BIRD EXPERT MUST ADJUST TO PLAYING IT BY EAR
By Fred Dickey
Aug. 12, 2013
Imagine you have devoted your life’s work to something of value to both nature and humanity, and that also has beauty that inspires poem and song.
Then, that something is taken from your view but remains tantalizingly close. It’s all around you, but just out of sight. If you can imagine that, then you can understand the torn life of Claude Edwards.
Edwards, 59, is an ornithologist, a bird expert. He can describe their habits, their songs and their plumage. But describing is as far as he can go. That’s because he’s on the doorstep of blindness. The beauty of birds can be yours, but no longer his, except in his memory. His angst is Beethoven’s deafness redux.
Edwards lives in a Normal Heights bungalow with his domestic partner of 18 years, Michael Klein, who is also a naturalist. For decades, Edwards was a leader in San Diego birding circles. He was one of the main go-to people about birds living here or traveling through. The Audubon Society and Sierra Club counted him as a fixture. For years he led bird walks at the Cabrillo Monument and has taught classes on “birding by ear.”
He would guide bird-watching, do bird counts (like census taking) and often employ what other birders admire as his unique ability to recognize birds by their sounds.
He made his living, or much of it, by surveying land set aside for development to ascertain what of the natural landscape should be preserved. You can imagine, not many developers sent him greeting cards.
Then in December 2010, the light grew too dim. Edwards was compelled to stop driving as his vision deteriorated to 20 percent. Glaucoma, an incurable, progressive disease, made good on its threat. Today, it has worsened with its angry creeping. Edwards’ existence has not only grown darker, but lonelier. He expects to one day be using a red-tipped cane.
With apologies to Dylan Thomas, Edwards clearly has silently raged against the dying of the light. “No longer” has become a refrain.
“Birding was my identity. I went through a lot of sadness and loss because I was no longer the person I had been. I’m no longer the same person chasing rare-bird alerts and going all over the county and sharing what I saw. I’m no longer part of the birding community; I kind of characterized it as ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ Since I’m no longer active in the midst of my former birding colleagues, they don’t think about me.
“I haven’t had a phone call or an email from anybody in my birding experience since day one. Thirty years of being in the birding community, through all those activities ...”
You have some anger, some disappointment.
“Disappointment, that’s normal. That came with losing my sight. I had to change how I see myself, what is important to me. I resent that the change happened, but there’s nobody to fault.”
To further squeeze his heart, San Diego County is a birder’s paradise. Edwards says it is believed to have the largest list of birds of any county in the U.S., slightly more than 500 species.
Today, he can stand on a sidewalk and hear a hummingbird or identify the call of a yellow warbler. He can even mimic the cry of a spotted owl and have it return his call. The owl can see him, but not he the owl.
If he goes into rough terrain, he can’t distinguish slopes. That means he needs the help of a companion, but with a few loyal exceptions, finding those has been a problem.
I ask Edwards some amateur questions, which are my specialty: What are the most intelligent birds in this area?
Crows and ravens are given credit for being intelligent, he says, because they live longer and so have time to learn how and where to find the foods and nesting places they like. In other words, they can develop a game plan.
Edwards says parrots and parakeets also live a long time and learn to “talk,” but are really miming and copying us. So when that pet parrot says it wants a cracker, it’s not thinking of a Nabisco saltine. Or when it utters an acquired four-letter word, don’t assume it has a dirty mind.
By the same token, mockingbirds mimic because they have that innate ability, Edwards says. He’s not aware of any functional purpose it serves. In other words, they mock because they can, and they don’t need a reason.
I see a crow chasing a bigger hawk away, and I’m thinking, “If I’m that hawk, I’m going to turn around and kick its butt.” Why doesn’t it?
Edward says it doesn’t work that way. Crows and smaller birds chase hawks because they perceive the hawk as a danger, probably to a nest. It is human logic to assume the hawk would turn around and attack the crow, but the crow is not programmed-in as its prey.
Giving advice about birds puts Edwards in his comfort zone. It shows the mellow side of him and gives impetus to his determination to once again be a player on the birding scene.
As glaucoma closes in, Edwards is fighting back. To date this year, he has identified 239 species, and that’s almost entirely by sound.
He now belongs to a gym, and, “Since last winter I’ve lost 30 pounds, and that’s nice and (it helps) my overall mental health as well.”
But what he wants more than anything is to work as a birder again. He won’t give up hoping that individuals or groups again seek him out for guided tours or group talks, though he’s not interested in going to schools. To promote himself, he has the website flite-tours.com.
Response thus far has been disheartening. “I had two clients in January, and here it is August.”
Even so, it’s not all about money. “It’s the greater sense of missing what used to be. One of the biggest losses with my vision is I can’t see people’s faces. I miss being able to greet someone from half a block away.
“Even waking up in the morning here in my neighborhood I can hear mockingbirds, crows and hummingbirds. I can hear their sounds, and it brings me pleasure. I still identify myself as a birder and biologist because that’s my expertise. I would welcome being sought after to (professionally) provide my knowledge.”
As do all well-centered people, he’s working to cope with his condition. “My life is new, it’s different. I’m happy. I’m at peace. That’s taken a while, and it’s a lot better to be happy. It’s a lot better to be calm and to enjoy nature.” As part of that, he maintains his friendly candor anwd pointed humor in dealing with others.
Edwards dearly misses the life he had, and he’s trying to salvage what he can of it. He misses the people who loved birds with him. That line about “better to have loved and lost …” was probably written about a high school crush.
The next time you hear a trill in the treetops, look up and enjoy the bird for itself and also for its close friend, Claude Edwards.
Fred Dickey of Cardiff is runner-up Print Journalist of the Year for 2013, an honor from the Los Angeles Press Club. He believes every life is an adventure, and invites your comments and ideas via email at email@example.com
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