The Naturalist's Journal

The Tree Swallows (above) are back at the local ponds, and while they’re mostly spending time swooping low over the water in their incessant search for insects, they’ll sometime take a break to pose for the Naturalist.


I can’t be sure that this is correct, but if a certain well-placed source heard this right, then it seems that the powers in charge of writing the newest edition of the definitive Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders—this would be the DSM-6—is currently debating, and debating rather fiercely, whether the field guide to mental illness used by every bona fide professional (and the insurance companies charged with paying the bills) should include a not-until-now-recognized affliction called Avian-Induced Hyperactivity Syndrome. AIHS, as the debilitating ailment would be known in the Medical Code Book, is actually a pretty decent description of the plaintive wails made by sufferers when they are gripped by the Syndrome and compelled—yes, sadly, there is no stopping this compulsion, although there is research on effective therapies and there may be medications available in the not-too-distant future—to abandon work, family, friends, and even all attempts at sleep and hygiene, in favor of dashing outdoors incessantly in the hopes of, and I am not making this up, the merest possibility of seeing, hearing, and documenting newly arrived migrant birds.

No one, of course, will be surprised to learn that the Naturalist has long been in the clutches of AIHS. Perhaps the cerebral scales were tipped when I first encountered that volume in the Golden nature series titled Birds: A Guide to the Most Familiar American Birds. I was no more than six when I asked my parents, who had almost no interest in avian matters—my mother, in fact, didn’t really like birds because of what she saw as their “beady little eyes”—how to tell a Robin from a Blue Jay, and because they themselves might not have been sure, they did what all folks did when asked such questions: they provided a book.

I was a pretty advanced reader, and soon, I was able to match James Gordon Irving’s charming paintings with what I was seeing out in the yard and in the woods and fields. I devoured the welcoming text by Herbert S. Zim and Ira N. Gabrielson, and every summer, when I was shipped off to camp, I apprenticed myself to the resident nature counselor and spent every second I could outdoors learning more about birds.

It seemed altogether innocent at the time, but, as we currently realize, it marked the beginning of a creeping perniciousness that might, had we but known then what we know now, been, if not entirely rooted out then at least tempered.

Sadly, it was not, and the Naturalist, who might have actually been a “contenda,” is now, well, left to wail, all too often, “AIHS!” The Nobel Prize in Literature will have to wait. The award-winning books will not be written. It’s May. Cold fronts have zipped through the ridge. There are migrant songbirds in the air. The Naturalist has no choice but to give in to Temptation.

A look through his notebooks reveals a pattern that therapists have seen over and over again. This litany of obsessive events started, it must be said, in late April, when the Naturalist noted the appearance of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. Then, in early May, there were notes about gatherings of Tree Swallows in a favored farm pond, the sharp cries of Killdeer in the newly plowed silage-corn fields, the first hatchling Canada Geese, and the non-stop mating attempts of Red-winged Blackbird males with sometimes-willing females. Things started to roll sharply downhill on the 6th, when a loud call best translated as “Wheep! Wheep! Wheep!” triggered the action potential of the documentarian’s six functional brain cells and the following response, which, by now, has become almost a reflex: drop whatever you were doing; run to the camera backpack to put the telephoto zoom onto the camera body; turn on the digital field recorder; forget about deadlines; race outside to try to capture the bird.

This was counterproductive, but on the 7th, when the passage of a cold front carried a wave of warblers into the treetops, the Naturalist completely lost possession of the slightest hint of responsibility.

So it is with compulsions. So it sadly, sadly is.

With every new call that made it through the windows—Had the Naturalist not read The Odyssey in high school? Did he not remember to seal his ears with wax to avoid the calls of the Feathered Sirens?—the gear was grabbed, the writing and every other task was forsaken, and the charge was on to view, record, and photograph each and every singer. Because the weather had been so untoward, the air was replete with travelers who had been itching to move, and when the skies finally cleared, the new birds arrived en masse. It was all the documentarian could do to keep up with them.

So, in the logbook for the 7th, there were Ovenbirds, Red-eyed Vireos, Great Crested Flycatchers, Black-and-White Warblers, Baltimore Orioles, and “Butterbutts,” as we call Yellow-rumped Warblers around here. (The pretty songbird, formerly known as the Myrtle Warbler, features a patch of bright-yellow feathers in the spot where the tail meets the body.) I would like to say that I finally got hold of myself and got back to work the next day, but, I have to confess, I instead continued backsliding and spent the time in the woods and swamps, where I looked for flycatchers, Scarlet Tanagers, Yellow Warblers, and anything else that might have appeared on the avian radar.

I found them, too, and even managed to capture credible images and sound recordings of many of the birds under observation. And that, I hasten to add, should have had me exclaiming, in the words of an old Passover Seder song, “Dayenu!” The Hebrew term translates, approximately, to “it would have been enough,” and it’s intoned as a “thank you” for a myriad of blessings bestowed on the Jewish people... and, by extension, all people for the good life brings.

All those birds should have been enough: Dayenu, already. Go home. Do some work. Overcome AIHS.

Would that it were so. Would that, to quote Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1, in which it was noted: They surfeited with honey and began/

To loathe the taste of sweetness, whereof a little/

More than a little is by much too much.

Truly, there’s never enough, and on the rare times when I’ve gotten my fill of birds, there are other things out there, from mysterious bog mushrooms to newly minted Eastern Comma butterflies. Maybe AIHS isn’t sufficiently encompassing. Maybe the DSM-6 should expand the syndrome to include all of nature. And maybe there’s even a cure on the therapeutic horizon. If so, I think I’ll opt out. Besides, I think I just heard a Goldfinch. Better grab the camera. Better head into the woods.


A Note to Readers

Natural history has often been compared to a scavenger hunt in three dimensions, and if you’d enjoy participating in such an activity, join me this Saturday, May 18th, from 10 a.m. to noon at the Avalonia Land Conservancy’s Babcock Ridge and Henne preserves in North Stonington for an introduction to what’s called “Hike and Seek”: a family-friendly, smart-phone-equipped investigation of the natural world in which we’ll comb our surroundings for clues that lead us to certain environments. For more information and to register, visit, e-mail me at, or just call 860-599-4867.

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