Unschooling Articles from Live Free Learn Free

(Septermber/October 2005)

by Shana Ronayne Hickman

A few years ago, my five-year-old son and I were driving on a back road between New Braunfels and San Marcos in the hill country of central Texas. We usually drove that road several times a week, me steering the old VW clear of road kill (abundant on that back road), and Kenzie reading his comics in the backseat. And then, there it was – a scavenger like nothing we had ever seen before. Mostly, we had seen vultures of one sort or another, but this guy was beautiful – almost regal – and so very different. His face was stately, and black feathers crowned his head. I turned the car around, and Kenzie and I watched him for several minutes as he strutted back and forth across a brushy field.

When we finally made it back home, we searched the Internet for pictures of scavenger birds. After weeding through hundreds that were not a match, we came across the Crested Caracara. Native to Mexico and South America, Caracaras had made their way into parts of Texas. We were excited and searched for more websites, more pictures.

When we drove back down the road a few days later, we pulled over and scoured the field for the bird. Not only did we find him, we saw his mate, younger and browner. We watched them for quite a while, discussing what we had learned about the species and its habits. We looked for a nest in the groves of live oaks that bordered the field, but couldn’t find one.

It wasn’t long before we acquired a field guide to birds of eastern and central North America. Soon, we were identifying all the birds that flew past our windows, those that circled parking lots waiting for crumbs, those we found on our walks, and those we saw when we traveled along in our car. In addition to the requisite stash of comics, the guide now went with us everywhere, along with a pair of binoculars. We marked off those we spotted from the book’s “Life List”: Northern Mockingbirds, Rock Doves, Morning Doves, Harris’s Sparrows, Northern Cardinals, Great Tailed Grackles, Great Blue Herons, Black Vultures, European Starlings, Bluebirds, Robins, Greater Roadrunners, Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, Barn Swallows, and many others.

We still watched our Crested Caracaras, thinking of them as a secret no one else had discovered. After a few months, we witnessed the male nursing the female back to health when her leg was injured (possibly after a car accident). We watched as he brought her food and guarded her as she ate. And, we watched as she began to fly in spurts, here and there, lifting off awkwardly. Eventually, we had to move to another part of the state, and we haven’t seen another Caracara since.

Kenzie was passionate about bird watching for several months, then mostly forgot about it. I often pulled out the field guide when I was curious about a bird I had seen, but other than that, it lay untouched. Then, one day, he pulled a tiny, yellowish bird out of a neighborhood cat’s mouth. He managed to save it, and we kept it warm while I searched for a wild bird rescuer able to foster it. When asked what species it was, I was only able to give a vague description of the tiny mass of feathers. Waiting for a rescuer to get home from work, we looked through the field guide, trying to identify it. Finally, we saw its picture – an Orange-crowned Warbler, obviously only visiting us for the winter.

Soon, we were standing in the bird rescuer’s entryway. He gently unwrapped the tiny, quiet bird and agreed with us about the species. After finding no blood, he was somewhat heartened and went searching for antibiotics and food. I filled out a bit of paperwork, and we left the bird in his expert hands. Several weeks later, he released the bird, now mended and strengthened, near our house.

We use the field guide sporadically, sometimes looking up specific birds we’ve seen, other times flipping through its pages at random. We know the names of the common birds in our area, and we know when one we’ve spotted isn’t so common. Now, when we sit out on the porch in the evenings, we can recognize the voices of the different birds as they call back and forth to each other. We cringe when we hear someone refer to grackles as crows or when they wonder about those weird brown birds who always seem to be with them (female grackles). We keep track of the birds that nest around our house, and we get excited when we discover a kind of bird we haven’t seen before. It hasn’t become his life, but bird watching has been enjoyable and enlightening, and understanding more about birds and their behavior has helped Kenzie feel more at home in the world in which he lives. And, it’s done the same for me.

Shana and her family live in central Texas. She enjoys writing poetry, folksinging, and spending long days with her son. She is the publisher and editor of Live Free Learn Free.

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