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!”
“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.