The sighting of that first bird was a salvation. One sunny, spring morning, Phoebe Snetsinger, a 34-year-old mother of four, set out into the woods behind her house in the Minneapolis suburbs. She had never been birdwatching before, but went along for a walk on a neighbour's suggestion. At the top of a tree perched a Blackburnian Warbler with a blazing orange throat.
"I had never seen anything like it," wrote the Sixties-era housewife. "And at the same time, I realized that the bird had probably been in the trees in my own backyard every spring I'd been alive."
It was like seeing "a blinding white light," she wrote, as profound as a religious awakening, bringing intense joy; lifting her from the frustration of her life, and changing it irrevocably in ways both good and bad.
I came across her story last week when I was thinking about the happiness birds can bring. Every year at this time, in the fragility of spring, I awaken to the sound of birds chirping outside my window in the heart of Toronto, and feel astonished that I had forgotten how much I missed them.
Happiness often comes from taking an action (if you follow the pursuit of contentedness as laid out by Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project), or from having something good happen to you (a pay raise, an opportunity to travel somewhere nice, a display of affection).
But birds are like drugs – they make you happy for no reason.
The biography of Ms. Snetsinger – Life List, a Woman's Quest for the World's Most Amazing Birds, by Olivia Gentile – is a testament to the human fascination with birds and their ability to delight. The daughter of advertising legend Leo Burnett, Ms. Snetsinger was educated and driven, a good mother who didn't find fulfillment at home. That spring – the year was 1965 – as soon as Ms. Snetsinger got her children down for a nap, three were in diapers at the time, she would go into her own backyard to look for birds. It was her "season of euphoria," explains her biographer in an interview.
"She went from feeling cooped up and unhappy to feeling that her entire world had expanded," says Ms. Gentile.
Most of us don't take notice of birds. They're masters at vanishing – one minute there, the next gone. But one only has to look to literature and mythology to appreciate the long-standing and complex relationship we have with them. Graeme Gibson's book, The Bedside Book of Birds, is the best resource for understanding the affinity humans have for the feathered flocks. From earliest recorded history, they have stirred our imagination, appearing as portents of good and bad, life and death. A bluebird on one's window suggests happiness. A bird in the house signals an imminent death.
They touch the clouds; surf the wind; watch from above; alight only briefly. They're of the air, not the Earth, an embodiment of spirit, which is perhaps why we're so entranced. "For as long as we human beings can remember, we've been looking up. Over our heads went the birds – free as we were not, singing as we tried to," literary icon Margaret Atwood, an avid birdwatcher, wrote in a 2010 article in The Guardian about the need to safeguard their population.
Consider Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of love, who was depicted with wings; Plato's vision of the human soul growing wings and feathers; the description in St. Matthew's Gospel of the spirit of God "descending like a dove" and alighting on Jesus at his baptism; Alfred Hitchcock's scary classic, The Birds; Big Bird on Sesame Street; tweets on Twitter, social media's interpretation of a little bird telling you so.
I think of birds as a flash of beauty – a reminder of its existence even when we lose sight of it. And a lesson in hardy delicacy. They look so petite, tiny-boned as ballerinas, and yet they withstand so much: The longest known non-stop flight (at 11,000 kilometres) is made by the Bar-tailed Godwit, from Alaska to New Zealand – sleeping only sporadically in the gloomy shelter of trees to avoid predators; surviving through millennia.
What I love, too, is how distinct their personalities are. When I visit my parents' house in West Sussex, England, south of London, one of the most therapeutic things to do – aside from sleeping in my favourite bedroom overlooking a dream-like pastoral landscape – is watch the birds. The garden is lush, filled with bird-friendly berry patches, flowers and pools of water. A large bird feeder stands outside the kitchen window, and to sit at the table there, watching the activity, is a lovely, soothing distraction.
Little ones – blue tits, goldfinches, nuthatches, wrens – arrive in a group, three or more at a time, twitchy as buglers, scattering at the smallest suggestion of a human – or some bigger, more authoritative bird – nearby. The crows are obnoxious snobs who swoop in and act as though they own the place. When even one arrives on the feeder, the little ones flit off to a nearby bush – the waiting room, we call it – until the stand is vacated again. And then there's the woodpecker, a gentleman really, with his red beret-like marking, who pecks away at the seed, solitary, dignified and tidy about taking his snack.
I could never be a birder, though, one of those people obsessed with ticking off birds on a list. That's what Ms. Snetsinger became. In 1981, nearing 50, diagnosed with the most serious form of skin cancer, melanoma, and told she had less than a year to live, she ramped up her bird-watching expeditions to foreign parts of the world, eager to fulfill her list. (There are more than 10,000 bird species in the world and she became famous for seeing 8,398, more than anyone in history.)
She never succumbed to the cancer, though. It was her pursuit of birds that did her in. "In addition to bringing her a lot of happiness, birds also brought her a lot of unhappiness," Ms. Gentile says, adding, "but she would never have said that." She ventured into war zones and remote places; contracted tropical diseases; and was once taken hostage by an Ethiopian tribal chief. Death came at age 68 in a car accident while in Madagascar, chasing down an Appert's Greenbul, a little peach-and-green bird that had been found and named only three years earlier.
I always think it's best to be a passive appreciator of birds. Chasing them down is like hunting for love. It's so much more lovely when you simply wait for that bluebird to make an appearance.