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Birds, Friends, Fathers, and the Quest to Be Present

A comforting tradition of evening bird walks with a colleague helped the author become more present not just in her own life, but in her parents' lives as well.

Illustration of two women surrounded by birds in a cityscape.
Illustration by Cat Willet.

From the Summer 2024 issue of Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now.

Anyone who birds knows it is a pastime that brings people together into new flocks of friendships. Just as people have their favorite birds, some people have their favorite birding partners. My favorite birding partner is my colleague Sarah, who is roughly 13 years my senior and a professor of English literature at Fordham University in New York City. At first glance, we don’t seem to have much in common professionally beside the shared title of professor. Fate brought us together over a decade ago when we were office neighbors and both taught evening classes. We slowly began to chat during the quiet hours before our evening classes convened. Those chats turned to sharing snacks and fruit before our two-and-a-half-hour evening seminars. And that sharing turned into a deep friendship that somehow evolved beyond quick catch-ups over wine into long walks in Central Park to bird.

There’s a meme on social media about the moment you transition from going out to the clubs until 4 a.m. to birding at 7 a.m. It happens both gradually and all at once, it seems. As with my relationship with Sarah, our gradual friendship has evolved into a birding sisterhood that has led us to rely on one another intellectually and emotionally as we meander through life, as well as through sprawling Central Park.

When we initially began birding, we discussed the usual professor topics: university dramas, ever-evolving syllabi, frustrating and inspiring students, never-ending grading, and trying to find time for research. Birding helped us highlight the mundane and miraculous around us. Walking past the same trees for years can help you forget just how glorious they are until you see a Blue Jay flitting between the branches. There is something about walking with binoculars around the neck that evokes a sense of exploration, even if only a few blocks from the office. For anyone who has gone birding with a friend, you know the feeling of being enveloped in conversation and then suddenly stopping in your tracks because you hear and then see a Pileated Woodpecker high above.

During my strolls with Sarah we often had two simultaneous conversations— about work and the Tufted Titmice in the bushes. Being in Central Park and pausing abruptly midsentence often attracts the attention of passersby and tourists who want to know what exactly we’re staring at, standing shoulder to shoulder and no longer speaking, just gazing into the branches of a tree for minutes on end. It’s such a thrill to introduce a random inquirer to the joys of birding—pointing out imaginary hands on a clock so they can see a Red-tailed Hawk staring back at them unbothered. To be a birder is to be a teacher, and maybe that is why Sarah and I initially bonded.

During one of our strolls, when Sarah was particularly great at pointing out nuthatches and deciphering different types of ducks, she shared that her father has been an avid birder and photographer for quite some time. Having lived in southern Illinois and now North Carolina, he has a plethora of birds to keep him busy. She is a second-generation birder of sorts. Just as people learn to love the sports teams of their fathers and pledge their lifelong allegiances, I wondered if people adopted the pastime of birding from a parent.

I realized that I was introduced to birding while with my father, but in a slightly different way. I discovered birding during the summer of 2020 in COVID lockdown, when I left my 800-square-foot apartment in Brooklyn and moved to my father’s spacious home in Dover, Delaware, for a few months to ride out the worst of the pandemic (see Perspective: How Birds Helped Me Find Calm In 2020, Living Bird Winter 2021).

While there I discovered the joy and beauty of birding. I discovered the bird dramas, too—egg stealing, nest invasions, mating and dating woes. So many different types of birds, and birds of prey. So many sounds from morning until night. I was immediately transfixed. When I ultimately moved back to New York City, my father called to give me updates on some of the birds he now noticed because of our time spent together. The birds surrounding his home were no longer headaches that clogged his gutters with their nests, but beautifully colored flocks that provided him great enjoyment as he sat on his veranda in the evenings enjoying a cigar.

As Sarah and I continue our walks, birding has become a way for us to stay present. We must be keenly aware of our natural surroundings while we walk and talk and talk and talk, until we become transfixed by a male cardinal hiding in plain sight. Our conversations have evolved over the years, and we are developing a different kind of presence. One where when discussing our families and parents, we are slowly understanding the urge to be more present not just in our own lives, but in their lives as well.

Two birds with white, black and blue faces, hidden in the foliage, feeding chicks at a nest.
Hidden in the foliage of Central Park, New York City, a pair of Blue Jays feed their nestlings. Photo by John Drake / Macaulay Library.

My father is a septuagenarian and her father is an octogenarian, and we are slowly realizing our time with them is precious and not promised. There is something somewhat frightening about realizing your parents are not going to be with you forever. I feel like I have a cocoon wrapped around me now, with my father still present—a certain mooring in a rough ocean that makes me feel tethered to something larger and stronger than myself, even in my fifth decade of life.

As Sarah and I bird, we often discuss our fathers and their different journeys. Maybe it’s because both men serve as the conduit to our relationship with birding, but somehow, some way, our fathers enter the chat whenever we don our binoculars and head to the park. She tells me stories about her family, their various migration stories, and her father retiring from academia. I tell her stories of my family in the Deep South, our passion for international travel, and my father integrating his high school in Miami. All of these conversations are had while we walk past sparrows taking dirt baths around our feet.

Birding has now become a source of meditation. A way for me to be present with my thoughts, a way for me to be fully attentive to my friends, and a way for me to reflect on the journeys and generosity of my parents. As we enjoy nature’s abundance and the changing of the seasons, birding has become a way for me to reflect on my own abundance and life’s changes as well.

About the Author

Dr. Christina Greer is an associate professor of political science at Fordham University, the author of Black Ethnics: Race, Immigration, and the Pursuit of the American Dream, and the cohost of the podcast FAQ-NYC. Follow her on X and Instagram at @Dr_CMGreer

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