A question I’m almost guaranteed to get asked after talking to grade-school kids about birds is, “what’s your favorite bird?” Adults ask the question sometimes, but not as often as kids.
My brain always spins for a while, like a roulette wheel in a Bond movie, as I try to figure out how to answer. It’s sort of like being asked as a parent, which one of your children is your favorite?
The real answer is, “I’m the self-appointed ornithological godparent of all the birds on earth. I love them all!” Or maybe I should say, “All 10,721 species are my favorite.” Huh?
I’m tempted to say it’s the barred fruiteater in Ecuador, a bird that caught my attention 50 years ago in a book on South American birds, a species that at that time seemed as likely for me to see as aliens from outer space. I finally did see it. That’s my favorite bird.
How about the greater roadrunner I saw as a kid in Texas? I’d seen him evading Wile E. Coyote for years in Saturday morning cartoons, and here he was, in person, racing across the desert pavement after a lizard. Yup, that’s my favorite bird.
How about the American woodcock, also known by the much better name, timberdoodle? My parents realized that I needed glasses when I could hear the bird displaying but couldn’t see it. I got my first pair of glasses a few days later. That was fourth grade and my friends immediately called me “four eyes.” That’s definitely my favorite bird.
I spent five years in Shoshone, Idaho, as a biologist for the Bureau of Land Management. One of the most wonderful assignments I have ever been given was to count greater sage-grouse on leks — display arenas — across the Snake River Plain in early spring. If you’ve been out there, with the mountains in the background, a thermos of coffee in the rig, and these amazing birds slowly turning like little lighthouses in the sunrise … how can that not be your favorite bird? Yup! That’s the one.
My dad knew the Hamerstroms, famous greater prairie-chicken researchers, who lived near the town where I was born. He offered to be a “gabboon” for them, a volunteer who got up at 3 a.m. to crawl into frigid blinds, or “hides” if you’re a Brit, to observe these birds display and take notes on their behavior. I was able to do that some years later, and I could see the chicken’s breath, backlit by the barely risen sun. My dad had done exactly the same thing years before. Yeah, that’s got to be my favorite bird.
One day in Venezuela, when it was still safe to visit that amazing country, some friends and I were hiking to a known nest site for a harpy eagle. This is one of the most greatly prized birds on the planet. If you go into harpy country, birding friends are guaranteed to ask you if you saw the bird. We had found the nest, although no eagles were there, and we were well occupied identifying a variety of other species. Suddenly, a harpy eagle flew across the sky and into its nest, carrying a huge red howler monkey. My mouth is still agape. That’s definitely my favorite bird.
My wife and I just wrapped up almost three months of sharing the lives of a pair of Western Screech-Owls and their young in our yard. We watched with joy as they moved into our nest box. We were thrilled when the female laid three eggs. And we were totally won over when the young birds grew up before our eyes, left the box, and hung out in our yard. A thousand photographs and video clips prove it. Wow! That’s my favorite bird.
This question from second graders presents a dilemma similar to the one I’m put in when I run into another person out on the trail somewhere and they ask me if I’ve seen anything good.
It’s an oddly frequent question. Was the song sparrow singing from the willows good? Yes. Was the lazuli bunting singing from the top of an old-growth bitterbrush good? Yes. How about the belted kingfisher carrying a goldfish from the pond near the Foothills Learning Center? Yes! And the American robin hopping across the lawn in the morning sun. Certainly. Yes.
You probably get my picture by now. It’s all good. They’re all my favorites. I don’t care how common or rare, how far away or how local, all birds are my favorites. Even the plainest species are wonderful in their own ways. All of these birds are living, mating, raising young, singing, gathering food, avoiding danger, and trying hard to make it through another day. They do it without a single thing but themselves — no clothes, no house, no car, no pots and pans, no life insurance, and no IRAs. Everything they own is all they own — themselves.
OK, you say. That’s all well and good. But seriously! PICK ONE!
Arm twisted and no viable options left to me, I scream, leave me alone! It’s the yellow-breasted chat!
Why? This bird is neither rare nor exotic. There are no treks to see him. You could pay a guide, but you can take yourself there for free. So, why the chat?
The yellow-breasted chat has the best attitude of any bird I know. It sings a glorious array of hoots, squawks, peeps, chatters, and clanks, while typically hiding in dense cover. Every time I hear a chat, it brings a smile to my lips. It is unfazed by wind, bad weather, runners, mountain bikers, barking dogs, yakking humans, and obnoxious fixed-wing aircraft whose drones never seem to end. It is quite lovely, having a crashing yellow breast and smart white spectacles. Yet it does not insist on being seen. It under promises and over delivers. A permanently good fortune from the cookie for all of us.
Chats are widespread in Idaho, and readily heard, if not seen, in the riparian areas of the state. Listen to chat songs at allaboutbirds.org and tune your ears to this Idaho gem. Whether you’re on the Greenbelt, running or hiking through the foothills, visiting Deer Flat, floating the Boise River, or backpacking the Owyhee Wilderness Areas, chats will be there.
Yeah, that’s my favorite bird. For sure.