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Dan Cristol returns to bluebirds for his 200th ‘Birding’ column

  • Dan Cristol sits at his writing desk
    Man of many hats:  Dan Cristol is director of William & Mary’s 1693 Scholars Program, faculty director for undergraduate research in the university’s Roy R. Charles Center for Academic Excellence, Chancellor Professor of Biology, an ornithologist and a newspaper columnist.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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The very first “Birding” column ran in The Virginia Gazette in June 2003.

In that inaugural column, Dan Cristol described how he became “the proud father of five impossibly cute baby bluebirds that fluttered out onto my lawn, dashed for the cover of some boxwoods, and disappeared within an hour escorted by both parents.”

That began a series of columns in which Cristol shared his knowledge of birds, the joy that birds bring him and his concern for birds, in more or less equal measure. Cristol, a professor in the Department of Biology at William & Mary, will publish his 200th “Birding” column in the Gazette on November 23. It’s been a popular monthly feature.

It’s hard to imagine Dan has written 200 columns about birds, but I’m sure I’ve read and enjoyed most of them,” said Gazette Editor Peggy Bellows. “He has a way of talking about what appear to be ordinary creatures with such extraordinary knowledge and understanding that I’ve come to see them in ways I couldn’t have imagined.

"Dan’s work and writing make nature real and important and reminds me that the little things in life are awfully important," Bellows added. Cristol says he judges reaction by his inbox traffic.

“I get several emails for each column, at a minimum,” Cristol said. “And when I write one that just strikes people in a certain way, then I get more than a few emails. And they can be positive or negative.”

Positive or negative, Cristol enjoys when “Birding” starts a buzz that goes beyond his own inbox. His column draws frequent mention in the Last Word, the Gazette’s anonymous commentary feature.

“Someone will write in and say, ‘Oh, he says the hummingbirds are disappearing for such-and-such a reason. That can’t be right,’” Cristol said. “Then another bird expert around town will write in and say it’s this other reason. I really like that a lot.”

Birding is conducted across a wide degree of interests, starting, let’s say, from a Level 1 birder, a person who enjoys seeing yard birds flit around a feeder. At the other end of the spectrum — Level 10 — perches the person who makes trips of thousands of miles to visit new birding habitat and calls in sick to drive overnight in hopes of catching a storm-generated fallout of migrants or even to try for a glimpse of the object of a Rare Bird Alert.

The columns, taken together, weave together strands for 1 to 10 level birders. Readers get the joy of a guy watching his feeders mixed with the knowledge of a professional ornithologist and conservationist. His favorite bird is the Baltimore Oriole. It’s a favorite among readers, too. But not all birds get the same response.

“I get reactions when I describe a new bird, a bird no one’s ever heard of, like the Cuban Pewee I saw in Florida or the local population of Lesser Black-backed Gulls,” he said. “That European gull has become kind of common around here, but it’s not even in a lot of the older bird books.”

On the other hand, he has stopped writing about the Rufous Hummingbird, a species usually found in the west that has evolved a new wintering range on the Virginia Peninsula. “That story has been told,” Cristol says. Oddly enough, mentions of Bald Eagles don’t generate much response even though a sighting in the field can jazz the most jaded of birders.

“When someone recognizes you as a birder, they’ll always come over and tell you about the eagle they saw,” Cristol said. “But for some reason the newspaper-reading crowd doesn’t particularly care about them. Maybe they’re just over it because Mitchell Byrd’s 50 years of studying Bald Eagles here has already raised their consciousness.”

Cristol says that as far as he is concerned, Bald Eagle sightings never get old. He may have met a bird he doesn’t like, but Cristol is too polite to say so. In front of the bird, anyway. He will suspend any conversation if a bird heaves into sight. He has leaped out of his desk chair in the late, unlamented Millington Hall, galvanized by the call of a Red-shouldered Hawk over in the woods. He has broken off in the middle of a sentence in the middle of a conversation in the middle of Barksdale Field. “Sapsucker! Squaaaaak!” he cries, tossing his head back to watch the flight of a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker loping past.

And when someone points to a couple of birds far above the Sunken Garden, asking him to identify the species of hawk, Cristol’s face narrows and his lips purse slightly. He looks just like an English lord after a dinner guest has passed the port to the right. “Those are Turkey Vultures,” he says, working hard to remain encouraging.

That love of things avian makes its way into his “Birding” columns. Over the years, there has been plenty of birdy advice for the homeowner. Got a dead tree in the yard? Great! The birds will love it. Mix your own hummingbird feed: sugar and water at a 1:4 ratio. Don’t use that red dye. Probably not good for the birds. Want orioles? Put out some grape jelly and slices of orange.

Many of Cristol’s columns address the political issues surrounding birds. His Independence Day column this year put forth the argument that efforts to protect birds and bird habitat in America should be viewed as acts of patriotism. He explained in the piece that his research at William & Mary centers on the negative effects of mercury, which he notes has prevented the hatching of millions of birds in the Shenandoah and Holston River watersheds. He poses a couple of clearly rhetorical questions:

“Was it patriotic to pollute these rivers? Is it unpatriotic for an environmentalist to sue to get these rivers cleaned up or to get the mercury filtered out of our coal-fired power plant smokestacks?”

He’s not a zealot, though, not even when it comes to birds. Consider the opening of the “Birding” column for last Thanksgiving: “As I carved the turkey this year, I was thankful for birds.”

Cristol says he makes an effort to avoid being too “scold-y” — even on the subject of outdoor cats, which he points out are responsible for one billion bird deaths annually in North America.

“I try to not scare people away with the plight-of-birds part, which is very depressing,” he said. “I know people will stop reading if I lecture too much. So, I slip a little bit of it into articles on practical or uplifting topics. People will be lulled into a false sense of complacency by reading about how to clean their bird feeder — and then they’ll suddenly learn about climate change or evolution or extinction.”

The 200th article will come full circle —back to bluebirds. It will address what Cristol and his colleagues and students have learned about local bluebird populations since that first column was written.

Note: In deference to “Birding,” this piece capitalizes the common species names of birds in accordance with AP (Avian Priority) style.