June 2021

Vol. 49, No. 3

Musings from the Blind Birder: Bird-Related Idioms

Martha Steele

I frequently use idioms involving birds and often introduce into my conversation bird-related phrases, the meanings of which we all understand, thanks to common usage, but which we could not infer from the words alone. For example, my husband Bob and I sometimes explain to friends that our nearest neighbors in Vermont live nearly three quarters of a mile away by car but only a few hundred yards “as the crow flies” if we bushwhack through the forest that separates our homes. In the fictitious story that follows, I have a little fun with bird-related idioms, embedding as many as I can into the narrative.

Bob and I are early birds year-round, but especially during migration. Indeed, so convinced are we that the early bird catches the worm, that we usually rise between 4:00 and 5:00 am to get ready for whatever awaits us outside. One recent spring morning, we decided to kill two birds with one stone by heading to a wildlife management area to bird and then to visit friends who lived nearby.

We headed out in the early dawn light, and eagle-eyed Bob spotted a Ruffed Grouse camouflaged along the side of the dirt road about 50 yards ahead. We crept slowly forward hoping that it might announce its presence to me by flushing with its characteristic explosive whirring sound. But alas, the grouse just walked into the forest and disappeared. I muttered that he was a bad egg, being so uncooperative.

We peregrinated our way to our destination, stopping several times to look and listen for birds. Bob asked for my prediction of how many species we would see that day. Being an optimist, I predicted 100 species; Bob laughed and said I would be way off. One of us would be eating crow before the day was out.

When we arrived at our destination, Bob noticed a snake at the edge of the grassy parking area. After gently poking with a stick what turned out to be a garter snake, he pronounced it dead as a dodo. Alvin and I kept our distance. We started our walk and soon came to the edge of a small cliff where we had a bird’s-eye view of the forest below us. Bob scanned the sky and exclaimed, “Black Vulture!” This species has been slowly expanding its range northward and was a county life bird for Bob. Meanwhile, I heard what I thought was a Brown Creeper and called to Bob to confirm my identification. He smiled and said yes. Because for many years I had struggled to connect the song with the creeper, I felt as proud as a peacock.

We continued our walk and soon broke out into an open field. A Song Sparrow sat atop a small bush but was suddenly swooped up by a Cooper’s Hawk that came out of nowhere. Goodness, he sure was a sitting duck for the swift raptor. The trail started to descend more steeply, becoming much narrower and rockier. I could tell that it would pose a challenge for even the most agile sighted person, never mind a blind person and her guide dog. But Bob could see a wetland ahead and wanted to investigate for a possible American Bittern. I told him that I was too chicken to risk falling and hurting myself and added that I thought he would be going on a wild goose chase, because bitterns are so secretive and hard to find. Upon reflection, Bob agreed that it was a birdbrained idea, so we turned around to retrace our steps. At that moment, on a beautiful day with bird songs enveloping us, I felt truly as free as a bird, reveling in the here and now in the company of Bob, Alvin, and our avian friends.

Once back in our car, we took off down the road to visit our friends. Martin was a rare bird, having left a lucrative law practice to live a simpler, albeit hard-working, life in the northern woodlands. He often described his previous profession as an albatross around his neck, weighing him down with pressure, stress, and worry. He and his wife, Phoebe, had two young adult children who had flown the coop several years earlier to strike out on their own. We all sat outside on Adirondack chairs and were soon joined by their neighbors, Jay and Robin, who are no spring chickens. Phoebe served muffins she had made that morning. Jay, Robin, Martin, Bob, and I devoured the muffins, but Phoebe, who eats like a bird, took only a bite out of Martin’s muffin.

Martin was eager to show us some owl pellets that he had found several days earlier while walking in his woods. He handed them to us to examine, noting that on several occasions he had heard a Barred Owl in the vicinity where he found the pellets. Even a full handful of the pellets were light as a feather and nearly disintegrated as I held them. We agreed that the pellets could be from a Barred Owl roosting or nesting in a tree above where Martin found them. When it came to interest in birds, Martin was really beginning to get his ducks in a row by taking online birding courses, getting out early to listen to song, absorbing behaviors that he observed, and always carrying binoculars and a field guide with him.

Time flew over the next two hours, full of laughter and stories about life in the rural Northeast. Martin played the part of a wise old owl, sharing his experiences and thoughts on how to live well. After leaving the quartet of friends, Bob and I talked about how they were birds of a feather that flock together, similar in personality, lifestyles, and opinions.

Before returning home, we decided on a lark to explore a small dirt road that headed up a slight hill. We followed the road, moving slowly and listening for any new species for the day. Majestic sugar maple trees lined the road with meadows beyond. We were soon rewarded with the beautifully melodic song of a Field Sparrow. We sat for a long time, just letting the song wash over us in the approaching darkness.

Back home after a satisfying day, we compared notes on what we had heard and seen. It turned out that the Black Vulture was Bob’s 200th species on his life list for the county, a real feather in his cap. But I had to eat crow because we got only 75 species for the day’s efforts, far short of my predicted 100.

Bob reviewed reports posted on eBird to see if there was somewhere we might go the next day. Two Sandhill Cranes had been reported a few days earlier in the neighboring county but had not been reported since. We debated whether to look for them but wondered whether it would require too great an investment of our time, because it was at least an hour’s drive each way. Besides, newly arriving migrants were being reported locally every day. So we decided a bird in the hand was worth two in the bush, and made plans to visit local haunts where we knew we would have a much better chance to see returning migrants. Not being night owls, we hit the sack early, excited about the prospects of what the next day might bring.

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

Showing 1 Comment

John Kricher

Every contribution by Martha Steele is wonderful but this one is a pure gem.

3 years ago

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