When I was three and a half, we emigrated, travelling by train from Kharkov, Ukraine, via Poland, to Vienna. Our year in Vienna was a migratory stopover, only we differed from warblers in that we had no idea where exactly we would end up. Unlike the Prothonotary warbler that breeds in the same trees every spring, we shuttled back and forth between five embassies accepting Russian-Jewish refugees in the late 1970s. Our choices were Germany, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States. We had diverted from our intended path, which would have brought us to Israel, because my father’s age meant he could still have been drafted to serve in the army.
I grew up with brown paper-wrapped packages sent from the Soviet Union by my grandmother. My grandparents were refuseniks—Russian Jews denied visas to leave the Soviet Union. Over the course of our nine-year separation, they sent the contents of their bookshelves, kitchen cupboards, and linen closet piecemeal.
These parcels arrived from people I knew only from photographs. I knew that I was born in a country one could no longer travel to. In one of these parcels was a flimsy paperback called Birds of Our Forests (Ptitsy nashikh lesov) that my grandmother must have sent in the early 1980s, and which I must have flipped through—or not—before setting it aside on my bookshelf. I rediscovered it a few years ago, when my parents embarked on an extensive home renovation. They tasked me with packing up my old bedroom, which still housed all my Soviet picture books. I reread the usual suspects—fairy tales with folksy illustrations, didactic verse with the requisite dreams of incessant hard work for the industrial homeland, including a peculiar story of a young woman whose mother proudly worked as a senior milkmaid on the collective farm. This all seemed in keeping with my grandmother’s unquestioning acceptance of Soviet ideology. Ever a perfectionist and a model student, she only began to question her world after emigration. And even then, reluctantly.
But the book about nature surprised me. The primitively illustrated children’s book urged the younger generation to explore the great forests of the Soviet Union. There were woodpeckers, ravens, wood grouse, titmice, little owls, woodcocks, kingfishers, hawks—words that would have meant nothing to me as a child. It was a book I don’t remember thanking her for. Maybe it was dwarfed by the bottles of Red Moscow perfume she sent, whose scent I tried to inhale in hopes of recognizing my grandmother. When she arrived in Canada in 1987, her fur coat reeked of mothballs, and it turned out she reserved dabbing Red Moscow behind the ears for special occasions. Between the fur, the arresting bleached blonde hair, the Eastern bloc woollens, and the clothes packed in thick plastic bags that had been washed and air-dried, there was little I recognized of the person to whom I’d written so many letters.
Why my grandmother, who believed in the higher gods of symphony halls and ballet performances, and who had no interest in the natural world, chose to send me a book about Russian birds remains a mystery to me. Her experiences with the Soviet natural world were limited to forced summers working on the kolkhoz, where she picked cotton or sugar beets for days on end. “That was enough nature for a lifetime,” she told me.
“Why did you buy me this book?” For a moment, I imagined that my grandmother had been the accidental culprit, that the cheap Soviet paperback had been the driving force behind my transformation from nature novice to bona fide bird nerd, that my interest in the avian world wasn’t so much a genealogical anomaly as historically determined. “I bought you dozens of books—at one point, I just bought all the new children’s books I could find. Even translations.”
“But did you imagine I’d become interested in birds?”
“You know, I don’t think I even read the titles.” My grandmother refuses to have any involvement in my new bird life. To her it makes little sense. “Normal people go to the opera,” she tells me, “but you now go to bed at nine o’clock, set your alarm for four in the morning, and look at birds. Meshuga.” Craziness, she calls it in Yiddish. My grandmother, who can’t speak Yiddish, uses the language whenever she wants to emphasize a point; the language gives her generations’ worth of authority. My decision to choose the outdoors baffled my grandmother; hadn’t her ancestors, the Lupolover-Lupolansky clan, had their fill of the dirty outdoors in their shtetls in the Pale of Settlement, where Jews had been forced to live since the time of Catherine the Great? Wouldn’t they have run toward civilization and chosen institutions of higher learning and the glamour of opera houses and concert halls if only it had been accessible to them? I didn’t realize I was disappointing an entire lineage. The outdoors were for other people.
“I still think you must have known,” I say.
“I wanted you to speak Russian and love literature, so I sent you poetry by Agniya Barto and Sergei Mikhalkov. I also wanted you to become a scientist, so I sent you my favorite primer of microbes.” Poems about disciplined children of good strong Soviet workers, biology for beginners—those books still lay on my shelf, untouched.
“Well, the birds are your fault,” I tease her.
For a year, the male Red-winged Blackbird was the only bird I knew. I saw it everywhere, from early spring well into late fall, and pointed it out to whomever I happened to be with. “What’s the bird next to it?” my husband asked, after I had shown him a red-winged blackbird for the tenth time. “I have no idea. The red-winged is the only bird I can ID.” “ID?” “Identify. Birders ID things.” I tested out the lingo. Too bad I only had one ID to my name. “Are you going to meet that group again?” I shrugged. I had Slade’s binoculars, but I wasn’t sure.
How long would we have to stand on the shore of Lake Ontario admiring ducks that all looked the same? What if I again proudly pointed out a rare mottled brown duck with an eye-stripe and a blue patch on its wing, which turned out to be a female mallard? But it wasn’t so much the humiliation that deterred me or the uphill learning battle that I was about to plunge into, but the fact that the hobby felt entirely static. We stood by the lake for a long time, binoculars glued to our eyes, looking out onto the water, calling out IDs, comparing results, questioning plumage, waiting for the moment when we “got” a bird. Wouldn’t the novelty wear off after a while? I could imagine getting excited about a bird once, but what happened after the tenth sighting?
And what was the purpose of birding anyhow? Even my hairdresser, Randy, was confused when I described what it meant to “go birding,” and he asked in earnest, “So you see a bird and then what?”
“Some people list.”
“They keep lists. Like a running life list of all the birds you’ve ever seen.” I didn’t tell him about the more compulsive listers who also kept year lists, country lists, province lists, city lists, day lists. “Those people are called listers.”
“Is that what you’re going to be? Julia the Bird Lister?”
“But still, you have all these lists, and then what?”
I had no answer for Randy. I wasn’t sure what the point of it all was or what I wanted out of the enterprise exactly, but I did know one thing: I had just left behind a goal-oriented life that had clear cut expectations. I had gone to graduate school and embarked on a coveted tenure-track job teaching Russian literature at a research university in Missouri, a dream job according to my checklist. Absolutely nothing was wrong with the job; my colleagues were lovely and supportive, my students charming and hardworking, and yet when I came home in the evenings to my spacious apartment overlooking the town’s picturesque Katy Trail, my only desire was to crack open a beer, and then another, and possibly a third, until I forgot where I was exactly and how I got there, and day would press itself definitively into night. I resigned after three years.
All I knew was that for a whole year, I kept thinking about the red-winged blackbird. Agelaius phoeniceus—literally, the red gregarious one. I wondered about its name, since the wings weren’t entirely red; there was just a little red patch on the wing, lined with a contour of mustard-yellow against a slick black background. It was a more refined version of the crows I had seen as a child. I had no idea that red-wings were such common birds; each sighting felt like a feat of scientific prowess on my part. For the first time since moving back to Toronto after quitting my job, life felt exhilarating. I could identify something in nature. I was learning to speak a new language […]
My first northern cardinal sent me into raptures of ecstasy and my first hundred blue jays made me shout in wonder. Some people call themselves beginners, but what they really mean is that they have a hard time distinguishing ducks in eclipse plumage. I wasn’t one of those. I didn’t even know what eclipse plumage was. “Think of it as learning a new language,” Brete said. If there was one realm I felt comfortable in, it was language learning. Navigating grammatical forms, memorizing vocabulary, deciphering syntax—this brings me joy. But with birding, I was barraged by a language I couldn’t make sense of. Throw me in a pool of Romance or Slavic verb forms and I’ll find my way, but here, I was completely lost.
No matter how much I love the month of May in Toronto, when I see black-throated blue warblers daily, their black face masks set off by a metallic navy head and black and white underbelly, I know it’s short-lived. They cannot stay for long; their route has been predetermined. To stop a black throated blue from migrating is to kill it. I wish I could stretch out the contours of May, and I do, in my own way, by waking up at dawn and birding as much as humanly possible. I know that birds are only at their brightest for a short time—to attract the best mate possible. The colors are at their most vibrant. And just as I’m getting to know them, as I get used to them, fall in love with them, they’re off. My consolation is that they’ll be back next year. And the year after that.
Niagara-on-the-lake used to register in my mind as the place where we saw summer theatre, but now it’s home to my razorbill sighting in 2011. The bird I didn’t know was extraordinary. The bird I wouldn’t have seen had the kittiwake worked out. We talk about destiny, about what’s meant to be, when in reality it’s usually a combination of failure plus time, a series of adjusted circumstances, a question of human resilience and ability to reconfigure our expectations.
What I love about birding isn’t so much the birds I see but the circumstances within which I see them. That seeing the birds allows me to reflect on my own life, to forgive myself for things I’ve done, or to understand how they might not have happened otherwise. There have been so many botched kittiwake sightings in my life. It’s hard not to see them as colossal mistakes. It’s hard to know when to call them off, when to back off and try for something new. The day we saw the razorbill, we had no assurance that it would be there. But we hoped.
It’s hard to measure my birding progress. Ten years later, I am no longer a complete neophyte. I can follow along with a birdy conversation, I have less trouble absorbing ornithology lectures than I did when I first joined the Toronto Ornithological Club, and I can offer great contributions in the bird home-decorating-kitsch department. I also keep up with most birding books written for a general audience. But I know I’m still far from being a skilled birder. Maybe the point isn’t about measuring at all; it’s about seeing. Who cares if I’m still not the first one to call out an ID, or if I call out a wrong one, or if I still need professional help finding the more elusive specimens? Before birds, most things I did were measured for success: tests, essays, a completed dissertation, job applications. But with birds, there is no barometer for success beyond my own personal enjoyment. I’m not in it for the science, I’m not in it for the competitive aspect, I’m not in it for the thrill of garnering an extensive life list. Too old to be a precocious birder, too little scientific knowledge to contribute to the ornithological conversation. So what have I been doing, exactly? Learning to look. Learning to befriend failure.
The peculiar thing about my love affair with birds is that nobody cares about it but me. There is no external assessment. Every Saturday, my parents ask me what I’ve seen, but they rarely listen to my response. My husband patiently lets me show him field-guide pictures of the amazing bird I’ve just seen or the even more amazing bird I just failed to see, but he doesn’t care whether I’ve seen one bird or 150.
Birding has changed my perception of time. The calendar now operates on different terms for me. I feel a sense of excitement every spring when I see warblers for the first time; I recognize a few more of them every year. And the fall? Well, it’s not only a letdown, it’s downright depressing. In a sense, I feel abandoned. I feel a sense of promise in the spring. In the fall, the birds stop singing, for the most part, except for the occasional confused robin or red-winged blackbird who sings their heart out in the hope of one last hurrah. Their songs—due to autumnal recrudescence, when birds start feeling that urge all over again because light levels are in line with early spring—feel out of place and have a plaintive ring to them. There’s no way around it: the days are getting shorter, and things are coming to a standstill. As the birds fly south, I come to terms with my own mortality. It brings it one step closer. My parents are getting older. My grandmother will not be there forever. Every fall, I notice changes in myself, in my husband. Everything is okay, but there’s a nervous sense of what-if-ness. And then the Novemberness of things creeps in. The darkness looms, the days get shorter, and it feels like a long time till spring. […]
I believe in birds. I believe in their beauty, in their wisdom. I love the way they take me out of myself and enable me to live anew. I marvel at their capacity for flight, their sense of direction, their straightforward life, stripped down to the basics: eat, choose a mate, breed, protect. I gather that they don’t think too much. They don’t have writer’s block. They don’t sit around wondering what project to take on next; they don’t worry about authenticity or presenting their best selves on social media. I love birds because their lives are nothing like mine, because my anxieties would not only seem inane to them but would register as a foreign language.
Julia Zarankin is a writer and birder based in Toronto. Excerpted and adapted from Field Notes from an Unintentional Birder: A Memoir, by Julia Zarankin ©2020. Published by Douglas & McIntyre. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.