I have been a birder for as long as I can remember, but it was not until recently that I heard the expression “spark bird.” It turns out a “spark bird” is a term used by birders to describe the first bird that got them seriously interested in birding. That got me thinking – what was my spark bird? As a child in suburbia, I was accustomed to seeing robins hopping in the yard and the mourning doves nested in my grandmother’s pine trees. But one afternoon, as I was playing in our backyard under a weeping willow tree, I saw a bird that looked nothing like the birds I was familiar with. It was bright yellow and black! I told my mother about it and even drew her a picture, but she did not know what it was. It was not until years later when I was looking through a bird guide, that I saw it again – a male American goldfinch! I could finally put a name to what I had seen. If I could see such a beautiful bird in my backyard, what other types of birds would I be able to see? I became a birder.
American goldfinch. Photo Credit: Dave Eberly
After recalling my spark bird, I wondered what other people’s spark birds were.
Sarah Boucas Neto, who leads Tyler’s bird walks, told me her dad showed her a hummingbird when she was little. She could not believe it was real! Then, years later, a calliope hummingbird visited her Delaware County yard in November. Calliope hummingbirds are the smallest birds in North America and are rarely seen east of the Rocky Mountains. When word got out that Sarah had a male calliope hummingbird in her yard, birders came from as far as Pittsburgh, New York, and New Jersey for a chance to see it. She had no idea birding was so popular. Her yard was full of birders, and she learned a lot from these visitors.
Ruby-throated hummingbird, Photo Credit: Dave Eberly
Dave Eberly, who also leads bird walks at Tyler, said his spark bird was a Rufous-sided Towhee (now changed to Eastern Towhee) that he spotted more than 40 years ago. It was a male singing on the dunes in Ocean City, New Jersey. Dave was enthralled by its song and beautiful plumage and delighted that he could identify it by using a field guide. A year earlier, Dave and his wife had attended a program at the Academy of Natural Sciences to hear famed naturalist Roger Tory Peterson. Dave was captivated by Peterson’s love of birds and his enthusiasm for birding. That is when Dave decided to become a “lister.” In birding terms, a lister is someone who keeps a record of the birds seen.
Eastern towhee. Photo Credit: Dave Eberly
My husband is also a birder (he, too, keeps a life list). His spark bird was a pigeon. Now people may scoff that such a pedestrian bird would start an interest in birding, but they might change their minds when they learn the circumstances. Joel spent his early years in a Manhattan apartment. One of the other tenants kept pigeons on the roof, and he could always hear them cooing. Sometimes, his mother would take him to the roof to visit the pigeons, and he could see them up close. Thus, an interest in birds began.
One of the wonderful things about birding is you can do it anywhere. We have been fortunate to see sandhill cranes in Wisconsin, a mountain bluebird in Yellowstone, and roseate spoonbills in Florida. But we have also been thrilled to see snowy owls, hummingbirds, and eagles much closer to home. I can thank that American goldfinch for inspiring my lifelong interest in birds and for the joy it has brought me.
Want to get involved with birding? Register for one of our Weekly Bird Walks! These walks talk place Wednesday mornings from 8:00 – 10:00 am and are free for Tyler Members. Registration includes admission to Tyler for the day for non-members.
We want to hear from you! What was YOUR Spark Bird? Click here to share the bird who inspired you.