Environmental Almanac

Birding with my brother

A story about two brothers birding and an invitation to the Prairie Rivers Network dinner where they'll speak later this month.

The author's brother John gets ready to fish for trout in New Hampshire. Rob Kanter

In late winter of 1984 my younger (and only) brother, John, assigned me little bit of reading, the section called “Sky Dance” from the April entry in Aldo Leopold’s book, A Sand County Almanac. This was a bit of a switch in our relationship, since at the time I was a college senior majoring in English at Xavier University in our hometown of Cincinnati, and he was a junior majoring in wildlife management at Ohio State in Columbus—I was the one who assigned any mutual reading.

But read “Sky Dance” I did. And I was moved—as perhaps you have been—by the eloquence of Leopold’s prose and the peculiarity of the performance he describes. That’s the courting behavior of American woodcocks, which Leopold enjoyed witnessing with his family on the degraded land they were working to restore in central Wisconsin.

My question after reading “Sky Dance,” of course, was how far I would need to go to see this phenomenon for myself. The happy answer to that, provided by my brother, was Winton Woods, the county park five minutes from home where we had fished and picnicked with our sister and parents when we were kids.

We set out together to look for the sky dance on the first evening available to us when John was in town for spring break in March. We conducted our search by car, slowly cruising roads adjacent to likely spots with windows down, listening for the distinctive nasal “peent” call made by the male woodcock as he struts. In my memory it was no time before we heard one, and it took no great effort to track him down after we parked the car and set off into the field on foot.

The show was everything I had hoped it would be, but I’m not going to tell you about that here—that’s not what this column is about. For a description of the performance you should probably read Leopold’s “Sky Dance” for yourself.

Telling the story about our search is my way of illustrating my brother’s influence on my life, which continues despite the fact that we’ve lived a thousand miles apart over the course of our adult lives. I don’t know that I would have ever discovered birding without John’s influence—or, for that matter, stream fishing or hunting or the many other outdoor pursuits that have grown from those, and around which so much of my life now revolves. Remember, I was an English major, and I continued on that path through graduate school and for another decade before turning to wildlife and the environment in my writing.

From Ohio State, John went on to graduate school at the University of New Hampshire, and he then stayed in the Granite State, where his legacy includes a thriving Nongame and Endangered Wildlife Program. In the past year, however, John’s expertise in wildlife and passion for conservation have taken him to work in Washington DC at the headquarters of the National Wildlife Federation where he is currently senior wildlife biologist.

What’s that to you? In that role he provides science support for wildlife policy and advocacy at the national level, and he’s coming to central Illinois this month as the speaker at the annual dinner for Prairie Rivers Network (NWF), which you may remember is our statewide affiliate of NWF.

Of course, John is still my little brother, so I’ll be joining him at the mic to help out, and we’ll tell some stories together. The Prairie Rivers Network dinner will take place on Friday, October 26, at the I-Hotel and Conference Center in Champaign. Advance registration is required, and details are available through the Prairie Rivers Network website at prairierivers.org