Winged Words

Winged Words

The little, black-capped chickadee is one of the hardy birds that has just weathered the winter with us. Its plump, white and buff-colored body and its eponymous call—“chicka-dee-dee-dee”—make it easy to locate in New England woods. It’s a favorite of the New Haven Bird Club, which sports a chickadee in its logo and has honored the bird in the title of its new book, Chickadee Tales: A New Haven Bird Club Anthology.

“With its friendly and inquisitive nature, the chickadee is often observed among flocks in woodlands, much like our members!” write editors Gail Martino and Ricci Cummings in the book’s introduction. Martino, who serves as the NHBC board member responsible for indoor programming, saw in the book an opportunity to collect stories from members and capture their knowledge in print. Cummings, with a background as a writer and editor, was a logical co-editor. The two became friends while working on the project.

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Chickadee Tales is part history, part science, part tribute, part how-to, but what binds each of the book’s 19 essays together is the palpable enthusiasm of the bird club members who wrote them. “May is a rejuvenating month in New England,” Martino writes in an essay titled “Why We Bird.”

If you open your window on a warm May morning, even on a residential street in New Haven it can sound as though you are in the midst of a wildlife preserve. If you take a moment to detach from your daily routine—close your eyes and listen—you might hear a Carolina Wren belting out its song, Mourning Doves cooing backup vocals, a Red-bellied Woodpecker drumming a backbeat, and Northern Cardinals cheering on the chorus. For a birder, these are moments when worries of the day recede and connection to the wider world comes to the forefront. Essentially, it is when the ordinary becomes extraordinary.

Those who don’t know their birds may still find themselves drawn into the bird club members’ delight via the differing approaches these essays take. In “A Century and More,” Craig Repasz details the origins of NHBC, which was founded by a group of five young men in 1907 and whose story parallels the 20th-century history of New Haven. A neighborly competitive streak runs through Chris Loscalzo’s “Mega Bowl,” recounting an annual event in which birding teams earn points for each species they find, from the common to the rare. Florence McBride’s “Take Flight! Bird Observation with Children in a School Science Program and Beyond” is an inspiring account of outdoor education, while Lesley Roy shares visual inspiration through her bird photographs in “Through the Lens.” In “Brainy Birds,” Martino, a neuroscientist, takes a cognitive science approach to studying her backyard birds, while Tom Sayers, in “Restoring Local Populations of American Kestrels, One Box at a Time,” details his long-term project of banding and tracking the kestrel population.

Throughout, Chickadee Tales is speckled with warm-hearted and funny tales from the field, like the story of young ornithologist Noble Proctor and his friend, birder David Finch, who, frustrated by their annual attempts to convince expert naturalist Roger Tory Peterson that they’d seen the rare King Rail, took matters literally into their own hands. “When the next count day arrived, they found and then managed to capture a King Rail,” Frank Gallo writes in a tribute to birders George and Millie Letis.

Unbeknownst to Roger, they took the bird back to the Letises and secreted it in their bathtub. When the time came, they again claimed their King Rail sighting and once more were dismissed by Peterson. Without missing a beat or saying a word, Noble and Davis went to the bathroom, returned with the rail, and placed it snugly in Peterson’s lap. King Rail made it on to the list that year.

According to the book’s preface, which cites a US Fish and Wildlife Service survey, about 45 million Americans consider themselves bird watchers. In New Haven, those who might want to give it a try will be welcome to tag along again on any one of about 50 walks sponsored by NHBC every year, once pandemic restrictions are lifted. Until then, programming is online; current president DeWitt Allen says the club’s membership has grown “enormously” in the past year despite the lack of in-person programming.

You might not think of urban New Haven as a good spot for birding, but its beaches, cliffs, woods and marshes combine to create what Chickadee Tales calls “a fabulous place to view and interact with both birds and bird-lovers!” This month, for example, is the time to cross the covered bridge at the north end of the Eli Whitney Museum and Workshop, located at 915 Whitney Avenue in Hamden, and look for one of the more than 30 colorful species of warblers migrating from as far away as South America—or, at least, birders who can show you where to find them. “Look around and see who’s got binoculars in their hand and are looking up. Kind of sidle over to those people,” Allen says. In fact, several essays in Chickadee Tales recount stories of Bird Club members first encountering birding in just that way.

“Before I joined the club and learned so much from all of these people who are generous with their time, I would look at birds, and what I saw was a generic bird,” Cummings says. “What I’ve learned to do is not just look but to see. I see detail, and it’s very exciting… It opens up a whole world.”

Chickadee Tales: A New Haven Bird Club Anthology
edited by Gail Martino and Ricci Cummings…

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image photographed by Hannah Gaskamp and provided courtesy of the New Haven Bird Club.

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