they still ran educational shows). I also never grew out of my childhood love of dinosaurs. Birding just seemed like a natural fit once I got into it. Like it always should have been there.

I could name favorite species of birds, for sure, with the elegant Double-crested Cormorant topping the list. But a single species that single-handedly (or, single-wingedly?) opened up the wide world of birding to me? I wasn’t sure that I had one. It was funny. The more I thought about it, the more I felt oddly deprived at not being able to think of a species as my spark bird. Was I somehow not officially a birder until I had one? I simply had to remedy this. What self-respecting birder doesn’t have a spark bird?

Following this thought process, I did some more thinking and came up with the closest approximation to a spark bird I could. The handsome and shy Green Heron:

A Green Heron in an urban wetland in Bothell, Washington.
A Green Heron. Photo by Jeremy Schwartz

I landed on the Green Heron for a few reasons. One: this was the first bird my Pacific Northwest friends and family were impressed at me seeing. Green Herons aren’t particularly rare, but they are shy and prefer to sit hunched up in tall grasses beside ponds and streams. This tendency and their auburn-green coloring makes them much harder to spot than their bigger and more obvious cousin, the Great Blue Heron. I would eventually learn even my hardcore birding friends see Green Herons only occasionally. I was fortunate enough to spot one my first month of seriously birding. Two: this was the first bird I actively sought after to get a better look and eventually a photo. I spent many a morning stalking a pond by my office where I knew at least one liked to hang out. I must have spooked this damn thing a dozen times before I was able to creep up to within photo distance and get a good picture. The Green Heron proved to by my Moby Dick bird for a while.

That, I thought, was the end of the story. The Green Heron was my spark bird. This was the species that made me into a birder. The species that first exposed me to the joys of sharing a rare find and the frustrations of missing out on a good sighting.

Spark Bird: Redux

Then, about six months after this realization, a brief conversation with my wife changed things.

I was sipping tea from a mug my wife got me for Christmas on a lazy weekend morning. The mug features an adult male House Finch, a brownish bird with a wash of soft red over its chest and head. She told me that she got me this mug specifically because she considered the House Finch the bird that started it all for me. The one that got me to pay attention to these ubiquitous flying creatures we share the world with. "Wait, what?” I thought. Was the humble House Finch my true spark bird? I needed to re-look at the facts.

A male House Finch sitting on a bird feeder north of Seattle, Washington
Could the humble House Finch be my true spark bird? Photo by Jeremy Schwartz

Back when my wife and I lived in our fifth-story apartment, we kept a small bird feeder on our balcony. The building’s balconies were stacked, so our upstairs neighbor’s balcony hung directly over ours. We hung a hand-me-down wooden bird feeder from the balcony above, hoping some small city birds would come visit. We were not disappointed. A few weeks after we hung the feeder, House Finches began to show up. They were a joy to watch. We welcomed with delight their cheerful, almost questioning songs and calls as they communicated with each other. The balcony was situated in the center of our living room, with a sliding glass door providing access. Our couch, facing the balcony, became the perfect spot to watch our finch friends. We watched with amusement all the finch drama as multiple males and females jockeyed for the best position on the feeder. We had the occasional Dark-eyed Junco here and there, but finches were by far the most common visitor. I could scarcely believe the amount of emotion these small birds brought out in me. I thrilled at their acrobatics as they bounced and hung from the feeder. I was sad when some small motion of mine across our living room spooked them (though they soon returned most of the time). The fact that the small action of putting bird food out could invite this much life and activity was a wonder to me. Thinking on it as much I have since then, I can’t believe I didn’t think of this period in my life when first considering my spark bird.

Without my even noticing, these finches were instilling an interest and eventual love of birds in me. These finches would bring me to where am I right now, writing these words for a blog connected to a bird-themed card game a colleague recruited me for because of the love for birds I wear on sleeve. The House Finch is my true spark bird, and has been all this time. And it took my wife to make me see it. Maybe there’s a lesson here that can be applied to birding and enjoying the natural world on a larger scale. Sometimes the best discoveries require someone else encouraging you to look at a thing in a completely different way.

1 Comment

Jan 11, 2019

Another excellent article but this one is oh so very special...really enjoyed it son. 😉

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