The author with Alvin. Photograph by Bob Stymeist.
I recently got a guide dog, Alvin, a two-year-old male yellow Labrador retriever. As we enter our first spring together, I am wondering how to teach Alvin to do the bird walk. He is a young and energetic dog, accustomed to a steady trotting pace with a straight line trajectory from curb to curb. By contrast, the bird walk features an inconsistent pace, meandering angles, and frequent stops and starts. How does a dog that has learned to move steadily learn to dawdle while his handler strains to listen and stop for birds?
Can a guide dog be transformed into a birder, or at least do the bird walk, on demand?
Thinking of this makes me think back to the early days of my own birding. I became a birder as an adult after many years of hiking, backpacking, and camping in remote regions of North America. Thus, like Alvin I suppose, I was accustomed to hitching up my boots and throwing a 40-pound backpack over my shoulders and moving forward as straight, steadily, and consistently as possible during long days of hiking rugged terrain. My eyes rarely left the ground in front of me, and when they did, it was to enjoy spectacular scenery or perhaps large mammals. My hearing at the time did not enable me to listen to birds as I could not hear them. Even if I could, I am not sure I would have caught the birding bug, as I did later in life.
Rarely did I notice birds. I was much more attuned to scenery, mammals, plants, and, frankly, getting to the next campsite in plenty of time to set up camp, cook dinner, and settle in for the night before the sun dipped below the horizon.
When birding captured my passion in 1989 on spring bird walks with my friend Martha Vaughan, my view of the outside world changed forever. At the time, of course, I could still see but not hear birds, and I was ravenous to see as many birds as possible that spring. I have so many vivid memories of birds, particularly the migrating warblers, images and experiences that simply stunned me and filled me with excitement. I did not realize what I had been missing all those years. I had even lived for more than two years in Cali, Colombia, and had not noticed birds there either. Imagine that, Colombia, a country with one of the world’s most diverse avifauna, and I didn’t notice them.
In the summer of 1989, I hiked to the summit of Mount Katahdin in Maine. The change in what I paid attention to was palpable; I was constantly looking around to try to see any birds, including those soaring above us as we hiked above tree line. I could not wait to tell birding friends what I had seen during that trip. And hiking was no longer just an exercise in physical endurance, looking down, and focusing on getting to the next destination of the day.
My new avocation fundamentally altered how I experienced the outdoors and chose travel destinations. Birding, of course, takes you many places that you may otherwise never visit, even within the lower 48 states of the United States. Who in New England would normally go to Texas as often as birders do?
Birding also is an avocation of slow walking and often demands great patience, especially during long droughts of bird activity. It can have you standing for long periods of time or driving great distances to find specific birds or a rarity. So although birding is an outdoor experience, as are hiking and camping, they are vastly different in their experiences.
Back to Alvin. In order to be a good birding guide dog, he will have to slow down, and perhaps periodically stand around or lie down if he gets bored. He will rarely get to break into a trot for more than a minute or so, unlike our usual hour-plus routine of trotting walks. And he will have to learn not to pay any attention to the birds around us.
This latter point is an important one. So far, if the birds are singing and flitting about in trees or nearby on the water or ground, he does not appear to notice them, as I once did not. But I have learned that if we are close, very close, to a larger bird, such as a duck, I need to snap to attention. For example, earlier this year in Arizona, we were walking along the edge of a man-made reservoir on a paved sidewalk with my friend Jan. Alvin was to my left, and to his left was a slight drop-off of about six inches to the water. Many ducks were swimming in the reservoir, and an American Coot came particularly close to us along the edge of the sidewalk. I was confident Alvin would not attempt to jump into the water and chase the coot, but, much to my surprise, he did just that without any warning. Fortunately, I did not follow him into the water, which was deep enough for him to swim but not stand. Momentarily discombobulated, I quickly decided to grab the back of his harness and just lift the 65-pound dog out of the water. When I put him down, he promptly showered me with water when he shook himself, and then looked up at me, tail wagging. I had a great time, he seemed to be saying. I just stared at him and said, “Why did you do that?” In guide dog training, we were often reminded that there are two words in the phrase “guide dog.” The dogs are both guides and dogs, and at this particular moment, Alvin was a fun-loving yellow lab who loved the water perhaps more than the coot.
As I write this in late March, I wonder exactly how this birding thing will go with Alvin. He will have to learn that spring is a different season when it comes to our daily routine, and he will have to learn patience with so many stops and starts. I know he will be quiet; he rarely barks. He will have to learn to hold back on any urge to chase anything, though he has already demonstrated great restraint in the vast majority of situations. And he will have to indulge me my passion. Alvin, after all, wants nothing more than to be with us, wherever that may be and in whatever capacity it is. So, if you see Alvin and me birding, ignore him and continue with your own passionate pursuit of the birds we love to see and hear. As for Alvin, he will probably just lie down and sigh until he can really stretch out on a brisk—not bird—walk.
Martha Steele, a former editor of Bird Observer, has been progressively losing vision due to retinitis pigmentosa and is legally blind. Thanks to a cochlear implant, she is now learning to identify birds from their songs and calls. Martha lives with her husband, Bob Stymeist, in Arlington. Martha can be reached at email@example.com.