Birding: by heart, by sight, by ear.

My grandparents lived in a semi-forested area on the edge of a tiny town in central Oklahoma. The dining room featured a big picture window overlooking a yard that backed onto unkempt woodland. Near the window there was a pair of binoculars and a bird book. There were birdfeeders, three different bird baths out back (two in the front). The yard, fields and forest were dotted with little birdhouses that Grandpa made himself. They were all identical – smallish, grey-blue with a red roof on top. Most of them were on poles unceremoniously strewn about the property, and as memory serves they were almost exclusively occupied by phoebes. Year after year.

Mom had birdfeeders of her own, a bird bath, binoculars and her own bird book. Though I don’t remember much identification occurring at our house, there was a great deal of interest in the ducks at the duck-pond park, the guinea hens who inexplicably resided there, the grackles that were so loud by the swing set.

So I knew a bit about birds. I couldn’t help it. I was surrounded by people that would point to something at the feeder and identify it. Over time I knew the names of certain birds. But I didn’t understand how profound Mom’s gift really was until one day when I was about five or six. We were sitting out on the back deck and Grandpa’s in the morning. Something flew over our heads and into a tree. She mentioned in passing what it was, and I was stunned. How could she know that? It passed by so fast!

This was before I knew about tell-tale flight patterns, or distinctive songs (nothing but a jay sounds like a jay, with those loud, raspy cries), or that a flash of red in Oklahoma is almost certainly a cardinal, particularly if there’s a pair of them that have been hanging around the feeders all morning. All I knew is my mother had some sort of magical powers of observation. And I wanted those powers.

I went inside for a piece of paper and pencil and asked her to list all of the birds that she saw. I wrote down the name of everything she said, and put a tally mark next to subsequent sightings. Cowbird, phoebe, sparrow, purple martin, blue jay, cardinal, chickadee, scissor-tail flycatcher… I’d had no idea there could be this many different kinds of birds in a place at once.

I have been an avid amateur ornithologist ever since.

I suppose it’s the artist’s eye that seduces one so easily into this sort of thing. The natural eye for detail, the desire to receive as MUCH information as possible with a glance, the sense of relief that comes from identification — a mystery solved. (Or at least, narrowed down.) Then too, identification of an individual species in a crowd of many allows you to keep track of them, to enjoy the unfolding drama before your eyes.

Maybe it doesn’t need explanation. Maybe it was simple upbringing. My grandfather watched birds, he taught his children, and they taught theres. It was a thing to bond over, a thing to learn to feel a part of the group, and now it’s a simple pleasure all its own that I am slowly teaching Anthony.

Birdwatching (bird identifying, anyway,) is often a game of knowing little tricks. You very rarely get a textbook view of something, so you have to know a lot of little things about birds. The strange swooping flight pattern of a scrub jay. The flashes of white and black signaling a junco darting for the underbrush. Knowing the difference between a vulture’s wings at a distance (open, like: V) vs. an eagle’s (flat, like: –).

All was well until I moved to Portland, where most of the birds worth seeing hide a WAY up the tops of trees. Time of day and general quietness helps, (as do walks in designated ‘bird areas’, where I’ve seen some extraordinary sights,) but there have also been many walks in Forest Park featuring a cacophony of sound and not a single sighting.

Because of this I have begun to think about birding from a completely different angle — that of sound. At long last I have got my hands on a copy of Roger Tory Peterson’s Birding By Ear, a three disc CD set designed to teach that notoriously difficult (for me) practice of discerning birdsong.

Within the introduction there are several suggestions as to how one might go about “facilitating learning”, which is possibly my most favorite phrase. I do so love to facilitate the learning. I listen to it in bursts, (too much at once and they all start sounding the same again). Already it helped me spot a pileated woodpecker a few weekends ago.

Learning: facilitated.

What IS Cyborg Anthropology?

In 2011 I began illustrating Amber Case‘s book, “A Dictionary of Cyborg Anthropology.” 

It meant a lot robot-y pictures were popping up on my blog.

I also started getting a lot of questions about what exactly ‘cyborg anthropology” is.

That’s actually what the book is sort of about — it defines terms she uses, like a big glossary. But I’ve read the evolving draft and it seems geared towards people who already are familiar with topics like this. There’s not a lot of words for us regular people.  

In an effort to make the topic more accessible — and for my own amusement, let’s be real — I put this little introduction together. 

This is by no means exhaustive. But for us non-techy-people it might be a gentle step into a new idea.


I am a human, this is a robot

We are not the same.

I have organs that nature made, he has wheels that I made.

I feel warm to the touch, he feels cool to the touch.

I have desires, he waits for a question.

We are not the same. But we are friends, and we help each other.

I get lost, he helps me find my way.

He gets hungry, I feed him.

I create beautiful ideas, he shares them with those I love.

He finds wonderful facts, I incorporate them into my thoughts.

As time goes on I find I have more robot friends

I help them learn about our human ways

They help me talk to my other human friends, who live far away.

We help each other more and more.

But does that mean I’m becoming a robot?

     Does that mean he’s becoming a human?

I don’t think so.

But, I’m different than my Uncle Bill, he does not have many robot friends.

Maybe that’s why some people call me a cyborg.

But, tiny robots help Uncle Bill hear me when I speak to him.

So maybe that’s why some people think he could be a kind of cyborg too.

A “cyborg” just means: extra things added to help someone explore a new place.

It’s robots and humans working together, making a new kind of cooperation.

Some people do this a lot.

Some people do this a little.

My Uncle Bill hardly does it at all.

He’s a little unsure about robots. They’re so different from what he’s used to.

The thing is, we use technology every day.

In a small way,  we always have.

My robot friends want to help humanity.

They don’t want to program humanity out of existence.

We haven’t been able to solve some big problems.

Maybe if the robots help, we can solve them.

So when I see a new robot I make sure to introduce myself.

So I can make even more robot friends.