The Weather

About Birds and Omniscience

Tom, I believe your question was, “Does there come a time in life when one ought to know about birds? At what age do people who know about birds begin to learn about them?”

I’m glad you asked, my friend. You’re approaching the point in life where one must choose and one must act. Three possible answers present themselves to this pair of related questions:

1) “NEVER.” As long as you live, don’t ever learn the names of birds. If you already know what a robin looks like, try your best to forget. Simply declare that you are the sort of person who’s uninterested in living things that you can’t eat, ravish, or talk to in plain English. This relieves you from learning the proper terms for any species of animal or plant. Heck, why learn any nouns at all? Nouns are for losers. Verbs—that’s what we’re all about.

2) “SOMETIME.” Not now; don’t push it. Wait for the day when you’re filled with the greatest possible level of boredom and despair. You’ve seen Paris, you’ve touched Ayer’s Rock, you’ve danced the hokey pokey more times than you can count, and yet…something is missing. As you sit in your Mark Newson aluminum lounger in the lovepit of your perfect replica of Philip Johnson’s glass house, your attention may be caught by a melody being sung outside the open window. “Who or what could possibly produce such a heartbreakingly melodious song?” you wonder. A tear threatens to drop from your left eye. From that moment forward, you cannot rest until you’ve learned the name of the singer of that excruciatingly beautiful tune.

Eventually, you discover it was a little yellow warbler in the midst of its migration from Central America. You’re disappointed, of course, but pretend otherwise—cool people never make mistakes. Instead, you decide to play this one big. You compensate for the embarrassment by going completely overboard on how great birds are. You learn to identify each and every species in North America. You know their songs; you know their habitat. You go on birdwatching trips with Hank Paulson. And when one of the vice presidents of your company happens to call a grackle a “blackbird” in front of you, you laugh derisively.

Once he’s out of earshot, you tersely mutter to your assistant, “Fire that moron.”

3) “RIGHT NOW.” Learn it all, beginning right this second. Care about and know about everything. Learn the birds. The trees. The wine. The architecture. Learn the names of the different safety structures positioned on highways. (My personal favorite is the clever Fitch Barrier.) Learn the names of boy bands from the nineteen seventies. Learn the names of non-poisonous toadstools and bouncers at nightclubs and don’t forget to memorize the model numbers of commercial aircraft sequentially from most to least popular.

The point is: take a stand. Decide you want expertise now and seize it—or, decide you don’t and move on. Don’t wait passively for knowledge of birds to befall you some day, as if it were wrinkles or baldness or wisdom.

Jill Riddell is a writer in Chicago. She teaches at the School of the Art Institute and has a weakness for nature, magic, and pennies abandoned in sidewalk cracks.