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Why parrots are so good for San Diego

They like palm nuts, eucalyptus gumnuts, not native plants

“Anywhere between 800 and 1000 parrots usually come around this area to roost for the night,”says Emily Routman.
“Anywhere between 800 and 1000 parrots usually come around this area to roost for the night,”says Emily Routman.
Video:

COVER: Why parrots, godwits, and bushtits are so good for San Diego


“Get there by dusk,” says my friend Larry, “and prepare yourself for a whole lotta noise.”


So here I am in downtown El Cajon, two hours and a trolley ride later, at around 5 pm on a January evening. I start to see what he means — or rather, hear what he means. The cacophony rings out from three blocks away. By the time I get up to Lexington and Highland Avenue, the calls and laughs and bird-shouts fill the trees and the air around them. Parrots. The sky fills and empties as hundreds of them flash from branch to branch, calling out to their fellows. There’s something joyous about their raucousness. They’re yelling at each other. “Here! We’re sleeping here tonight! Tell the gang!” Nature, unabashed. I’ve landed in an urban jungle. It’s like a school assembly before the bell.

“Never seen anything like it,” says this lone gent who’s come out to see what the all the racket’s about. He wanders away, dazed. Now a woman appears; her eyes are shining as she looks up into the trees, just as the noise level starts to drop. “Do you hear how much quieter it’s getting?” she asks. “It’s almost bedtime.”

As the sky fades to black, the parrot calls begin to sound more like mumbled complaints. A few late movers flutter from tree to tree. “I wanted to wait here until it’s bedtime,” says the woman. “You’ll hear. It becomes completely silent. They always do the same thing. They gather at sunset, have a noisy party, and then at dusk they go to their roosts and sleep, just like that. All at the same time. Just like...this. Isn’t it remarkable?”

By now, she’s whispering, but I have no trouble hearing her. That’s how quiet it is. The whole flock is suddenly, everywhere, down to a burble, like kids talking in bed. The woman’s name is Emily Routman. She’s a retired zoologist. She volunteers at SoCalParrot.org in Jamul, off Campo Road. “Anywhere between 800 and 1000 parrots usually come around this area to roost for the night,” she says. “They like to sleep somewhere within a two-mile radius of the courthouse.”

Janus holds info on trans-global flier, the Hudsonian Godwit.

“Listen,” Emily whispers. “They’re almost asleep. And when they fly in, you see they’re in pairs, because they mate for life. They only do this roosting in the non-breeding season. Starting in late February, they’ll disperse ten, fifteen miles from here. They’re looking for places to nest and raise babies. Only when breeding season is over — from spring to fall — do they convene somewhere like here again. There are other areas, but parrots love to roost in these tall pines. Oh. Hear how quiet they have gone? Time?”

I check my watch. 5:22 pm.

“So five twenty-two’s bedtime! It’s always round dusk.”

Emily gets her out cell. “Alexis: What time is dusk tonight?”

“Dusk is at 5:28,” says Alexis.

“They’ll be asleep five minutes from now,” whispers Emily. “And folks will never know they are surrounded by 1000 Amazonia parrots.”

Except... is that a rat leaping into one of the pine trees? Whatever it is, suddenly, 1000 birds shriek and explode out of the foliage, creating a big dark circle in the sky. The response seems awfully, well, human, even if these parrots are part of San Diego’s spectacular wild bird scene. The county is home to 435 different species, and 260 more species migrate through here on the Pacific Flyway, heading anywhere from Alaska to Patagonia and back.

And on the ground, scanning for them every day, you can find a surprising number of bird fanatics like Janis Cadwallader and her husband, Larry Edwards. “I’m just an SOB,” says Larry. “In our house, that means ‘Spouse Of a Birder.’ When it comes to birding, Janis is the expert.” Edwards is a journalist and author, but he has been pleased to join his wife’s efforts to compile the biggest list she can of spotted birds in her lifetime. (That’s as in birds spotted, not necessarily spotted birds.)

Larry Edwards and Janis Cadwallader at San Diego River Mouth at low tide.

There are 11,188 bird species inhabiting the world as of 2023, with the tropical nation of Colombia (which is half a million square miles big) boasting the greatest variety: 1884 species. Compare that to the U.S. (eight times Colombia’s size, at 4 million square miles), with just 860 species. The largest single bird population on earth is (surprise!) domestic chickens. There are an estimated 20 billion of them worldwide. The most numerous single species of wild bird is the practically unheard-of Red-Billed Quelea, native to sub-Saharan Africa. There are an astonishing 1.5 billion of them. They’re known as the “feathered locust” because of the way they descend on crops in Africa by the thousands and eat them clean. Like the sparrow, they long ago evolved beaks able to crunch the often tougher-shelled seeds that early farmers developed, like sorghum, wheat, barley, millet and rice. In the U.S., the most common wild bird is the American Robin, with a population of about 370 million, more than one per human member of the population.

“If we look and listen, there’s this incredible other life going on all around us,” says Janis. “And even if we don’t look for them, the birds find us. The other day, Larry and I had 100 crows attacking a Great-Horned Owl in our own little bird sanctuary. The owl didn’t move. He was cool. It was wild.”

“I was in the backyard when a Cooper’s Hawk picked off a Lesser Goldfinch,” says Larry. “The hawk closed like a jet. It was late morning. He cruised in on a long fast glide, about ten feet away from me. He grabbed the bird, there was a flurry of feathers, and he fliew off. He took all of two seconds.”

“Cooper’s Hawks are quite common in San Diego County,” Janis adds, “and they regularly feed on other birds. I even saw one the other day swallow a lizard. I noticed the bird first, and then the lizard. It was about halfway down his gullet. Including the tail, it was probably 10 inches long. Another time, we had a Red-tailed Hawk sitting on the hillside looking a little confused — just going back and forth, back and forth, and then at one point he headed out, and he had a rat in his talons. His movement had been suffocating the rat.”

Larry and Janis’s birding telescope boasts membership stickers for the American Birding Association.

“A Great Horned Owl joined us for dinner one night,” says Larry. “And it had a pigeon. We were eating on the patio, and noticed this shape on the hill. It was getting pretty dark. But we realized it was this Great Horned Owl. It had picked off a pigeon, probably a Mourning Dove. He was on the ground, ripping out the meat, 20 feet away. Great Horned Owls are also common in San Diego. I think every canyon has one. People don’t see them often because they sleep during the day and hunt at night. We’re more likely to hear the owls than see them. They really do go ‘Whoo whoo whoo!’ Whereas the Barn Owl screeches. We’ve heard the barn owls in our back yard, but really haven’t had much luck seeing them.”

It’s not for lack of trying. Janis and Larry have made their yard as attractive as possible to all sorts of avians. “We have collected more than 50 birds in our Yard List of identifiable birds that have visited us,” says Janis. “Probably closer to 60. But I have friends in Point Loma who’ve seen over 100 different birds in their yard.” Her own Yard List includes the Scaly-Breasted Munia, which is originally from Southern Asia, introduced to North America as a caged bird. “Cinnamon color. They’ve got a kind of scaly breast, and the bill is blueish gray. The first time I saw them, I was looking out my window at where our drip is. Larry rigged up a little hose that goes along the eave, and it’s got a nozzle on it, and he turned it so it just drips about every five seconds, and it drops into a bird bath. Birds like the sound of the droplet hitting the water. They’ll come in, and they’ll even form a waiting line in the protective shrub by the bird bath. Unfortunately, the squirrels come in too. And hawks. They come for the water. And they come for the birds.”

“But on any good day, we might see 10–15 species,” says Larry.

“We get warblers, tanagers, orioles,” says Janis. “We get Wrentits, we get Bushtits, we get thrushes, Hermit Thrush, Scrub Jays, thrashers, mockingbirds, MacGillivray’s Warblers… What we don’t get are waterfowl. We’ve never had a duck. Not enough water in the yard, even when it rains. Though I have a friend who has an in-ground swimming pool. He gets ducks. The most unusual bird to stop by the drip was probably the Northern Parula. It’s an East Coast bird. Rare in San Diego County. He was on vacation. Probably got blown here.”

“A lot of these birds go to Central or South America during our winter,” Larry says. “So when they’re coming up through Central America, they can get off course, if there’s a storm, or if they just get lost. No one really knows for sure what happens.”

Of course, the Yard List is just for starters. They have both have traveled the world, searching. Janis has more than 4500 birds that she has identified so far. There are plenty of birders who have seen more, but it is still a respectable number, gathered from all seven continents.

* * *

A sunny, cold midday: Janis is standing with Larry on the banks of the San Diego River estuary, looking out over tidal mudflats. They came here at low tide. Herons, egrets, and gulls form clumps on the low-tide mud. Larry is straining his eye to peer through a large Swarovski telescope. Janis matches him, hauling up a substantial pair of Swarovski binoculars to scan the inches-deep water. “Ooh!” says Larry. “Janis, come look!” He unbends from his Swarovski. “I think this might be a Eurasian Wigeon.”

“There was a Hudsonian Godwit that dropped in one day” at the San Diego estuary. “It is a famous bird…On this day, though, the spectacle was not so much the bird. The spectacle was all the birdwatchers who came to see it.”

“Sure it’s not an American Wigeon?” asks Janis.

They pick up a book they had flung to the ground when they were setting up: The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America. “No. Eurasian? That means it’s come here from…”

“Or got blown here.”

“Probably. Blown off course from Siberia. This is not common.”

“Hey, hey,” Larry tells me. “I may be just an SOB, but I also got her a ‘Life Bird’ one day. This could be another.”

“He’s a great spotter,” says Janis, before clarifying: “A ‘Life Bird’ is the first time in your life that you see a particular bird. Thanks to Larry, I did get a Yellow-Billed Magpie that day.”

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“We were on the 101, coming south,” says Larry. “And we pulled in to a rest stop, and there was this bird there. I said, ‘Janis. There’s an interesting bird here. Come look.’ And it was the Yellow-billed Magpie.”

“It was in with blackbirds — junk birds that would hang out at rest stops, hoping to get crumbs people dropped,” Janis says. “But the Yellow-billed Magpie is uncommon, because it has a small range, in Central California. The Black-billed Magpie is much more common.”

“It was the yellow bill that struck me,” Larry says, “because I knew magpies, from living in Washington. My uncle had a cattle ranch, and it always had magpies. So it was something I’d seen since I was a little kid.”

“Can we call you professional birdwatchers?” I ask.

“We are not birdwatchers,” Janis replies, still staring through her binoculars. “We are birders. There is a difference. We are not professionals, but we are serious.”

Larry corrects her. “She is the serious birder and travels the globe. I am just the SOB.”

* * *

This whole crazy habit of just trying to see and identify birds was started in the 19th century by people like John James Audubon, partly to protect birds from the growing trade in feathers for the fashion industry. In his day, people collected bird sightings by shooting them. Janis says she got the birding fever half a century back. “A Northern Flicker — a type of woodpecker — was the spark: I was 23. My first teaching job was at an outdoor education program on Palomar Mountain. Sixth graders came for a week. And there were just wonderful birds there. Acorn Woodpeckers that were red, white and black, Steller’s Jays that were blue, Mountain Bluebirds, Chickadees that sang like, ‘Three blind mice, three blind mice…’ They were tuneful enough that I could tell the kids, ‘Listen! Listen to the Chickadee. “Three blind mice.”’ They’d sing and then I’d go, ‘Di di do.’ And [the birds would] answer me back. And I’d go, ‘do-Di Di-doo.’ And the birds would answer back with a little double note. They can imitate.”

“The other day, Larry and I had 100 crows attacking a Great-Horned Owl in our own little bird sanctuary. The owl didn’t move. He was cool. It was wild.”

Janis knew enough of the birds by sight to help identify them with the kids. “But one day, I was taking a shortcut to the girls’ cabin, and there was a huge boulder with Native American grinding holes (morteros). The boulder probably had about 40 mortero holes in it. And there was this bird sitting there, because sometimes they had water and seeds accumulating in them. And I looked at him, and he looked at me, and I am thinking, ‘What are you?’”

She says the bird had an orange swoosh and a big bill. “He had polka dots on his breast, and when he flew, the rump was white, the wings were red, and I was like, ‘What are you?’”

“Our meeting was similar,” jokes Larry. “The white rump was…” Lots of laughs.

“Well, you know there are birds called ‘Wheatear,’ says Janis. “And that was Old English for ‘White Arse.’ And the only Wheatear you would see in North America would be in Alaska, if you were lucky enough to see one. I saw one in Nome.”

Birding tied in nicely with her unquenchable thirst for travel. “Does birding trip you into action?” I ask.

“Absolutely,” says Janis. “I mostly do it on my own because Larry, the SOB, doesn’t like to travel.” One of the places she has gone to multiple times is Alaska. “I really like Alaska. You get an incredible array of migrating birds. Like Tundra Swans: you see hundreds of them at a time. And Sandhill Cranes that make the 2000-3000-mile flight south to winter in southern New Mexico.” Janis says you can see thousands of cranes in a group there, gorging on barley stubble and wetland invertebrates. She says they mate for life, and every spring, they renew their bond at at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge by going through courtship rituals: dancing, bowing, chortling, and, marvelously, throwing tufts of grass in the air. Then they return in late March to colder climes like Nome, Alaska, for nesting season.

“I’ve been to Nome, and then out to St. Lawrence Island. From there, you really can see Russia. We stayed in a Siberian Yup’ik village. No cars, no hotels, no restaurants, no alcohol. We stayed in a dorm constructed originally when they built a new school. They optimistically called it ‘The Lodge.’ You got two beds and a shelf. And we would rent ATVs from local people.”

The Hudsonian Godwit sometimes flies 8100 miles in 11 days, nonstop, the length of both Americas.

“The island is a Native American reservation, basically,” says Larry. “Part of the economy revolves around birders. They come in in the spring and the fall, and look for birds that they can then claim as having seen in North America, although the birds actually come in from Asia. It’s a popular spot for serious birders.”

“Of course, you have to take your own food out there,” Janis continues. “First, you fly from Anchorage to Nome, where the Iditarod ends, in a 737, which is like a regular 737, except the front half is cargo only. Then you fly in a small, 19-passenger plane.” Up there, Janis was looking for everything from puffins to the Arctic Warbler, the Gray-tailed Tattler, kittywakes, loons, eiders, ptarmigans, and auklets, all in breeding plumage. And, by way of contrast, she has done Brazil (she’s just back from there), as well as Gabon in Africa, where she survived a riot during the presidential election, and even Bakersfield, witness to its own rewilded parrot invasion.

Birding isn’t just spotting; it’s also observing and learning. The stunning murmurings of Starlings, for instance — thousands of them taking to the sky in a swirling aerial ballet. On that Brazil trip? Janis was most enraptured by the Long-trained Nightjar, whose males grow tails over two feet long in their effort to impress females. Here comes the learning: birds in the Nightjar genus are also known as “goatsuckers.” Pliny the Elder — not just a beer but a Roman commander, naturalist, and kinda inventor of the encyclopedia — wrote of them: “Caprimulgiformes enter the shepherds’ stalls, and fly to the goats’ udders, in order to suck their milk, which injures the udder and makes it perish, and the goats they have milked in this way gradually go blind.” It’s a myth, but it’s a powerful, long-lasting one.

Larry says proudly that Janis has seen the largest birds in the world: the 10-foot high Common Ostrich, plus giants like the severely threatened California Condor, with its wingspan of up to an amazing ten feet. Also the smallest: Cuba’s .067-ounce Bee Hummingbird, Earth’s tiniest living bird (and therefore also, yes, the smallest living dinosaur in the world). “We saw the Bee Hummingbird in the far-western part of Cuba, Guanahacabibes National Park. This was in 2012, after President Obama kind of loosened up [the possibilities for] Americans to go to Cuba. And we were licensed as a citizens’ science group. One of our guides was from the Natural History Museum of Cuba, and he knew where some Bee Hummingbirds hung out. Its name in Spanish is zunzuncito, after the humming sound it makes flying. All the males have striking colors. It was something like 2-1/2 inches long.”

But it’s not their smallitude that most amazes the couple. “There are hummingbirds that fly — nonstop — across the Gulf of Mexico. And there are warblers that fly from Cancun to Texas,” says Larry. “They probably lose more than half their body weight on that trip. They try to time it so they have a tailwind, but sometimes they run up against a storm front, and they run out of steam. They just drop into the ocean and drown. Or if they manage to reach land, these birds drop, literally exhausted. Among birders, it’s called a ‘fallout.’ Janis has been in one fallout, at High Island in Texas, close to Galveston.”

Janis says she got the birding fever half a century back. “A Northern Flicker — a type of woodpecker — was the spark: I was 23.

“The birds are so tired they don’t even run away. They just sit there,” says Janis. “When I got there, they were everywhere, dripping from the trees. I didn’t see them actively dropping from the sky. They probably came in the night before. They tend to fly at night — it’s safer, with fewer other birds and less wind. Mostly warblers, some hummingbirds. Just beautiful in their spring colors. But scattered over the land, half dead.”

* * *

Birding, says Larry, is a great way of “getting outdoors and getting away from people.” He suffers from PTSD after a horrifying family trauma that involved the death of both his parents on a yacht in the Pacific off Tahiti. (He published a prize-winning book about it, Dare I Call It Murder?) “I live with that experience every day,” he says. “And yes, birding helps me deal with it.” But that’s not to say that it’s any guarantee of serenity or solitude. When a rare bird makes an appearance, the birders can show up in force. “There was a Hudsonian Godwit that dropped in one day” at the San Diego estuary. “It is a famous bird” — in part because it sometimes flies 8100 miles in 11 days, nonstop, the length of both Americas. “That’s what fantastic birds they are. On this day, though, the spectacle was not so much the bird. The spectacle was all the birdwatchers who came to see it.”

JANIS: Probably 200 of them.

LARRY: The word gets out instantly on something like that, with the internet.

JANIS: People drove in from LA, San Bernardino, Riverside.

LARRY: They came from all over Southern California to get here. So I took a picture of the birders. And they came equipped with huge cameras way bigger than mine, and scopes, and I figured, at a minimum, there was a quarter of a million dollars’ worth of gear there. Probably closer to half a million dollars’ worth. Binoculars, cameras, 600 millimeter lenses, spotting scopes...one individual could have $15,000-$20,000 worth of gear. But you can understand it. Some of these birds are so rare. That Hudsonian Godwit? There may not be another one [coming here] within any of our lifetimes.”

Birding is also a great way of getting into crazy competitions. A while back, Larry discovered the idea of The Big Year. “So 2018 was my Big Year. I learned about eBird” — an online data site where birders record their sightings — “and I learned about this insane, unspoken competition between normally rational individuals. It’s a simple but powerful challenge: to see how many different birds you can spot in a year. I got caught up in that challenge. I wanted to be in the top 100 in the county. Just the county, not the entire country, which some people do. It was even made into a movie. I thought, ‘How hard could that be?’ Actually, it’s pretty hard. Harder than I thought. There are hundreds, probably thousands of us, who do this.” Urged on by Janis and her fellow birders, he ended up at number six.

San Diego, says Janis, “is a big birder destination. And it gets a boost every year with our San Diego Bird Festival at the end of February.” One reason for its status: it’s on the central axis of the Pacific Flyway. Literally millions of birds fly over the city every night during the spring (northbound) and fall (southbound) migration months. Two hundred and fifty species migrate to Alaska alone in summer, seeking plentiful food, endless daylight, and vast open spaces for nesting.

* * *

Back in El Cajon, the panicked parrots are starting to funnel west, searching out another roost for the night. “Perhaps we talked too loud,” says Emily. She says the birds are Amazonia parrots, but they’re from Mexico. There are two species: Lilac-crowned and Red-crowned. She says the Red-crowned are from the gulf coast of Mexico. There are only maybe 3000 left in the wild, due to habitat destruction. It’s happening really fast. The Lilac-crowned are from the Sea of Cortez, on the Pacific side. They are endangered, but not critically. Perhaps 8000 are still in existence.

“The irony,” Emily says, “is that here in San Diego, they are doing fantastically well since they were introduced and become feral. So this may be the saving of them.” And happily, that won’t mean the doom of some other bird. “A lot of times, when a species shows up in an area and competes with a local population of birds for food, it’s not a good thing. But these parrots don’t eat any native plants. All they eat are the [fruit of] the introduced plants, like the palm trees’ palm nuts, eucalyptus gumnuts, and all the fruit and nuts from the fruit trees that people have planted. And these are not important food sources for native birds.”

Emily says parrots have been coming to Southern California for at least 50 years. “Already, they’re part of El Cajon’s natural scene. This could be the future.” She looks up into the roiling funnel of parrotdom as the rowdy birds start to shriek off west towards new accommodations. “Goodbye, guys! I hope you’ll come back tomorrow. El Cajon needs you!”

Next morning, I have a question for Janis. Larry answers the phone. “Better make this quick, dude. I’m taking Janis to the airport. She’s going to Peru. Headwaters of the Amazon. Aiming for 50 more Life Birds.”

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“Anywhere between 800 and 1000 parrots usually come around this area to roost for the night,”says Emily Routman.
“Anywhere between 800 and 1000 parrots usually come around this area to roost for the night,”says Emily Routman.
Video:

COVER: Why parrots, godwits, and bushtits are so good for San Diego


“Get there by dusk,” says my friend Larry, “and prepare yourself for a whole lotta noise.”


So here I am in downtown El Cajon, two hours and a trolley ride later, at around 5 pm on a January evening. I start to see what he means — or rather, hear what he means. The cacophony rings out from three blocks away. By the time I get up to Lexington and Highland Avenue, the calls and laughs and bird-shouts fill the trees and the air around them. Parrots. The sky fills and empties as hundreds of them flash from branch to branch, calling out to their fellows. There’s something joyous about their raucousness. They’re yelling at each other. “Here! We’re sleeping here tonight! Tell the gang!” Nature, unabashed. I’ve landed in an urban jungle. It’s like a school assembly before the bell.

“Never seen anything like it,” says this lone gent who’s come out to see what the all the racket’s about. He wanders away, dazed. Now a woman appears; her eyes are shining as she looks up into the trees, just as the noise level starts to drop. “Do you hear how much quieter it’s getting?” she asks. “It’s almost bedtime.”

As the sky fades to black, the parrot calls begin to sound more like mumbled complaints. A few late movers flutter from tree to tree. “I wanted to wait here until it’s bedtime,” says the woman. “You’ll hear. It becomes completely silent. They always do the same thing. They gather at sunset, have a noisy party, and then at dusk they go to their roosts and sleep, just like that. All at the same time. Just like...this. Isn’t it remarkable?”

By now, she’s whispering, but I have no trouble hearing her. That’s how quiet it is. The whole flock is suddenly, everywhere, down to a burble, like kids talking in bed. The woman’s name is Emily Routman. She’s a retired zoologist. She volunteers at SoCalParrot.org in Jamul, off Campo Road. “Anywhere between 800 and 1000 parrots usually come around this area to roost for the night,” she says. “They like to sleep somewhere within a two-mile radius of the courthouse.”

Janus holds info on trans-global flier, the Hudsonian Godwit.

“Listen,” Emily whispers. “They’re almost asleep. And when they fly in, you see they’re in pairs, because they mate for life. They only do this roosting in the non-breeding season. Starting in late February, they’ll disperse ten, fifteen miles from here. They’re looking for places to nest and raise babies. Only when breeding season is over — from spring to fall — do they convene somewhere like here again. There are other areas, but parrots love to roost in these tall pines. Oh. Hear how quiet they have gone? Time?”

I check my watch. 5:22 pm.

“So five twenty-two’s bedtime! It’s always round dusk.”

Emily gets her out cell. “Alexis: What time is dusk tonight?”

“Dusk is at 5:28,” says Alexis.

“They’ll be asleep five minutes from now,” whispers Emily. “And folks will never know they are surrounded by 1000 Amazonia parrots.”

Except... is that a rat leaping into one of the pine trees? Whatever it is, suddenly, 1000 birds shriek and explode out of the foliage, creating a big dark circle in the sky. The response seems awfully, well, human, even if these parrots are part of San Diego’s spectacular wild bird scene. The county is home to 435 different species, and 260 more species migrate through here on the Pacific Flyway, heading anywhere from Alaska to Patagonia and back.

And on the ground, scanning for them every day, you can find a surprising number of bird fanatics like Janis Cadwallader and her husband, Larry Edwards. “I’m just an SOB,” says Larry. “In our house, that means ‘Spouse Of a Birder.’ When it comes to birding, Janis is the expert.” Edwards is a journalist and author, but he has been pleased to join his wife’s efforts to compile the biggest list she can of spotted birds in her lifetime. (That’s as in birds spotted, not necessarily spotted birds.)

Larry Edwards and Janis Cadwallader at San Diego River Mouth at low tide.

There are 11,188 bird species inhabiting the world as of 2023, with the tropical nation of Colombia (which is half a million square miles big) boasting the greatest variety: 1884 species. Compare that to the U.S. (eight times Colombia’s size, at 4 million square miles), with just 860 species. The largest single bird population on earth is (surprise!) domestic chickens. There are an estimated 20 billion of them worldwide. The most numerous single species of wild bird is the practically unheard-of Red-Billed Quelea, native to sub-Saharan Africa. There are an astonishing 1.5 billion of them. They’re known as the “feathered locust” because of the way they descend on crops in Africa by the thousands and eat them clean. Like the sparrow, they long ago evolved beaks able to crunch the often tougher-shelled seeds that early farmers developed, like sorghum, wheat, barley, millet and rice. In the U.S., the most common wild bird is the American Robin, with a population of about 370 million, more than one per human member of the population.

“If we look and listen, there’s this incredible other life going on all around us,” says Janis. “And even if we don’t look for them, the birds find us. The other day, Larry and I had 100 crows attacking a Great-Horned Owl in our own little bird sanctuary. The owl didn’t move. He was cool. It was wild.”

“I was in the backyard when a Cooper’s Hawk picked off a Lesser Goldfinch,” says Larry. “The hawk closed like a jet. It was late morning. He cruised in on a long fast glide, about ten feet away from me. He grabbed the bird, there was a flurry of feathers, and he fliew off. He took all of two seconds.”

“Cooper’s Hawks are quite common in San Diego County,” Janis adds, “and they regularly feed on other birds. I even saw one the other day swallow a lizard. I noticed the bird first, and then the lizard. It was about halfway down his gullet. Including the tail, it was probably 10 inches long. Another time, we had a Red-tailed Hawk sitting on the hillside looking a little confused — just going back and forth, back and forth, and then at one point he headed out, and he had a rat in his talons. His movement had been suffocating the rat.”

Larry and Janis’s birding telescope boasts membership stickers for the American Birding Association.

“A Great Horned Owl joined us for dinner one night,” says Larry. “And it had a pigeon. We were eating on the patio, and noticed this shape on the hill. It was getting pretty dark. But we realized it was this Great Horned Owl. It had picked off a pigeon, probably a Mourning Dove. He was on the ground, ripping out the meat, 20 feet away. Great Horned Owls are also common in San Diego. I think every canyon has one. People don’t see them often because they sleep during the day and hunt at night. We’re more likely to hear the owls than see them. They really do go ‘Whoo whoo whoo!’ Whereas the Barn Owl screeches. We’ve heard the barn owls in our back yard, but really haven’t had much luck seeing them.”

It’s not for lack of trying. Janis and Larry have made their yard as attractive as possible to all sorts of avians. “We have collected more than 50 birds in our Yard List of identifiable birds that have visited us,” says Janis. “Probably closer to 60. But I have friends in Point Loma who’ve seen over 100 different birds in their yard.” Her own Yard List includes the Scaly-Breasted Munia, which is originally from Southern Asia, introduced to North America as a caged bird. “Cinnamon color. They’ve got a kind of scaly breast, and the bill is blueish gray. The first time I saw them, I was looking out my window at where our drip is. Larry rigged up a little hose that goes along the eave, and it’s got a nozzle on it, and he turned it so it just drips about every five seconds, and it drops into a bird bath. Birds like the sound of the droplet hitting the water. They’ll come in, and they’ll even form a waiting line in the protective shrub by the bird bath. Unfortunately, the squirrels come in too. And hawks. They come for the water. And they come for the birds.”

“But on any good day, we might see 10–15 species,” says Larry.

“We get warblers, tanagers, orioles,” says Janis. “We get Wrentits, we get Bushtits, we get thrushes, Hermit Thrush, Scrub Jays, thrashers, mockingbirds, MacGillivray’s Warblers… What we don’t get are waterfowl. We’ve never had a duck. Not enough water in the yard, even when it rains. Though I have a friend who has an in-ground swimming pool. He gets ducks. The most unusual bird to stop by the drip was probably the Northern Parula. It’s an East Coast bird. Rare in San Diego County. He was on vacation. Probably got blown here.”

“A lot of these birds go to Central or South America during our winter,” Larry says. “So when they’re coming up through Central America, they can get off course, if there’s a storm, or if they just get lost. No one really knows for sure what happens.”

Of course, the Yard List is just for starters. They have both have traveled the world, searching. Janis has more than 4500 birds that she has identified so far. There are plenty of birders who have seen more, but it is still a respectable number, gathered from all seven continents.

* * *

A sunny, cold midday: Janis is standing with Larry on the banks of the San Diego River estuary, looking out over tidal mudflats. They came here at low tide. Herons, egrets, and gulls form clumps on the low-tide mud. Larry is straining his eye to peer through a large Swarovski telescope. Janis matches him, hauling up a substantial pair of Swarovski binoculars to scan the inches-deep water. “Ooh!” says Larry. “Janis, come look!” He unbends from his Swarovski. “I think this might be a Eurasian Wigeon.”

“There was a Hudsonian Godwit that dropped in one day” at the San Diego estuary. “It is a famous bird…On this day, though, the spectacle was not so much the bird. The spectacle was all the birdwatchers who came to see it.”

“Sure it’s not an American Wigeon?” asks Janis.

They pick up a book they had flung to the ground when they were setting up: The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America. “No. Eurasian? That means it’s come here from…”

“Or got blown here.”

“Probably. Blown off course from Siberia. This is not common.”

“Hey, hey,” Larry tells me. “I may be just an SOB, but I also got her a ‘Life Bird’ one day. This could be another.”

“He’s a great spotter,” says Janis, before clarifying: “A ‘Life Bird’ is the first time in your life that you see a particular bird. Thanks to Larry, I did get a Yellow-Billed Magpie that day.”

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“We were on the 101, coming south,” says Larry. “And we pulled in to a rest stop, and there was this bird there. I said, ‘Janis. There’s an interesting bird here. Come look.’ And it was the Yellow-billed Magpie.”

“It was in with blackbirds — junk birds that would hang out at rest stops, hoping to get crumbs people dropped,” Janis says. “But the Yellow-billed Magpie is uncommon, because it has a small range, in Central California. The Black-billed Magpie is much more common.”

“It was the yellow bill that struck me,” Larry says, “because I knew magpies, from living in Washington. My uncle had a cattle ranch, and it always had magpies. So it was something I’d seen since I was a little kid.”

“Can we call you professional birdwatchers?” I ask.

“We are not birdwatchers,” Janis replies, still staring through her binoculars. “We are birders. There is a difference. We are not professionals, but we are serious.”

Larry corrects her. “She is the serious birder and travels the globe. I am just the SOB.”

* * *

This whole crazy habit of just trying to see and identify birds was started in the 19th century by people like John James Audubon, partly to protect birds from the growing trade in feathers for the fashion industry. In his day, people collected bird sightings by shooting them. Janis says she got the birding fever half a century back. “A Northern Flicker — a type of woodpecker — was the spark: I was 23. My first teaching job was at an outdoor education program on Palomar Mountain. Sixth graders came for a week. And there were just wonderful birds there. Acorn Woodpeckers that were red, white and black, Steller’s Jays that were blue, Mountain Bluebirds, Chickadees that sang like, ‘Three blind mice, three blind mice…’ They were tuneful enough that I could tell the kids, ‘Listen! Listen to the Chickadee. “Three blind mice.”’ They’d sing and then I’d go, ‘Di di do.’ And [the birds would] answer me back. And I’d go, ‘do-Di Di-doo.’ And the birds would answer back with a little double note. They can imitate.”

“The other day, Larry and I had 100 crows attacking a Great-Horned Owl in our own little bird sanctuary. The owl didn’t move. He was cool. It was wild.”

Janis knew enough of the birds by sight to help identify them with the kids. “But one day, I was taking a shortcut to the girls’ cabin, and there was a huge boulder with Native American grinding holes (morteros). The boulder probably had about 40 mortero holes in it. And there was this bird sitting there, because sometimes they had water and seeds accumulating in them. And I looked at him, and he looked at me, and I am thinking, ‘What are you?’”

She says the bird had an orange swoosh and a big bill. “He had polka dots on his breast, and when he flew, the rump was white, the wings were red, and I was like, ‘What are you?’”

“Our meeting was similar,” jokes Larry. “The white rump was…” Lots of laughs.

“Well, you know there are birds called ‘Wheatear,’ says Janis. “And that was Old English for ‘White Arse.’ And the only Wheatear you would see in North America would be in Alaska, if you were lucky enough to see one. I saw one in Nome.”

Birding tied in nicely with her unquenchable thirst for travel. “Does birding trip you into action?” I ask.

“Absolutely,” says Janis. “I mostly do it on my own because Larry, the SOB, doesn’t like to travel.” One of the places she has gone to multiple times is Alaska. “I really like Alaska. You get an incredible array of migrating birds. Like Tundra Swans: you see hundreds of them at a time. And Sandhill Cranes that make the 2000-3000-mile flight south to winter in southern New Mexico.” Janis says you can see thousands of cranes in a group there, gorging on barley stubble and wetland invertebrates. She says they mate for life, and every spring, they renew their bond at at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge by going through courtship rituals: dancing, bowing, chortling, and, marvelously, throwing tufts of grass in the air. Then they return in late March to colder climes like Nome, Alaska, for nesting season.

“I’ve been to Nome, and then out to St. Lawrence Island. From there, you really can see Russia. We stayed in a Siberian Yup’ik village. No cars, no hotels, no restaurants, no alcohol. We stayed in a dorm constructed originally when they built a new school. They optimistically called it ‘The Lodge.’ You got two beds and a shelf. And we would rent ATVs from local people.”

The Hudsonian Godwit sometimes flies 8100 miles in 11 days, nonstop, the length of both Americas.

“The island is a Native American reservation, basically,” says Larry. “Part of the economy revolves around birders. They come in in the spring and the fall, and look for birds that they can then claim as having seen in North America, although the birds actually come in from Asia. It’s a popular spot for serious birders.”

“Of course, you have to take your own food out there,” Janis continues. “First, you fly from Anchorage to Nome, where the Iditarod ends, in a 737, which is like a regular 737, except the front half is cargo only. Then you fly in a small, 19-passenger plane.” Up there, Janis was looking for everything from puffins to the Arctic Warbler, the Gray-tailed Tattler, kittywakes, loons, eiders, ptarmigans, and auklets, all in breeding plumage. And, by way of contrast, she has done Brazil (she’s just back from there), as well as Gabon in Africa, where she survived a riot during the presidential election, and even Bakersfield, witness to its own rewilded parrot invasion.

Birding isn’t just spotting; it’s also observing and learning. The stunning murmurings of Starlings, for instance — thousands of them taking to the sky in a swirling aerial ballet. On that Brazil trip? Janis was most enraptured by the Long-trained Nightjar, whose males grow tails over two feet long in their effort to impress females. Here comes the learning: birds in the Nightjar genus are also known as “goatsuckers.” Pliny the Elder — not just a beer but a Roman commander, naturalist, and kinda inventor of the encyclopedia — wrote of them: “Caprimulgiformes enter the shepherds’ stalls, and fly to the goats’ udders, in order to suck their milk, which injures the udder and makes it perish, and the goats they have milked in this way gradually go blind.” It’s a myth, but it’s a powerful, long-lasting one.

Larry says proudly that Janis has seen the largest birds in the world: the 10-foot high Common Ostrich, plus giants like the severely threatened California Condor, with its wingspan of up to an amazing ten feet. Also the smallest: Cuba’s .067-ounce Bee Hummingbird, Earth’s tiniest living bird (and therefore also, yes, the smallest living dinosaur in the world). “We saw the Bee Hummingbird in the far-western part of Cuba, Guanahacabibes National Park. This was in 2012, after President Obama kind of loosened up [the possibilities for] Americans to go to Cuba. And we were licensed as a citizens’ science group. One of our guides was from the Natural History Museum of Cuba, and he knew where some Bee Hummingbirds hung out. Its name in Spanish is zunzuncito, after the humming sound it makes flying. All the males have striking colors. It was something like 2-1/2 inches long.”

But it’s not their smallitude that most amazes the couple. “There are hummingbirds that fly — nonstop — across the Gulf of Mexico. And there are warblers that fly from Cancun to Texas,” says Larry. “They probably lose more than half their body weight on that trip. They try to time it so they have a tailwind, but sometimes they run up against a storm front, and they run out of steam. They just drop into the ocean and drown. Or if they manage to reach land, these birds drop, literally exhausted. Among birders, it’s called a ‘fallout.’ Janis has been in one fallout, at High Island in Texas, close to Galveston.”

Janis says she got the birding fever half a century back. “A Northern Flicker — a type of woodpecker — was the spark: I was 23.

“The birds are so tired they don’t even run away. They just sit there,” says Janis. “When I got there, they were everywhere, dripping from the trees. I didn’t see them actively dropping from the sky. They probably came in the night before. They tend to fly at night — it’s safer, with fewer other birds and less wind. Mostly warblers, some hummingbirds. Just beautiful in their spring colors. But scattered over the land, half dead.”

* * *

Birding, says Larry, is a great way of “getting outdoors and getting away from people.” He suffers from PTSD after a horrifying family trauma that involved the death of both his parents on a yacht in the Pacific off Tahiti. (He published a prize-winning book about it, Dare I Call It Murder?) “I live with that experience every day,” he says. “And yes, birding helps me deal with it.” But that’s not to say that it’s any guarantee of serenity or solitude. When a rare bird makes an appearance, the birders can show up in force. “There was a Hudsonian Godwit that dropped in one day” at the San Diego estuary. “It is a famous bird” — in part because it sometimes flies 8100 miles in 11 days, nonstop, the length of both Americas. “That’s what fantastic birds they are. On this day, though, the spectacle was not so much the bird. The spectacle was all the birdwatchers who came to see it.”

JANIS: Probably 200 of them.

LARRY: The word gets out instantly on something like that, with the internet.

JANIS: People drove in from LA, San Bernardino, Riverside.

LARRY: They came from all over Southern California to get here. So I took a picture of the birders. And they came equipped with huge cameras way bigger than mine, and scopes, and I figured, at a minimum, there was a quarter of a million dollars’ worth of gear there. Probably closer to half a million dollars’ worth. Binoculars, cameras, 600 millimeter lenses, spotting scopes...one individual could have $15,000-$20,000 worth of gear. But you can understand it. Some of these birds are so rare. That Hudsonian Godwit? There may not be another one [coming here] within any of our lifetimes.”

Birding is also a great way of getting into crazy competitions. A while back, Larry discovered the idea of The Big Year. “So 2018 was my Big Year. I learned about eBird” — an online data site where birders record their sightings — “and I learned about this insane, unspoken competition between normally rational individuals. It’s a simple but powerful challenge: to see how many different birds you can spot in a year. I got caught up in that challenge. I wanted to be in the top 100 in the county. Just the county, not the entire country, which some people do. It was even made into a movie. I thought, ‘How hard could that be?’ Actually, it’s pretty hard. Harder than I thought. There are hundreds, probably thousands of us, who do this.” Urged on by Janis and her fellow birders, he ended up at number six.

San Diego, says Janis, “is a big birder destination. And it gets a boost every year with our San Diego Bird Festival at the end of February.” One reason for its status: it’s on the central axis of the Pacific Flyway. Literally millions of birds fly over the city every night during the spring (northbound) and fall (southbound) migration months. Two hundred and fifty species migrate to Alaska alone in summer, seeking plentiful food, endless daylight, and vast open spaces for nesting.

* * *

Back in El Cajon, the panicked parrots are starting to funnel west, searching out another roost for the night. “Perhaps we talked too loud,” says Emily. She says the birds are Amazonia parrots, but they’re from Mexico. There are two species: Lilac-crowned and Red-crowned. She says the Red-crowned are from the gulf coast of Mexico. There are only maybe 3000 left in the wild, due to habitat destruction. It’s happening really fast. The Lilac-crowned are from the Sea of Cortez, on the Pacific side. They are endangered, but not critically. Perhaps 8000 are still in existence.

“The irony,” Emily says, “is that here in San Diego, they are doing fantastically well since they were introduced and become feral. So this may be the saving of them.” And happily, that won’t mean the doom of some other bird. “A lot of times, when a species shows up in an area and competes with a local population of birds for food, it’s not a good thing. But these parrots don’t eat any native plants. All they eat are the [fruit of] the introduced plants, like the palm trees’ palm nuts, eucalyptus gumnuts, and all the fruit and nuts from the fruit trees that people have planted. And these are not important food sources for native birds.”

Emily says parrots have been coming to Southern California for at least 50 years. “Already, they’re part of El Cajon’s natural scene. This could be the future.” She looks up into the roiling funnel of parrotdom as the rowdy birds start to shriek off west towards new accommodations. “Goodbye, guys! I hope you’ll come back tomorrow. El Cajon needs you!”

Next morning, I have a question for Janis. Larry answers the phone. “Better make this quick, dude. I’m taking Janis to the airport. She’s going to Peru. Headwaters of the Amazon. Aiming for 50 more Life Birds.”

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