Children are never too young to develop an interest in birds. By age three, my daughters could identify towhees and cardinals by sight and sound. Watching birds at feeders helped them learn colors, numbers and how to observe and describe behaviors. They learned art by drawing pictures of birds. But even they never got excited about field guides.
That seemed perfectly normal, until I heard about Max. Max lives in Pottstown, Pa., and is my grand-nephew, son of nephew Cory and wife Cathy. My brother Michael, Max's grandfather, has been telling me about Max for months. The boy is obsessed with birds. He's five years old, just starting kindergarten.
Of course, I wanted to encourage Max's obsession, so last spring I sent him a copy of Don Kroodsma's Backyard Birdsong Guide, a terrific book with an audio module that plays the songs of birds when you push the correct buttons. Max loved it and mastered virtually all the songs in just a few weeks.
Max Shalaway and his mother, Cathy, watch as a Harris’ hawk flies through their joined hands.
He has since graduated to the 752-page Smithsonian Handbook: Birds of North America, Eastern Region (2001). Michael says he takes it everywhere and knows almost all the birds by sight. I found that hard to believe for a five-year old, even though he is kin.
Earlier this summer at the New Jersey shore, Max impressed his aunts, uncles and cousins. Laughing gulls, ring-billed gulls, herring gulls and common terns were no match for Max's ID skills. I'd bet Max could even identify black skimmers and American oystercatchers, though they are rarely seen on overcrowded swimming beaches.
Just before Labor Day, Cathy and Cory visited The Hotel Hershey in Hershey, Pa., and signed up for a raptor show by Pennsylvania falconer/naturalist and longtime friend Jack Hubley. Jack has been doing nature-themed TV at WGAL in Lancaster for 24 years. His birds include a golden eagle, two peregrine falcons and four Harris' hawks. He has had visitors from all over the world attend his show at The Hotel Hershey. But none like Max.
When Max saw Jack's first bird, he told his parents, ''That's a Harris' hawk.''
''He's the first five-year old who's ever identified that bird,'' Jack told me via phone.
It's particularly impressive because Harris' hawks are native to the southwest. Its chestnut shoulders, however, are distinctive to anyone who has ever seen them in a field guide.
The highlight of the show came when Hubley invited audience members to join the flight show. (Hubley's is one of only a few flight shows licensed to permit audience members to interact with the birds.) Max and his mother joined hands to form a circle, and on command, the hawk flew through it.
I told Jack if I hadn't seen the photos, I might not have believed what that bird did. ''He's a great bird, and he always makes me look good,'' Hubley explained.
Then the bird perched on Max's gloved hand. I can only imagine the thrill of holding a magnificent bird of prey on my hand at that age. Max will remember that moment forever.
That's how birders are born.
FREE MUSHROOM BOOK AVAILABLE
The U.S. Forest Service recently published an excellent field guide to forest mushrooms. Just send a postcard or a letter with your name and address to: U.S. Forest Service, Publications Distribution, 359 Main Road, Delaware, OH 43015-8840 and ask for a free copy of Field Guide to Common Macrofungi in Eastern Forests and Their Ecosystem Functions.
Send questions and comments to Dr. Scott Shalaway, RD 5, Cameron, WV 26033 or by email via my website, scottshalaway.googlepages.com.