Birding with birdbrains and a stiff neck

This week we continue the tale of our Iowa Synod School trip (click here for last week’s entry).

Quick recap for those too lazy to click the link: Two weeks ago, I and 639 other Presbyterians attended a Synod School in Storm Lake, Iowa. I took four classes, one of which was a birding class called “Robins, Raptors and Ducks.”

What follows is a lowdown on what I learned…

On the first day our teacher made a confession. “I am by no means an expert on birdwatching.”

She proved this in so many ways.

She may have been the most computer-illiterate person I’d ever met. Watching her try to navigate the various birding sites was downright adorable. We’d coach her as we watched her efforts on the classroom screen – “click on the tab… no, the big one on the right… click there… I think you need to go back one… just hit the logo… no, the one at the top…”

And when she’d accidentally log herself out (at least once every morning), she never remembered her sign-in so she’d open up her email. Still keeping the projection on the screen so we saw her user name (birdlady47) as well as her 352 unopened emails. (Her Amazon purchase recently shipped!)

No surprise, she was also terribly scattered. Several times she’d rifle through her notes – “Oh, I must have left it in my room” – or lose her train of thought – “Now where was I going with that?… oh well, couldn’t have been too important.”

But what she lacked in expertise or competence, she made up for in enthusiasm. Never have I seen a woman’s face light up with such joy as she discussed bird poop, or the ecstasy she experienced watching a mama bird upchuck into a baby bird’s mouth.

And here’s another thing I loved about her: she was as fond of commonplace birds as I was. Even speaking highly of crows and pigeons. “They’re quite intelligent, you know.”

(Yes, I do know. And thank you for saying it.)

birders crows and pigeons

As I mentioned before, we were to spend two of our class times outdoors. What surprised us is that she scheduled the first one for Tuesday, only our second day in. Someone asked if we’d carpool. “I suppose we could…” she replied.

“Where should we meet?”

She thought about it. “How about over by those benches. You know the ones I mean?”


“You know… over by that building…,” she waved her arm vaguely. “I think it’s the science building. Or maybe it was arts.”

One of the male students – the one wearing a funny hat so presumably a world-class birder – was more precise. The next day we would meet at the benches nearest the visitor parking lot and drive to the park by the lake.

Sadly, the teacher was not real specific on which side of the park, so some of the class wound up across the lake. I was with the teacher’s group.

Here she is sitting on a bench.

Birder instructor

This is where she placed herself as soon as we arrived. She gave us no instructions, just plopped down with her binoculars.

We milled around wondering what to do.

Birders class

Eventually we figured it out. It’s a birdwatching class. We should watch birds.

Here are a few of my classmates catching sight of an I-don’t-know-what.


Frankly, I found my classmates more fascinating than the birds. Definitely easier to take pictures of; they moved around less.

Here’s Man in Funny Hat, but he forgot his hat.

Birder funny hat

He still looks kind of funny though.

This is Charlotte. Doesn’t she look sweet?

Birder Charlotte

I met her during the ride to the park and fell in love with her. She’s an Iowan grandmother and I think by law they have to be sweet.

As for the birdwatching… you know, I gave it my best shot. Really I did. Had my binoculars out, gazed up into the trees. The whole shtick.

Then about 10 minutes in, give or take a few minutes, I felt a familiar twinge in my neck and thought, “Oh yeah – I have neck problems!”

Really, you wouldn’t think it’d be hard remembering two major surgeries, 12+ weeks of recovery, titanium plates and rods, all that jazz. But somehow I forget every time. Up until I feel the twinge, of course.

I spent the rest of the class period keeping my head level, which wasn’t too bad considering we were at a lake.

I saw some lovely Canada Geese.

birding 2

I’m humbled to learn I’ve always called them by the wrong name. I used to say Canadian Geese, but apparently they lack citizenship status and so are simply Canada Geese.

Anyway, despite correcting my head position, I wound up with one humdinger of a stiff neck. For the rest of that day and half of the next, I had the most impressive posture you ever did see. (My God, I was in pain.)

Even so, I soldiered on. No one except Husband knew (poor guy, he hears all my woes). Though when the next outdoor birdwatching day was scheduled for Thursday, I bowed out, thinking it best not to chance it.

As it turned out, it was just as well. Not only was Thursday cold and rainy, half the class wound up at an entirely different location than the rest.

When Friday’s class began, our teacher apologized. “I decided yesterday morning we’d go to a meadow instead,” she explained.

Ohhhh,” said Man in Funny Hat (he found it!), “we wondered where you went to.”

“Yeah, I didn’t know how to send you a message,” she explained, no doubt having forgot her email password. “Then I figured, oh well, they’ll probably still see some nice birds where they’re going.”

Wow… just, wow

Okay, so the birdwatching teacher was a bit of a birdbrain (and we’re not talking crow-level brain either). Even so, I did learn a few things:

  • For attracting more birds to your yard, focus on using native plants & shrubs and packing them in closely. Birds like the safety of hopping from bush to bush.
  • Black oil sunflower seed is a favorite for many birds; peanuts and mealworms are a hit too.
  • To deter squirrels, you can attach baffles to poles or else buy squirrel proof feeders. (Though my own personal nemesis, Darth Squirrel, figured them out. This is war… WAR I SAY!)
  • Over 400 million birds die every year in the U.S. just by smacking into tall buildings. (Good Lord!)
  • You can prevent birds from going kamikaze on your windows a number of ways, one of which is not cleaning them. (As if I needed a reason.)

So ends this week’s episode of Synod School for the Birds.

Stay tuned next week when we tackle the Letter from Birmingham Jail and how it will impact the Presbyterians… or will it?

29 thoughts on “Birding with birdbrains and a stiff neck

  1. I love the Canada Geese lake photo. 🙂

    Working in Northwest Territories is memorable for the number and size of the ravens. They are huge! And very smart. I once watched three of them organise to steal a dog’s food. Two distracted him while the third flew away with the entire bowl! The three of them settled into a nearby playground for their feast. The poor dog didn’t know what had happened. 😳

    1. That’s brilliant! Dang, once birds start working together, it’s only a matter a time before they completely take over. They’re already smarter than our elected leaders, so…

    1. Well, I don’t want to sound paranoid, but I have caught them watching me when I’m in the yard and I’m pretty sure they’re talking about me when my back is turned. 😉

  2. Crows are smart. The family in our back garden have had a running battle with the raccoons all summer and they’re winning. They defeated the pigeons years ago. Your guide seems about typical of most serious bird watchers. They watch birds — and not much else. Good luck with the stiff neck. Waiting for Birmingham Jail.

    1. We visited an aquarium that had a crow. Can’t remember why, exactly, but he was a big hit. He had one of those toys where you have to put different colored shapes in the holes; every time he got it right, he got a snack. He ALWAYS got it right. 🙂
      Warning: this Birmingham post is going to be a whopper!

  3. Lovely, as always, especially the sly humor. (“He found it!”) But would it be rude of me to mention that this entire discourse reminds me of a certain company where I used to work? Probably so. Still, the Big Giant Heads at Verizon couldn’t find a bird if they’re lives depended on it. Or read their email…

    Back to you.


    1. I’ve worked for people like that. Come to think of it, I’m not sure they knew what birds were.
      You know, I think life would be much better if we could interview potential employers. And our test would be if they could name various common birds by sight. I truly believe people who make note of trees, birds, flowers, etc., are humble by nature and therefore more likely to be fair and kind.
      It’s a theory work testing, don’t you think?

  4. Hilarious! I can’t imagine why someone like that would try to teach a class about anything. Sorry about your neck – I don’t think serious birding as a hobby is in your future. Just enjoy the ones you do see. 😊

      1. I hear ya. I enjoy birding and may occasionally enter a new sighting in my bird book, but I don’t keep lists. When someone posts that a fragglenecked bellyswapper has just landed at the local lake, I don’t drop everything to get to the lake to notch another “lifer”!

  5. I saw a documentary that suggested that hummingbirds had a brain about the size of a grain of rice, but could still navigate from Canada to Mexico. Definitely smarter than some elected “leaders”, and much more enjoyable to watch to boot.

    1. For such a small brain, they sure are feisty little devils! Once I saw one taunting some sparrows who were pissed he was feeding on flowers near their nest. He kept hovering inches from them and the sparrows were throwing a fit! If I could translate sparrow-ese, I’m certain they were lobbing many f-bombs. 😀

  6. This was so lovely and funny. That neck operation sounded pretty full-on, fancy forgetting about it! It may be a UK thing, bird watchers here are called Twitchers. We’re no Twitchers, but we do spend what is probably a disproportionate amount of time watching, discussing and encouraging our garden birds. I tell myself off if I catch myself saying ‘just a sparrow’. One of our most common birds, they’re now in decline. Brown they may be, but they’re not boring. We have a nest in our eaves and love following each year’s new family shenanigans. Looking forward to more tales from your school trip!

    1. Twitchers? That’s a funny name for it, but somehow describes them perfectly.
      My fondness for common birds probably is a result of living in a city most my life, as they were all I saw! But when you think about it, the fact they successfully adapted to living with us is pretty awesome. Though I had no idea sparrows were in decline anywhere!

  7. So sorry your birding classes were so scattered. I certainly understand the neck pain. I’ve never had neck surgery but I have had a couple of car accidents that has me continuing to see a chiropractor x25 years with stiff neck. Birding doesn’t help but it sure is fun especially if you actually know someone who can help identify them. We’ve only been birding for a few years but I think I could have taught the class. Glad you picked up the pointers you did. My one suggestion for your readers is to find out what feed works best in their area for specific birds. We use a choice mix from Wild Birds Unlimited here in north Florida. Great article! 👌

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