(Tara Anand/High Country News)

I begin birding by accident. I am 16 and at a Waldenbooks at the Eastridge Mall. I have gone there to read magazines — to flip through Seventeen and maybe buy a Harlequin romance, if I can get past the embarrassment of buying one. Propped up near the cash register, under a banner marked LOCAL INTEREST, is A Field Guide to Western Birds by Roger Tory Peterson. I skim through it, admiring the pictures. In the index, I look up the American robin, one of the only birds I know. There, in simple prose, is a description of a bird I see daily in Casper, Wyoming. I read about its habitat, its song, its plumage, its range. 

Opinion

I have always loved a taxonomy, any kind of categorization. When I was 13 and in 4-H, I studied botany and entered the county fair with a handmade flower press. I bought a photo album at the mall and lovingly arranged the flowers I had pressed beneath flimsy plastic. Sego lily. Indian paintbrush. Cow parsnip. Arrowleaf balsamroot. I wrote their common names and Latin names on scraps of paper, identifying every flower. I won a blue ribbon at the fair. 

So, naturally, I buy the bird book. At night, after homework, I study each plate carefully. The book gives me comfort. I start with songbirds and see that in our backyard are mountain chickadees, sparrows, flickers and blue jays. There are a lot of small grayish birds I am no good at identifying. What are you? I look out into the yard, flipping pages quickly, trying to ID them before they fly away. 

What are you? 

When I am 16, my answer for this question is cocky. A human, I’ll say. 

No, but what are you? And I know the answer they want. They want to know why my skin is brown, and so they’ll try a different approach. Where are you from? 

Wyoming. I’m from here. Being biracial, I don’t have a better answer. I have never been to India, where my mom is from. I have only been to Ireland, where my dad is from, once. 

That winter, I sign up for a field ornithology class at the community college. It is a continuing education class that meets once a week, with field trips on the weekends. When I go to the first class, notebook and field guide in hand, I am the only person under 50. My classmates all have binoculars and scopes. They tell me where to see owls. And when I tell them I’ve seen almost no waterbirds, they direct me to Soda Lake, north of Casper. Originally a repository built by Amoco for refinery waste, it’s become a haven for waterfowl and shorebirds. 

The instructor hands us a copy of the Wyoming Bird Checklist. When I scan the list, I think it’s a joke. There can’t possibly be that many birds around here. I have always thought of Wyoming as lacking — people, restaurants, rock concerts, cool clothes. Yellowstone and the Tetons have lots of animals and birds, but not here. Casper is firmly an oil and gas town. 

My classmates, all seasoned birders, assure me that most of the birds on the list can be seen around here. I just need to look hard — to learn how to recognize a silhouette in the sky, to hear birdsong, to stay still and sit with binoculars in hand. 

I look for the hardest ones first. Greater sage grouse. Ross’ goose. Philadelphia vireo. I spend weeks checking birds off. Mountain bluebird. Cedar waxwing. Red-naped sapsucker. I look upward and mark red-tailed hawk, American kestrel, ferruginous hawk. I see a peregrine falcon on a fence while walking. I seek the uncommon. Big birds are easy; I can tell what they are from afar. I work my way through the corvidae: ravens, magpies and blue jays. With every tick of my list, I feel a kind of lightness. I can identify them. I know what they are. I even begin to see that the little gray birds have names: house sparrows, catbirds, finches, juncos and towhees. 

It is the easy birds that I have trouble with. The first few come quickly. American robin, check. Band-tailed pigeon, check. California gull, check. But there are so many common birds I seem to miss. And then there is my jinx bird. A jinx bird is a relatively common bird that manages to elude you despite your best efforts. A common thing that isn’t seen. Mine is the western meadowlark, the state bird of Wyoming. I see it everywhere but in the wild — in my Wyoming history book, in paintings and on murals. On T-shirts. I know its song. I scan fences for a flash of yellow, for the black V on their chest. 

GROWING UP, I liked to examine the maps hanging in my dad’s office. He is a petroleum geologist, and I wanted to see where he was when he would head out to a rig for long stretches at a time. Most of the maps used “township and range,” a mapping system created from a land survey. It’s sometimes referred to as the Public Land Survey System, but it includes all land, both public and private. It’s an incredibly specific grid system, developed after the Revolutionary War as a way of legally recording land. Recording appropriated land, that is. Following that violent and illegitimate appropriation, the whole of Wyoming, and the West, was broken up into squares. Each square has more little squares in them. They’re called sections, and there are even littler squares within each section. Each section is one square mile and contains 640 acres. A number for the township marks the location of the section north to south, while a number for the range marks the location east to west. 

This may be why I identified with birds. They are migrants. They leave their homes. They have a strong sense of direction; they have unmatched fortitude when it comes to making a journey.

Nina McConigley

I was drawn to this system as a way of framing order on something as wild as land. I used to play a game where I would figure out the township and range of places I loved. Casper was T33N R79W. Later, I would get those numbers on my first tattoo across my back, under a covered wagon to mark that we were immigrants — that we had migrated here to the West.

This may be why I identified with birds. They are migrants. They leave their homes. They have a strong sense of direction; they have unmatched fortitude when it comes to making a journey. 

Years after I have given up on bird checklists, I am at a rest stop in the Shirley Basin, trying to avoid an early storm. It has begun to snow, and visibility is already blurry, and I hear a meadowlark: the clear whistles, then warble of its song. I hear the song again. I have stopped to use the pay phone as there is no cell service. The flute-like song is clear. I cannot see it. But I can hear it. I did not have to see it to believe it there. 

The next tattoo I get is of a jackalope: The most fantastical of creatures, and as I joke to people, an emblem of all things mixed race. 

What are you? There are so many ways to identify something. A field guide. A map. My old birding checklists. As I have gotten older, I am all about not categorizing. Much of the world is not an either/or. The maps I pored over only tell one side of a story — usually a story of colonization and naming that doesn’t take those who look like me into account. I am Indian in the American West. I am like a non-native species that in migrating through, found a home. People say a jinx brings bad luck to something, like not being able to check off a bird on a list. But I can identify with not being easy to pin down. I am now drawn to the unseen, to things that don’t measure in straight lines or are easily classified, to what cannot always be explained. I’m drawn to the jackalope and the meadowlark. I still haven’t witnessed either.   

This essay was originally published in High Country News.

Nina McConigley, High Country News

Nina McConigley is a professor and writer living in Laramie, Wyoming. She is the author of “Cowboys and East Indians.”

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  1. I served with Nimi in the legislature in the 90’s and met you when you were little. Really enjoyed this piece…

  2. Nina McConigley was the keynote speaker and presenter at Wyoming Writers’ conference in Gillette a number of years ago. She is a delightful presenter, an insightful ironist, and a wonderful instructor. Her collection, “Cowboys and East Indians,” is a quest, wonderfully observed, skillfully rendered. A wink and a smile often holds back a tear.

  3. Come to my house, Nina, I have meadowlarks here all the time. I saw a great horned owl in one of the cottonwoods last night and have been seeing eastern Kingbirds. Also saw some cedar waxwings this spring.

  4. I just loved your essay on bird watching. I live on a ranch here in Wyoming and the birds are everywhere. We provide them with clean water sources and food when it get sparse, but they give so much more to me. They start my day with a song and entertain in the evening. Thank you for a lovely reminder of all that birds, and animals of all types, give to us.

  5. Nina,
    Wow, very powerful story! Good luck with that elusive jackalope tattoo! I believe everyone has one that they can see once they allow themselves to see it.