Roger Tory Peterson starts out "Birds Over America", by relating an incident in his youth, during which he is being berated by his father for being "after the birds again", and coming home soaked in the rain. He comments that "I could never explain to him why I did these things. I never quite knew myself."
In many cases it is not a rational decision to become a birder (or birdwatcher). The seed once planted often seems to take on a life of its own. I have often wondered about it myself, but never questioned it. Billy Sloane, my neighbourhood buddy, was the unlikely source of my initiation into the world of birding. As near as I can tell, I was about 8 or 9 years old, and he was a year older. We and our group of friends often roamed the east end of downtown Toronto. During these outings, Billy sometimes became the teacher, and we the students...the topic was birds and names like Baltimore Oriole, American Goldfinch, Red-winged Blackbird became commonplace. Where he acquired his knowledge, I have no idea, even to this day.
It was during one of these jaunts to the local "claypits" (brickyard) that the seed was firmly planted. We had never had binoculars before, but Billy had a pair this day. It must have been spring, because the bird that Billy pointed out to us, on a nearby bush, was a Chestnut-sided Warbler, and he gave each of us a look. I couldn't believe my eyes. The colours were dazzling, and the bird was so close. I marvelled and lined up for another look, and I can still see it now. There is no doubt that that one single event marked the beginning of a long road toward my present-day obsession with the birds. Once again, I have trouble explaining this to other people, or even making sense of it myself sometimes.
Our group was no organized bird club, but I do remember going on an organized birding trip sponsored by the Toronto Star newspaper, where one person commented that we looked like we were coming to scare away the birds. The leader was nice enough to share his fine optics so that we could appreciate the beauty of a Scarlet Tanager up close. We also regularly signed out bird books from the local library.
As a youngster in the 1950's, I graduated to bird sticker/colouring books, and then my first field guide, the Audubon guide by Richard K. Pough. Then on my 11th or 12th birthday, I received my own pair of binoculars, which are still quite functional today. I was now an official "birdwatcher", although as an adolescent it was often a covert activity.
One day Billy Sloane and his family moved a few miles away, and we drifted apart. We learned a few years later, that at the age of 16, Billy had died suddenly while playing on the field behind his house, ironically enough, just steps from the brickyard where he had pointed out that Chestnut-sided Warbler to us, only a few years before.
I thank Billy, wherever he is, for introducing me to the birds.