Bay Nature magazineSpring 2019

Bird Savant

John Robinson has 20/15 vision and perfect auditory recall. But he's dedicated his life to the idea that anyone can learn to bird.

March 25, 2019
John Robinson
John Robinson in Tilden Park. (Photo by Robert Houser)

There’s a bird somewhere in the reedy thicket ahead but I can’t see it. The creature is making a sound that, to me, is indistinguishable from dozens of chits, pips, and trills heard on this late March morning in the bird-rich wetlands of Suisun Marsh, south of Fairfield. Thankfully, John Robinson is at my side, making a raspy shwishing sound. “They get curious when they hear that,” he says, and then resumes his shwishi-shwsishing. 

I’ve never witnessed this sort of witchcraft (a technique called “pishing,” I later learn) and am unclear how mimicking the sound of a bike pump can make birds appear. But then it happens: A small, brownish bird pops from the reeds, perching atop a cattail and cocking its head in Robinson’s direction. “That’s the song sparrow,” he says with excitement, pointing at the bird. The tiny creature sways to and fro in the rushes, neatly concealed. As I fumble with my binoculars, Robinson retrieves his battered National Geographic Field Guide and traces a finger down a page of illustrations until he reaches the image of the bird before us: a perfect match. “The sparrows are very challenging,” Robinson says. “Their distinguishing features are subtle… Many people who can’t tell them apart just call them LBJs.”

“Lyndon B. Johnsons?” I ask lamely.  

“Little brown jobs.” Robinson replies with a chuckle, putting a staccato dot on each word with his pointer finger. 

And so it went for the rest of the day. Robinson would hear the slightest sound—a mere rattle in the rushes against the hum of Interstate 80 and the thunderous roar of C-130s descending into Travis Air Force Base. He’d use that cue to quickly pinpoint the location and identity of the bird. Then out would come the trusty guidebook. Seconds later, the same bird would appear on scene, as if brought to life from the sketch. Several times the mere mention of a species—ring-necked pheasant, belted kingfisher, northern harrier, black phoebe—seemed enough to bring one flying across our field of view or scurrying past our feet. 

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Robinson, 59, is thin and sinewy. His chin is fringed with salt-and-pepper stubble. He speaks deliberately and with the precision of a scientific guidebook. Since retiring from his job as an avian biologist with the U.S. Forest Service in 2005, he has taught Bay Area residents, young and old, rich and poor, about how to become better birdwatchers. 

One could easily be intimidated by a man who’s written several books on the subject, who possesses 20/15 vision (in his younger days he says it was likely 20/10) and seemingly perfect auditory recall. But Robinson is a patient instructor whose teaching philosophy can be summed up in a single declarative statement: Anyone can become a birder.

birds and how to identify them
COMMON BIRDS AND TIPS TO IDENTIFY THEM: (From left to right) Black Phoebe (Sayornis nigricans) These small flycatchers live near water where they chase down insects. Telltale flycatcher identifiers: the little crest at the back of the head, and the tail, which never stops pumping when perched. | Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) Like most woodpeckers, these birds stand out for their unusual coloring and large size. Western males, called “red shafted,” have a red “whisker” below the beak. | Pine Warbler (Setophaga pinus) The pine warbler doesn’t live in the Bay Area or anywhere in the western U.S., but it is common in pine forests on the East Coast. | Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) Song sparrows are ubiquitous and there are many subspecies and forms; in the Bay Area their streaky patterning tends to be dark and intense. | Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) When its shaggy crest is flatted, the belted kingfisher’s blocky head and thick long bill make it easy to distinguish from other riparian and water-loving birds. It’s the only kingfisher in the Bay Area. (Black phoebe, northern flicker, song sparrow and belted kingfisher by Steve Zamek; pine warbler by Peter LaTourette)

Since childhood, Robinson has felt an irresistible pull toward the natural world. From growing up in a poor, predominantly black neighborhood in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, one of his earliest memories is of catching spiders in the backyard. He’d drop them inside a Lego house he’d built; the next day he’d look in the window and see if the spider had spun a web—if it had, he’d head back into the yard to get an ant and drop it into the house. “The ant crawls into the web. Spider sees the ant. Spider catches the ant and spins a little cocoon.  I was a curious kid,” Robinson says. “My mother would say, ‘Don’t do that, Johnny.’ But I would just keep doing it.” 

That was in the 1960s and Pittsburgh was in the midst of integration. Robinson was bused for school from his Homewood neighborhood to the predominantly Jewish neighborhood of Squirrel Hill, where he was one of the only black students. It was a very good education, he says, and his friends were academically competitive. “If you’re around people who want to smoke, you’re going to smoke; if you’re around people who want to drink, you’re going to drink,” he says. “I was around people who wanted to learn.”

In spite of his interest in science, his teachers noticed that the budding naturalist had little interest in reading. “If I was forced to read books it was only because a book report was due,” he says. One day, the school librarian approached him and asked what he liked to read. “I told her that ‘none of the books interest me.’” 

She asked, “Well, what does interest you?” He told her about the insects he chased around in his backyard. 

“She smiled in the way that adults do when they think they’ve figured you out,” he says. “I always hated that smile.” She fetched him a book—Jack London’s The Call of the Wild. “I couldn’t put it down. I came back to her a few days later and I said, ‘Do you have any more like this?’” She smiled again and retrieved London’s White Fang. That book solidified in the young Robinson’s mind what he would become as an adult. “I was going to go to Alaska. I was going to be a biologist. I was going to study wolves.”

Through junior high and high school, Robinson remained focused on his Alaskan dreams. But in 1979, in his sophomore year as an undergraduate in biology at Iowa State University, he was faced with a daunting prospect: A curriculum adviser told him that all biology majors were required to take ornithology. Robinson says he was dragged “kicking and screaming” into that course. 

On the first field trip, a graduate student was pointing out birds to the students in the class. “I was pretty quick on the uptake and after a while I started pointing out birds to [him],” Robinson recalled. “All of a sudden he said, ‘Stop!’ And then he asked me how long I’d been bird-watching.” Robinson said it was his first time—to which the grad student replied, “No way. You’re finding these birds quicker than I can.” 

From there, Robinson’s interest quickly grew. Soon his professors noted that Robinson possessed an even rarer ability. “I could hear a birdsong once and memorize it for life,” he says. When his professor, an ornithologist named James Dinsmore, learned he had a photographic (or, if you prefer, phonographic) memory, in Robinson’s recollection, Dinsmore insisted that the young prodigy had an obligation to share his talents with the public. “That was in the spring of 1979 and later that year I began leading field trips and teaching people what I was learning,” Robinson says. The following year, Dinsmore made him an undergraduate teaching assistant, a post reserved for a select few. 

Nearly four decades later, Dinsmore still remembers Robinson as a bright, hardworking student who had an unusual ear for bird calls and sometimes corrected big-name birders. “I was lucky to have him,” Dinsmore wrote in an email. 

Now Robinson was invested in ornithology: “Suddenly, I could not put down the binoculars.” But he faced a new challenge. The country’s bird-watching cohort was almost entirely white, which weighed heavily on him. “When I was young, I looked around and I saw people who looked like you, not like me,” he says. “I tried to hide my binoculars. I didn’t want them to know what I was up to. I felt like I needed permission to go bird-watching.”  

It remains true today that birding is typically associated with a white, middle-aged, and middle-class demographic. According to a 2011 study from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 93 percent of the nation’s 47 million bird-watchers are white. Roughly half are over age 45 and earn over $50,000 per year (with 24 percent making $75,000 or more). 

Robinson says that despite his academic success in college, he was dogged by self-doubt, a nagging lack of confidence that emanated from a painful awareness of his skin color. But everything changed during a trip to West Virginia in 1983. He’d recently been hired as the assistant refuge manager at Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge in Southern Illinois and was required to attend a training course in Beckley, West Virginia, a birding hot spot. He reached out to two noted local birders, Gary Worthington and Don Kodak. 

Robinson had never met the men in person and had only spoken with them by phone. Over the years, Robinson has been told that he has a “neutral,” “newscaster” accent lacking any trace of “black speech patterns.” When he arrived that day, Worthington found an African-American man standing in his driveway with a pair of binoculars slung around his neck. Years later, Worthington would mention his surprise in a letter to Robinson, writing “you were the first African American birder we had encountered.” 

After a “nervous” introduction, the three men piled into Worthington’s car. As they headed down the road at 40 miles an hour to their birding location, Robinson heard what sounded like the buzzy call of a blue-winged warbler. Astonished, and a tad skeptical, that this young man could identify a bird from a brief chirp over the thrum of the engine, Worthington put the car in reverse, Robinson recalls. The two men soon found that their visitor had keen senses: The call was indeed that of a blue-winged warbler.  

The defining moment, however, came later that day, in a dense stand of pines. Worthington believed this was one of the only places pine warblers could be found throughout West Virginia. As the men walked under the towering canopy, they heard nothing but the metallic trill of chipping sparrows. They went to another section of conifers and again were greeted with an unbroken chorus of sparrow calls. It sounded like dozens of metal whistles being blown all at once. But in one tall pine tree, against the backdrop of sound, Robinson detected the softer trill of a lone pine warbler. 

“There’s the chipping sparrow,” Robinson recalls Worthington saying. 

“No,” Robinson replied. “That’s a pine warbler.” 

The disagreement might seem trivial. But Robinson says he was taking a great professional risk. Even to experienced birders, the calls of the pine warbler and chipping sparrow are similar, and Robinson had just contradicted a highly respected birder in his home state. But Robinson’s training told him he was correct—and his instincts told him that he should stand firm. 

The verdict came as a flash of yellow in the treetop—the telltale markings of a pine warbler. Robinson remembers that his hosts were stunned. “My whole world shifted in that one event,” says Robinson. “I realized that I did not need permission to be part of the birding community. I knew I had something to contribute.” 

In that letter years later, Worthington put it this way: “You became one of our legends.” 

john robinson and a group of kids
John Robinson teaches a group of kids at Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge in Ohio, September 2009. (Photo courtesy John Robinson)

A few weeks after our first visit at Suisun Marsh, I meet with Robinson again, this time at Tilden Regional Park in Berkeley. It is April and Robinson stands outside his car, peering with a spotting scope into a towering stand of eucalyptus trees.

 “What do you see up there?” he asks, forgoing all pleasantries. I wonder if this pop quiz means he detects in me some qualities that suggest I might, one day, become a proficient birder. 

I stare into the eucalyptus grove, seeing nothing. I make an excuse about only having had a single cup of coffee before leaving the house.

“No, just look,” he says, gesturing intently. “There.” 

“There?” I ask. 

“Yes,” he replies. “You don’t see it? The flicker? Check it out through the scope.” 

And yes, indeed, there it is. The silhouette clings to the side of the tree, flecked with red and gray plumage. With the naked eye the bird is barely visible, a mere red dash against the backdrop of quivering green leaves.

Robinson folds up the tripod and we head off to meet the group gathered near Tilden Park’s Little Farm educational center. The dozen-or-so members stand in rapt attention, watching a male turkey attempt to regale a female with fanned tail feathers and aggressive head jabs. 

Robinson raises his hand and the group sets off, down the park’s main fire road. A little ways on, Robinson pauses and points a finger skyward, listening to a series of far-off raspy screeches. “What’s that?” Robinson asks. Six or seven voices ring out in unison: “Scrub jay.” 

“Very good,” he replies with a laugh. “Just checking to see if you all are awake.” 

Learning an encyclopedia of calls, he says, requires constructing a sort of mental file cabinet. He encourages his new students to begin by learning the 10-or-so birds that frequent their neighborhood. “The way you learn number 11 is by asking how is it different from the 10 that you already know?” he says. “And you just keep going—and it builds.” 

Mnemonic methods, he says, make memorization easier and fun. “My favorite one is [for] the orchard oriole back East,” and then he launches into a spirited demonstration. “Jit joo, jit joo. Billy Joseph, Billy Joseph Joe. That’s what it sounds like to me.” 

I ask if Robinson has a musical background. He says he has a musical ear but lacks any semblance of a singing voice. “If I were to try to sing, everyone would run out of here,” he says. He emphasizes, however, that learning to identify birds is not a process of rote memorization but an exercise that requires a great deal of mental flexibility. “You’ve got to keep your mind open to seeing the odd thing—the unexpected thing, the bird out of place.”

Robinson has written several published birding books, most recently Tweet, Flutter and Squawk!, but the book that best embodies his egalitarian outlook on birding is from 2008. Birding for Everyone: Encouraging People of Color to Become Birdwatchers articulates Robinson’s current mission—getting more people of color outside and looking into the trees. 

To the highly analytical Robinson, the dearth of low-income and minority bird-watchers is a puzzle to be solved. He uses a computer programming term to describe what he means. A “do-loop,” he explains, is a bit of code that repeats certain instructions again and again. “But if you’re like me, a typical kid growing up in a big city, there’s not as much money there and there’s not as many people there who can introduce you to bird-watching. And because you don’t meet people who can do that, you don’t know that this is something you can do. You’re stuck in what I call the ‘don’t loop.’” 

Robinson credits a black San Antonio, Texas, environmentalist named Thomas Cleaver Jr. with showing him how to help kids escape the “don’t loop.” Cleaver established nature programs for inner-city youth. One of his youth groups, called the Fairchild Warblers, won a prestigious bird-watching competition in the early 2000s. “This inspired an even younger group of kids to do the same thing the following year,” Robinson wrote. “This is one example of role models at work.”

Robinson was most impressed with Cleaver’s clear articulation of the problem that had vexed him so many years earlier: the kids wanted to bird, but didn’t know how to ask. “They felt, as I once did, that they didn’t have permission.”

Impressed with Cleaver’s insights, Robinson decided to write a book that would invite people of all backgrounds to enjoy birding. The plan was for the two of them to write it together, Robinson said, but when he reached out to Cleaver to ask for chapter contributions in 2005, he discovered that Cleaver had died in a car accident the previous year.  

Robinson published Birding for Everyone in 2008, dedicating it to Cleaver. That same year, Robinson met with students in the San Antonio nature group Cleaver had founded. None of the kids had been out birding, he discovered, so he took them to a local park. Within 10 minutes the kids had taken to the birds, he says. “As I was kneeling down on one knee to show them pictures of the birds we’d just looked at they sort of huddled around me,” he said. “I felt like Joe Montana in the Super Bowl.” 

It’s not enough, though, to get kids into nature, Robinson argues. It’s essential to recruit people of color into conservation-oriented jobs at government agencies and nonprofits. To that end, he’s partnering with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Forest Service to attract more people of color into their ranks.   

With the Tilden birding group, it’s clear that Robinson is firmly in his home range, answering questions about the array of birdlife flitting in the canopy. I walk along the trail with Marlene Stahl, Robinson’s wife, a now-retired Richmond high school English teacher. Stahl is gregarious and her passion for birds, like her husband’s, is infectious. Walking an elevated path through the woody marsh leading to Jewel Lake, she raises a finger to her lips and gestures over my shoulder. “Warblers,” she whispers. 

I turn and see two tiny, bright yellow birds flitting about in a laurel tree. The birds, Wilson’s warblers, are typically shy, retreating at first sight of people—but these seem content to flutter in a tangle of branches within arm’s reach. 

Within seconds, several birders including Robinson have peeled off from the main group, silently setting up a perimeter around the tree. One man with a bazooka-size camera lens snaps away. “Good find,” Robinson says in a whisper.

Support for this article was provided by the March Conservation Fund.

About the Author

Jeremy Miller writes from Richmond and logs hundreds of miles annually on the Bay Area’s trails, bike paths, and roadways. His recent work has appeared in Harper’s, Orion, Pacific Standard and The New Yorker’s Elements.

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