Generally I’m not superstitious. If I’m lucky, I’ll never have reason to be superstitious (knock on wood). But all my life, ever since I started birding at the age of six, I have had this kind of superstition surrounding my first bird of the year every year.
I know the calendar doesn’t really mean anything. A year is a real unit of measurement – one orbit of the Earth around the sun – but it doesn’t have a real beginning or end; we just have this arbitrary date of January 1 to kick it off, and there are 364 other dates that would work as well. But since our calendar is set up that way, I can’t resist starting a new bird list for the new year on January 1, and I can’t help thinking about what will be the year’s very first bird.
When I was 18, I decided to go all out and try to break the record for a North American big year – not as much of a challenge back then, when the standing record was only 626 (a total that had been reached by my friend Ted Parker just a couple of years before). On New Year’s Eve just before the year started, I was at Cave Creek Ranch in Arizona, sitting up late at night talking about my birding plans with my friends Bob and Janet Witzeman. This is the way I described it in my book Kingbird Highway: The Biggest Year in the Life of an Extreme Birder (affiliate link).
When I strode out of the Witzemans’ cabin I was filled with encouragement and enthusiasm and alcohol, buoyed up by visions of my noble challenge for the year. Ironically, in my euphoria I turned the wrong way outside their door and wandered around in the dark for half an hour before I found my own cabin and collapsed on the sofa in my sleeping bag.
When I woke up it was January, and my first bird of the year was flitting nervously in branches outside the window: a Ruby-crowned Kinglet. The big white ring around the eye of this tiny bird gave it a wide-eyed, excited look, as if it were surprised to have achieved fame so quickly.
By the way, the picture at the top of this post is a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, shown about three times its actual size.
I don’t remember what my first annual bird has been for most of the years since then. Often if we’re in a city, the first bird will be something uninspiring like a House Sparrow or a pigeon – or something that flies around early, like a crow or a grackle. Of course, if the city is on a different continent from where I live, there’s a chance that the first city bird will be something that seems more exotic to me. Two years ago, Kimberly and I flew from Ohio to Argentina overnight on New Year’s Eve, and when we landed at Buenos Aires in the morning, the Blue-and-white Swallows flying around the terminal provided our first year bird. Yeah, I know, Blue-and-white Swallow is dirt-common over much of South America. But for us it was a nice change of pace.
I’m writing this just after dark on New Year’s Eve, and we’ll be ringing in 2011 in a few hours. First thing in the morning, we’ll be off doing the Christmas Bird Count at Fremont, Ohio. Hoping for something cool like a Short-eared Owl to kick off the year, but there’s a good chance that the number one bird will be the dreaded House Sparrow again.
What about you? If you’re reading this after dawn on January 1, what was your first bird of 2011?