Daily Archives: February 4, 2011

Mid-Century Winnipeg – Portage Avenue 1960s

Pre-skyscraper Winnipeg, looking east on Portage Avenue, circa 1960

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This post and yesterday’s called Jerry Lewis Birds comprise the first two entries in a name Page on my blog, Birdland. It will feature many stories of my bird encounters in my lifetime.

            Among my most treasured and influential possessions from my childhood is a small book called Song Birds of North America by Roger Tory Peterson. A promotion item from Brooke Bond Canada Ltd, makers of tea and coffee back in the 1950s & 60s, the book is an album that holds a series of collectible bird cards. The cards came in packages of Red Rose tea and Blue Ribbon coffee. The little album is copyright 1959 by the National Wildlife Federation. I’d be ten years old and spending long summer days exploring the bluffs and sloughs, the fields and bush around Shoal Lake, my hometown in western Manitoba. 

            Red Rose and Blue Ribbon were popular brands at the time so lots of kids collected the cards. We traded extras, filling in blanks and completing collections.

       The cards are full colour illustrations of the birds with information on the back. The back of each card has the same information that appears in the album. There are 48 cards, all bilingual. Many of the bird descriptions include phonetic spellings of their calls.

            Growing up in rural Manitoba, there were always opportunities to see birds close-up, to hear them repeatedly all year and to become well acquainted with them. Song Birds of North America helped me identify the birds by sight and sound.

            American writer Edward Abbey, when he took tourists on excursions down American rivers in the Southwest, was incessantly asked, “What’s that?” His reply was always, “I have no idea what it is. We call it a house wren,” or whatever the critter happened to be. Our naming simply does not capture the essence of many birds. It takes encounters with them at all our ages and in all their seasons for us to even begin answering, “What’s that?”

            If you have a solid foundation of knowledge about something from childhood, you are likely to find some use for it throughout your life. This happened with my bird book. It created a sustained interest in birds that makes me curious when I see a flock wheeling in the sky or hear a new bird song. I need to know what bird it is. I’m not a serious bird watcher or bird chaser, as a friend calls them. I just need to go to Birdland now and then.

            The birds I write about are not rare at all. They are some of the most common birds in North America. Except for European starlings, these birds are seldom seen in cities. Their habitat requires open spaces or quiet forests, places where humans are rare. The circumstances and location of my encounters with these birds makes them special to me. Often they enliven a forest or field with their twitters and songs. Birds heighten my experience of sacred hilltops, those lonesome places where the sky feels like a second skin and the only sound is the wind soughing pierced eerily by a red-tailed hawk soaring and crying overhead. Birds bring a sudden sense of delight when their hopeful and rejuvenating songs rise out of the background din of city living.

            They come alone and they come in flocks. They soar or sit in silence and they have so much to say they can’t shut up. Take flight, flock with me, share some cherries, build a nest, lay an egg and fly, fly some more.

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