Submitted photo##On a 2003 birding tour, Sullivan uses his scope on a Washington beach just north of the mouth of the Columbia River.
Submitted photo##On a 2003 birding tour, Sullivan uses his scope on a Washington beach just north of the mouth of the Columbia River. could be focusing on a marbled godwit. could be focusing on a marbled godwit. yellowthroat warbler. yellowthroat warbler. kinglet. kinglet. sapsucker. sapsucker.

Paul Sullivan - For the love of birds


As a boy in southern Minnesota, I rambled about our farm with a BB gun, eventually a .22 rifle, hunting squirrels, rabbits, pigeons and crows. Later, in college, I became a laboratory biologist.

I was 30 and writing a doctoral thesis when I saw a striking bird fly past my window and land on a tree. It was a black, white, red and yellow woodpecker. It prompted me to buy a bird book to figure out what it was. I welcomed any escape from the writing desk.

Bird book in hand, I walked through through nearby fields and discovered that a sound I’d heard all my life was a bird I’d read about in literature, a song sparrow. While fishing, I saw yellow warblers, colorful birds in the lakeside trees. At a wildlife refuge, I found a little yellow bird with a black Lone Ranger mask, a common yellowthroat.

The bird book was full of colorful birds. I wanted to see as many as I could. In the back was a checklist. I began to mark the birds I’d seen.


Back to nature

After finishing my degree, I moved to Pullman, Washington, and joined the Palouse Audubon Society. They helped me spot new birds and taught me about them. I was thrilled to get away from laboratory science, hang out in the natural world and observe whole organisms. It was an escape from the human rat race.

I then moved to Wallowa County. Wandering about, I kept daily lists of birds and flowers. I chased one elusive song in the treetops all spring in 1979. I learned to whistle the song, but the bird would not come down from the treetops for me to see it well.

I guessed it was a yellow warbler, then a western tanager, then a common redpoll, before I finally had a good look at it on July 4. It was a ruby-crowned kinglet.


Profession vs. hobby

I spent the next decade working on several formal research projects for universities, the National Forest Service and state wildlife agencies. I had to walk a transect line, carry a clipboard and collect data; it was research. It was fun to get paid for being outdoors and doing what I liked, but life as an itinerant biologist offers only seasonal work and meager pay.

Birding is a hobby. I became a leader of field trips for bird clubs and birding festivals. Birders of all levels participated, and it was fun. We built up the list of birds we had seen: lifetime lists, state lists, county lists.

I wrote articles for birding magazines and newsletters. One article, titled “Birder Anonymous,” described how my habit had begun, how it had left me nearly broke and sleeping in my car, and concluded with the statement, “I have control of it now; I can quit any time I want.”


Four levels

When I think about it, I would say birding appeals to me on four levels. First, birds appeal to my aesthetic sense. They are colorful; they sing beautiful songs. Second, birds appeal to the scientist in me. Studying them, I learn about their habitat niches, food preferences, nesting requirements and many other facets of their biology. Third, birds appeal to the amateur behavior-observer in me. I enjoy their antics, their mating displays, territorial defense, etc. None of this is book learning. Fourth, birds appeal to my human desire to collect. It is like collecting stamps, coins or hubcaps. I work to keep a perspective on the collecting: I never want Number Four to overshadow Numbers One, Two and Three.

Eventually, to get a reliable income, I trained as an electronics technician and worked for 20 years at Tektronix, then Xerox. Birding became my hobby. I initiated a series of birding weekends, which ran for 16 years, taking groups of 20 around Oregon and beyond to see birds.

I also met Carol Karlen of McMinnville. She had traveled a parallel path. She watched lakeside birds while fishing, bought a book, learned by herself and graduated to leading Audubon field trips. Eventually, she joined me in leading the birding weekends.

When I retired, I moved to McMinnville. Our backyard has 11 feeders and lots of birds. Carol maintains the “official” list of birds seen in Yamhill County.

With others, we have started an annual Yamhill Valley Christmas Bird Count. This is part of a national effort one day each year around Christmas. We count a circle that includes McMinnville, Amity and Sheridan. Thirty-five volunteers found 101 species of birds in the circle on Dec. 30, 2014.


Let me count the ways

Humans relate to birds in myriad ways. In recent years, I’ve encountered others who have different approaches to birds and birding.

Some folks disparage “listing” as a waste of gas and time. Some people want to gather data for science or resource management, dive deep into the details of ornithology, teach children or seniors about birds or become international tourists.

Others want to paint, write poetry, take a quiet walk in the woods or simply enjoy the birds at their backyard feeders. Some people hunt birds. Some are engaged in wildlife management. Others want to recruit birders to become conservation activists.

Birds have been on earth 15 times as long as humans. They occupy nearly every niche of the environment: the arctic to the tropics. They live underground, on land, sea and air. Those that migrate are able to avoid some dangers and adapt to new opportunities.

When humans appeared four million years ago, birds adapted to our predation, our agriculture, our cities and our other changes to the earth. The human race has greatly modified the planet during our time here. We will continue to coexist with birds.

I encourage you to find your own way of engaging with birds, but above all, enjoy them!

The black, white, red and yellow woodpecker that sparked my interest? It was a yellow-bellied sapsucker, the classic bird name that folks joke about.

Guest writer Paul Sullivan has an advanced degree in genetics. In mid-life, he became a birdwatcher, a leader of trips for bird clubs and researcher for various wildlife projects. Eventually, he earned a living working for Tektronix and Xerox. He has retired to McMinnville.



Mr Sullivan,

Thoroughly enjoyed the read, thank you for sharing your story.

My most favorite two birds are the 'Poecile atricapillus' immediately followed by the 'Vironicuss fessterling'.


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