Birds & Birding

Misadventures in Suburban Birding

Cedar waxwings started all the trouble. © Cara Byington/TNC

I kept thinking, “how am I going to explain this to my husband?” And then, “maybe he won’t find out.” Followed by, “of course he’s going to find out. There’s a police car in the driveway and a policeman at the front door at 8:40 on a weekday morning.” At least there were no sirens or flashing lights.

And, of course, by the time the police got there, all the cedar waxwings – the cause of everything in the first place — were gone.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Zero to Hero: Update (sort of)

Long-time readers of Cool Green Science may remember the Zero to Hero journey to becoming a birder I started in 2015. I’m still on that journey and five years on, I can’t say my birding skills have reached heroic status (more like trusty, if occasionally bumbling, sidekick), but I have found my groove as an avid suburban birder. Unfortunately, I seem incapable of being a low-key avid suburban birder.

Considering how many people are taking up backyard, suburban and urban birding right now, I offer my tale of misadventure in the spirit of continuing public service. How does that saying go? If you can’t be a good example, you can serve as a terrible, terrible warning? Consider me your warning.

Which Brings Me Back to the Cedar Waxwings and the Police

This is what happened: It was a spring morning and I had just gotten home from an early morning errand (okay, yoga class). As soon as I got out of the car, I heard bird calls I didn’t immediately recognize as my usual cardinals, robins, and white-throated sparrows. So I looked up. And there were at least 20 cedar waxwings in the branches of a tree in my front yard. Cedar waxwings!

They were so close! I went inside to get my binoculars and camera, but when I came back out, they’d moved higher in a tree that was close to our upstairs window. So I went back in and headed up the stairs. Fortunately for my attempts at bird photography, our windows are the kind that let you tilt the glass pane inside. Apparently, it’s a feature to make cleaning the external glass easier. I can honestly say I have never used it for window cleaning, but it is brilliant for bird photography because you can shoot without glass in the way.

In this instance, that turned out to be kind of a double-edged sword.

Still unaware of impending trouble, I spent the next 10 minutes happily admiring the beautiful birds, leaning as far as I could out of the upstairs window, shooting away.

Now, my closest neighbors are accustomed to my odder birding ways. Seeing me hanging out a second-story window with a camera in one hand and binoculars in the other doesn’t really faze them. Well, okay, after five years, it doesn’t faze them anymore.

Apparently, the same cannot be said for the children who were walking to school while I was taking pictures of cedar waxwings. They were, as I found out later, very, very fazed.

This is where I should mention there’s a school close to our house and many kids from all over the neighborhood (read: kids whose parents don’t know about my birding tendencies) walk past our house every morning on the way to that school.

The Kids Were Definitely Fazed

They were so fazed, in fact, they reported me to the crossing guard in front of the school. And not just one group of kids. All the kids. The policeman who knocked on my door was very specific about that. They’d had, he said, “multiple concerning reports of a woman photographing children without their permission from her house.”

To which my answer (as far as I remember, the shock made things a little blurry) was something like, “Umm…No! Waxwings. Cedar waxwings!”

“Cedar what?”

“Waxwings. They’re birds.”

“Birds.” He didn’t sound like he believed me. At all. And he looked very pointedly at the camera still around my neck. “You were hanging out a window taking pictures of birds.”

“Yes!” I held the camera up like it could give me a character reference. “I was taking pictures of birds, not kids. They’re really beautiful. The birds, I mean. Not the kids, I didn’t even notice the kids.”

He sighed and really, I felt sorry for him. He probably hadn’t even had a second cup of coffee yet. “Show me the pictures.”

The Proof is in the Pictures (Lucky for Me)

I’ve never been so grateful for my Canon 80D with its nice view screen on the back in my life. I showed him every cedar waxwing picture and there were many, many, many cedar waxwing pictures. Another reason to be grateful for digital photographic technology.

Even more fortunately for me, there were absolutely zero kids in the background of any of the pictures. Cedar waxwings only.

“Okay,” he said. “I believe you. What’s the name of that bird again? I’m going to have to explain this.”

Yeah, I thought, you and me both.

So that’s how I escaped with a warning instead of being placed on a watch list somewhere. Well, as far as I know. Still, those cedar waxwings photos? Totally worth it.

Next time on Misadventures in Suburban Birding — Stalking vultures and woodpeckers from a silver Honda minivan is a two-person endeavor. Why? Get-away driver. Trust me.


Note from Cara: As a commenter rightly pointed out, my story is amusing and light-hearted because, as a white woman in America, I am particularly insulated by the privilege of my race and gender. For me, the police showing up at my door carried only the potential for fleeting neighborhood embarrassment, not a potential threat to my safety or survival. The same is not true for Black people who bird. And that’s unacceptable. Birding is, and should be, for everyone. Love of, and curiosity about, nature is for everyone.

Honestly, we shouldn’t need to say those words out loud. It should be obvious. But as the last few weeks have shown, it’s not obvious and we do need to say it out loud. Often and repeatedly. In the last few weeks alone, there have been countless stories from people of color – especially Black birders – about what it’s like to be Black in Nature. I’ve collected just a few links here, from J. Drew Lanham’s 9 Rules for the Black Birdwatcher  (and a 2020 update in Vanity Fair) to an interview with Christian Cooper, the Black birder threatened by a white woman in Central Park, to an Audubon feature on Black Women Who Bird. They are stories of devotion, and discovery, love, fear and heartbreak – nature stories that do what nature stories should: open our eyes and minds to the world outside our own doors, and the shared experiences that can and should connect us, not only to ourselves, but to each other.

Cara Cannon Byington

Cara Cannon Byington is a science writer for The Nature Conservancy covering the work of Conservancy scientists and partners, including the NatureNet Fellows for Cool Green Science. A misplaced Floridian living in Maryland, she is especially fond of any story assignment involving boats and islands, and when not working, can be found hiking, kayaking or traveling with her family and friends. More from Cara

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  1. Love your article about waxwings, but you stopped me cold with the word “phased” by using a homonym instead of the correct spelling: fazed. I see a lot of this online these days: passed for past, compliment/complement, site/sight/cite, do/due, etc. As for the kids calling the cops on you, how strange, since you were in your own home minding your own business.

  2. I have had Hummingbirds at my feeder for the last 3 years. They come to my backdoor and stare at me.
    Last year a gold finch ( which I haven’t seen in years ) visited my Sun flowers. I have a lot of birds eating at my bird feeder, Cardinals, blue jays, wrens, woodpecker, etc, etc. right now I have a feeder on a bedroom window. It is so cool to see them up close. I love them all.

  3. Hi Cara. Great story. Maybe you could change “phase” to “faze”.

    1. Hi Michele and Mollie — thanks for the correction. I fixed it — and sigh, phase/faze is one of those usages I always trip over. Clearly. Embarrassingly, I also almost always have to look up the difference between affect and effect, too. –Cara

  4. This is incredible and 100% my worst fear when I’m looking for birds outside my apartment window with binoculars!!

  5. Fun story, but it’s very important to note that this became a fn story only because you are a white woman. Birders of color do not often get to walk away from circumstances like this with a laugh. Imagine the police response if the child reported that a black man or woman had taken pictures of them. The police would not even let you get your camera to show pictures. They would not have believed them and would have been detained or possibly killed.

    It’s not a stretch. We often see minorities subject to extra scrutiny outdoors. Minorities have to answer the ‘why are you here’ question in some form (sometimes even coded in a statement like, ‘it’s so nice that your’e here’– signifying an “otherness”) anywhere. If the answer to that question is presupposed (like a 911 call on someone taking pictures of children), the situation is escalated on multiple fronts taking into account bias.

    Birding is such a fun hobby that should be accessible to everyone. Dismissing this encounter as a misadventure without acknowledging the VERY vast privilege you displayed reinforces a barrier, and is a missed opportunity at best.

    Please strive to be a bit more inclusive in your future blogs.

    1. Hi Tony — Thanks for your thoughtful note. You’re right. And your comment is very timely because I was thinking about this this morning and wondering how to address my privilege without sounding like I was owning someone else’s story, or trying to turn my personal story into something that speaks for other people, or, my biggest concern, look like I’m virtue signaling for the sake of my own ego to show how “woke” (or not) I am. In retrospect, I should have asked TNC’s diversity team the best way to acknowledge my privilege and I apologize for my short-sightedness. I’m sending that email to them now. I’m also sending you a private note because, if you’re open, I would be interested in continuing the conversation with you. Thank you — Cara

  6. Lovely story told with great skill.
    I can relate as a long time birder and serious photographer. I once lived in a tiny community where my exploring the woods with my camera or aiming my camera at something such as smoke coming out of a chimney…or the many things of interest to a serious photographer, were reason for concern of some. No police…but it sure wasn’t pleasant despite the abundant wildlife. I now live in a small, beautiful town, that is a photographer and bird haven, where I can just enjoy nature and concentrate on a great hobby.

  7. Wonderful little story! Those darn flocks of Cedar Waxwings do cause a bit of trouble – swooping in and stealing all the berries off trees or landing on dead trees and breaking branches off or making me slip and fall as I run to get the camera before the flock flies off. We love them despite everything! And I just recently had my Waxwing sighting and probably the neighbors could have heard me shouting my excitement. Cheers to birding everywhere – Lori near Bellville Texas

  8. Usually when someone tries to be a comedian I say don’t give up your day job, but I say to you, yes please keep your science writer job but also go on as a comedian as well.

  9. What kind of tree were they in? I’m trying to improve the habitat for birds in my yard and it looks like you have a winner. I have a lot of dogwoods and a few serviceberry but would like to get some more, especially those that attract waxwings.

    Tom Mroczkowski

  10. Cara,

    I enjoyed your article about the cedar waxwings. I also live in a suburban neighborhood and my neighbors are used to me rushing out and taking photographs. I have a mulberry tree that attracts many different bird species. Happy Trails! Lew Troast Jr.