The book: At a young age, George C. Wood ’79 set a goal to see 600 bird species by the time he was 50. He’s accomplished this and then some, now having seen over 800 bird species. In his new book Bird Tales (Woodworks Editions) Wood, now in his 60s, shares his story through a series of short narratives, photographs, humor, and more as he identifies birds across the U.S. and Canada.
The author: George C. Wood ’79 is the senior director of major gifts at The Haverford School, in Pennsylvania. He earned his bachelor’s degree in psychology from Princeton and masters in environmental science from Ohio State University. A lifelong lover of birding, Wood documents his journeys on his blog birdtalesblog.
In 1968, at the age of ten, I set a goal to see 600 bird species in the United States by the impossibly old age of fifty. Why 600 bird species? Back then, there were a total of 645 identified birds in the United States and Canada. It seemed to me that spotting 600 bird species was akin to a Major League Baseball player hitting 500 career home runs. While Babe Ruth held the career record of 714 homers, only a handful of players had reached 500. So, seeing 600 bird species was achievable (like 500 home runs), and certainly very special.
The American Birding Association (ABA) was founded in 1969, only a year after I set my personal goal. It is a nonprofit organization dedicated to recreational birding in Canada and the United States. It has been called “the standard-bearer for serious birding in North America.”
Originally focused on finding, listing, and identifying rare birds, the ABA now seeks to serve all birders with a wide range of services and publications. It is the birding world’s governing body. It recognizes all bird species seen in North America, which is defined as the land extending northward from the northern border of Mexico, plus adjacent islands and seas within 200 miles off the coast. (It excluded Hawaii until 2016). The ABA does not count sightings from Bermuda and Greenland—both places I have birded. I’m not sure why Mexico was left out.
Many people ask how many birds one can realistically see in the United States and Canada. It’s a great question. Every species is assigned a number by the ABA between 1 and 6, based on its frequency of appearance. Code 6-birds are extinct, 5s have been recorded five or fewer times ever, and 4s constitute three or more records in the last thirty years. So, subtracting the 4-6s from the official ABA total leaves approximately 750. That is my answer.
Many birders share an obsessive-compulsive trait and, in general, like to keep lists, whether it is a list of birds seen in their yard or birds seen in a day, a year, or a lifetime. And it seems that another trait birders share is gloating about their United States/Canada (aka “ABA Area”) life list. I suppose one’s word list is the holy grail. There are approximately 10,600 species of birds in the world, and there are a couple of people who have seen more than 9,000. But most of us don't have the time or money to travel the world and bird, so we’ve settled on the ABA Area life list as one key measure of a person’s true birding interest.
In the summer of 1972, I attended the National Audubon Society Convention in Denver, alone. Flying to a gathering like that was not a typical summer activity for a fourteen-year-old, but I was hooked on birding, and my parents trusted that I could handle being the only person under twenty-one in attendance. The highlight of the five-day trip was birding with the legendary Roger Tory Peterson at several locations, including the Pawnee National Grasslands and Rocky Mountain National Park. I recall the group finding a dead Common Poorwill and learning that deceased birds do not “count” for one’s life list. I was disappointed. It took me many years to find a living specimen to add to my list, as it is a secretive member of the nocturnal nightjar (Caprimulgidae) family.
My friends were supportive of this hobby, and I never felt odd or awkward about my interest in ornithology. I want to believe that my fascination with nature and birds rubbed off on my family and friends. Daughter Izzy once identified a Red-tailed Hawk on campus to the amusement of her schoolmates. My son-in-law Hunter Pawloff recently chased a Western Tanager in Manhattan. My friends Lindy Snider and Lee Warden periodically text me about birds. After questioning my “bird thing” while we were high school classmates, my friend Jay Pitocchelli earned his Ph.D. in biology/ornithology and became a tenured professor and professional ornithologist.
I considered attending Cornell University to study ornithology. I also wanted to play Division 1 soccer, but Cornell was a top-ten NCAA team in 1974, and I felt I had no chance to play there. Jeff Dingle, an early employee of the Peregrine Fund (now known as the World Center for Birds of Prey) in Boise, Idaho, did attend Cornell.
I chose Princeton partly because five of my best friends (Jay Bennett ’79, Chris Loughran ’79, Henry Maguire ’79, David Reed ’79, and Jeff Shaw ’79) were also matriculating there. I considered majoring in population biology, Princeton’s equivalent to ornithology. It would have required taking organic chemistry with future doctors and chemical engineers at a ghastly early time three mornings per week. I decided to take a safer route to graduation by majoring in social psychology, headed to Wall Street (actually, 110 William Street), and kept birding as a lifetime interest.
My first job out of college was in New York City. Central Park and surrounding areas like Jamaica Bay are outstanding locations to search for birds, particularly migrants. I saw my first and only Tufted Duck in Central Park’s reservoir, better known for Jackie Onassis sightings than for rare birds. Despite living in Manhattan, I was able to feed my hunger for birds in those early post-university years.
I will admit that after reading Jim Vardaman’s 1980 book Call Collect, Ask for Birdman, in which he recounts his attempt to see 700 species of birds in America in one year (a “big year”), I was tempted to quit my new job and try a big year. But the cost seemed just too prohibitive both financially and socially.
In order to satiate my appetite, I spent many weekends visiting my parents and taking trips with my father to local spots in Pennsylvania, and the Jersey Shore. I recall dialing the Pennsylvania and New Jersey bird hotlines on Monday mornings and listening to Armas Hill of the Academy of Natural Sciences provide the past weekend’s sightings.
The problem was these were weekly tape recordings and by the time the next weekend rolled around the cited birds had likely moved on. Memorable sightings included my first Gyrfalcon at Stoltzfus Quarry near Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and my first Purple Sandpiper on a jetty next to Cape May’s iconic lighthouse.
The day we saw that “lifer” (aka first) sandpiper, my father had taken both my younger brother, Wistar, and me on a day trip to the Pine Barrens to photograph orchids. We had time to add binding to the agenda, so we trekked to the shore. After scanning the coast for ducks, we spotted our Purple Sandpiper. A relatively common bird, but a lifer for me. As we headed back to the car, Cape May Bird Observatory’s director, Pete Dunne, approached us with a band of eager birders in tow.
Pete was already a well-known author and ornithologist and someone I admired and hoped to know. As we passed, he politely asked: “Hi guys, seen anything good?” Before I could answer, my brother blurted: “Yes, my brother saw a King Eider just past the jetty.” Pete’s eyes widened, and the group immediately hustled to the water’s edge to find what would have been a super rare bird. Wistar knew enough to be dangerous. I looked at him and then at my father. There wasn’t a King Eider out there. My credibility was shot. I had to laugh and motioned my brother and father to the parking lot so Pete wouldn’t associate me with the nonexistent duck.
Balancing career and family slowed down my quest, but I never lost track of my ABA Area life list. I retained my original handwritten checklists until the advent of computerized lists in the 1990s. Now Cornell University’s Laboratory of Ornithology, through eBird, maintains a dynamic up-to-the-minute population census of birds around the world. At the same time, it keeps individuals’ records so long as you subscribe to their app. It is simple and awesome.
Excerpted from Bird Tales: A Lifetime Pursuit by George C. Wood. Copyright 2023. Published with permission of the author.
“George Wood’s quest to record 800 bird species in North America is not merely about one man’s accomplishments, but a challenge millions of birders can relate to… few have breathed the rarified air that comes of being a member of the 800 club. Nobody achieves such a milestone by accident or fortune.” — Pete Dunne, retired director of Cape May Bird Observatory