July 2, 2020
HOW I BECAME INTERESTED IN BIRDS
By Erik Bruhnke
Birds have always been an important part of my life. They were incorporated throughout my younger days growing up, well before college. Many of my earliest memories of birding came from childhood, having a love for birds in the backyard and exploring the outdoors with my family. I owe much gratitude to my parents, who helped instill the act of caring for and admiring the outdoors.
As a young boy growing up in Wisconsin, I was given a chore I actually liked to do. It was my job to take care of the birdfeeders! Our backyard felt like a little paradise. A few ash and oak trees lined the property and provided much food and shelter for birds in the area. Black-capped Chickadees were the common visitors, as were American Goldfinches. As a child, tending to the feeders helped engender a connection and sense of responsibility with the birds in the backyard. The chickadees were in the yard year-round, and they felt like my friends.
My birding addiction grew as the year-round birdfeeding chores continued. Rain, shine, or snow, I made it a point to make sure the birds were well fed. In my earliest winters, I remember making a bird blind out of snow to watch the birds. Dark-eyed Juncos had arrived for the coldest months of the year, and my American Goldfinch friends were in their drabber, olive-toned plumage. The Northern Cardinals glowed against the snow as Blue Jays checked out the nooks and crannies. The views of these birds could not have been more incredible.
Over the years, my parents would bring my siblings and me to some of the local natural areas for a hike in nature. One of the places we visited often was the Lapham Peak State Park, a beautiful state park of large mixed forests, butterfly gardens, prairies, vernal pools, and cross-country skiing in the winter. I will never forget watching my lifer Eastern Bluebird there, with my 7x35 binoculars. It felt like time stood still in the world, and I had found the rarest treasure one could ask for. The Eastern Bluebird was captivating and beautiful.
My birdwatching adventures continued through middle school and went well beyond the backyard. The school system that I attended is very small, in the little township of Pewaukee. The route that my school bus took went over the Pewaukee River every weekday. My heart would race with excitement when I caught glimpses of a Great Blue Heron patiently waiting for fish, and sometimes the families of Mallards paddling around the river. Those birds were SO awesome, and I was mesmerized that this world of birds was found beyond my backyard. I felt a special connection with the Pewaukee River, as I was part of the Pewaukee River Keeper’s Club. We cleaned up trash, planted trees, helped make trails, learned about water quality and runoff, and spread the word to others about helping keep the river clean. Being part of that club, I felt a special connection with THAT Great Blue Heron, THOSE Mallards, and the many other animals that lived there.
I started my first job at 15 years of age, working at Wild Birds Unlimited. I felt grateful to have such a cool first job. To some, it might have been an old retail job. To me, it was an invigorating experience that encouraged me to get more into birds. The people that I worked with were really cool, several of whom have become lifelong birding friends. There’s the old saying, “one of the best ways to learn is by teaching.” It was great to teach people about birds and answer backyard birding questions while at work. I used some of my paycheck to purchase field guides and Bird Watcher’s Digest pamphlets to teach myself more about identifying birds. It was really interesting to learn about birds and their food preferences, and this made my birding experiences that much richer. I remember reading many publications by Kenn Kaufman and the late Bill Thompson III, whom back then I never expected to meet and know as dear friends. Scanning through field guides was a fun pastime, and I remember creating a “dream list” of birds that I’d love to see someday, many of which I’ve been blessed to have observed and savored while leading VENT tours!
I love being part of the VENT community and working with so many wonderful birders. Who would have thought that being told to fill the bird feeders would send my life in such a direction?
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