As the Great Backyard Bird Count crept up on me, I continued to procrastinate on one particular decision.
Would I involve Cody in the bird count?
To the non-birder, bird watching and counting probably appears to be a useless hobby that consists of a boring person staring endlessly at bushes. In reality, birding takes a great deal of patience, observation and skill. Sure, sometimes it is as easy as seeing a bright red bird with a black face on your feeder in the middle of the yard, enabling you to put another tick beside ‘Cardinal’. Other times it’s a flutter in your peripheral, a quick glance at tail posture, or perhaps a snippet of a song. You have to manage to use all these pieces of a puzzle until you have figured out who is that little creature teasing you in the tall grass. There are frustrating times when a flock of birds flies in the distance. You can tell it is about a dozen birds, but what? What are those birds so far off and out of focus? How about that enormous soaring bird with black feathers over those trees? Is it a bald eagle or is it a vulture? Until it comes close enough, you don’t really know.
Against my better judgment, I decided that I would take Cody along with me as I explored our rural neighborhood. It will be good exercise for him, I told myself over and over. Great opportunity for bonding, I repeated aloud. Cody was going to be a birding dog.
Months ago, some of you may remember that I was interested in adopting a puppy that was part German Shorthaired Pointer. Quiet and obedient, I was sure she would make an excellent companion. I could see us wandering trails together, intently focused on finding birds to watch. In the end, I decided that one dog was really enough for our family. The one dog who loves the beau. One dog who is excited to see me at food time. Cody could certainly have enough room in his heart to one day think I was the bee’s knees, too. Right?
I didn’t need a pointer, right?
The first morning of the bird count, I spent my morning recording my feeder activity. At lunchtime, Cody and I struck out on foot. With notepad and pen, we headed down the street and then went off road to the old farmhouse. I stopped occasionally, making notes about what I was seeing.
Small sparrow like bird. Black crown, black ring around neck, ground behavior similar to robin.
Unseen bird: call resembles hiccup, hiccup.
These notes were sloppy a. because my handwriting is naturally sloppy, b. I was making these notes in a tiny handheld notebook, and c. there was a big meathead dog tugging at the leash enthusiastically to sniff at someone else’s poop.
“Cody, stop! Focus! We are looking for birds. Look for birds, not poop!”
To the farmhouse, I continue to note birds I recognize and birds that I will need to consult a manual on when I get home. Just behind the farmhouse is a creek that I planned to check out. I had seen several Canada Geese but wanted to expand my waterfowl count. The land comes to a point, and then sharply drops off into the marsh. It’s not a cliff but it does take a little bit of foot placement planning to get down. I could see just beyond the marsh a huge flock of birds. There had to be at least a hundred. Silly me forgot the binoculars, so I was going to have to make my way down the bank and into the marsh. I start to slowly creep down the edge when suddenly the leash around my waist causes me to stop abruptly. I turn around to see Cody still standing at the edge ten feet behind me.
“Cody, come down.” I yank on his leash and he watches me in complete befuddlement. “Cody, now!” This disagreement quickly becomes a tug of war match which I surprisingly win. He finally starts creeping down to catch up with me and I am relieved that the two of us are now on the same page. However, once caught up, he begins looping the leash around every bush we come across. I would have to backtrack, untangle the leash, walk forward, backtrack, untangle the leash, walk forward.
I approached the water’s edge and came to a heartbreaking realization. I still couldn’t make out what species of bird was floating in the water. Mad at myself for not bringing the binoculars, I begin to stomp back up the bank. Walking forward, backtracking, untangling the leash, walking forward.
Back on flat ground, we start heading back home. At this point, Cody is panting loud enough that some may have mistaken him for a freight train. He’s always been a loud panter. There appears to be no good medical reason for it, just a love of noisy oxygen exchange. This is also frustrating because I feel that if anyone deserves to be making such thunderous respiratory noises, it should be the person who kept going back and to untie the other one from the brush.
I stop and tell Cody to sit. He complies and continues his panting. “Cody, you’ve got to be quiet. Good birding dogs are quiet so you don’t scare away the birds.” I don’t know how to explain this to him nicely, but I don’t see his career in bird counting going very far. My thoughts drift off to the little pointer puppy that I talked myself out of adopting. In my little daydream, I see her silently striding through knee high weeds, suddenly stopping, face intently fixed off in the distance, and then she assumes the pointing posture … signaling a rare bird off in the field.
My daydream dissipates as a shadow is cast over Cody and me. I quickly glance to the sky. A bald eagle soars over me and he is close enough I can see the expression on his face. I’m pretty sure he thought the scene Cody was making meant he would soon die and could be lunch. His yellow eyes met mine and an amazing moment was shared between bird and watcher. A second eagle then swooped in. I could barely contain my joy. Two bald eagles!
The birds eventually lost interest in us and moved on. Cody got to his feet and continued to be obnoxiously loud all the way home. I have to remember that Cody’s breeding isn’t made for the same things that mine is. Generations before me have been obsessed with birds. However, Cody’s Rottweiler ancestors have been bred to be protective and to scare off any signs on danger, regardless if it is the UPS man with deliveries or a harmless mockingbird.
I’m sure you are thinking after this first disastrous day, that I would have left Cody home for the remaining three days. I even surprised myself when I would put his harness on and head out with him at my side. Even though he had no interest in the five swans flying over, the Eastern bluebirds singing, or my continued excitement at identifying the Horned Lark, he still found joy in spending hours at a time with me slowly making our way down old field roads. I guess in the end, a relationship with a dog is much like that with a person. You may not share the same hobbies and interests, you just have to like spending time with each other.