Most people would have thought they were looking at a cardinal. George knew better.
It had startled George when it landed suddenly no more than ten feet from him but he instinctively held very still in order to observe it. The bird seemed equally startled. It stared sideways and motionless at George as if to say, “Oh my! I didn’t see you there.”
The bird was entirely red, say for its black eyes and dull yellow beak. The color even ran down into its legs before giving way to a grayish brown at its feet. There was no black mask and no pointed crown atop its head. These are the characteristics that allowed George to recognize it as its proper species. It was most definitely not a cardinal. It was a summer tanager.
Having properly classified it, George could appreciate how rare it was to see one this far north, only twenty miles from the Illinois-Wisconsin border, especially in the early spring with the temperature just recently above forty degrees on a consistent basis. Furthermore, the fact that it had come down from the treetops where it usually feeds just to happen to land so close to George was a blessing. This was a truly rare sighting and George found himself wishing he had tucked a notepad into his back pocket before he had ventured out into the field today.
You wouldn’t know it from his quick recognition of the tanager, but George was relatively new to bird watching. In fact, it wasn’t a hobby he had picked up intentionally. Rather, his newest assignment happened to bring him regularly to open grassy areas with nearby trees and it also happened to involve a lot of sitting around and waiting. Being rather susceptible to boredom, after only a few days it became apparent to George that he would need to start doing something to keep his attention.
That’s when he began to notice the birds in the area weren’t just sparrows and robins with the occasional cardinal or blue jay thrown in for color. They were far more diverse than he had previously noticed. Soon, he started making mental notes of what he saw. Then, upon returning home, George would look up his day’s sightings on his computer and was often amazed at the variety of birds he was seeing. He acquired a book detailing the birds of North America that could fit in a pocket and another larger volume that even played audio of the birds’ songs. He kept as accurate a journal as possible regarding times of day, locations and species. George had unexpectedly become a bird watcher.
However, while his passion for birds grew, it sometimes interfered with the task at hand. Yes, his position called for a lot of sitting around and waiting for something to happen, but when something did happen, it required action.
From time to time, George found that said action was required just as he was attempting to pin down the species of blackbird he had spotted. This inattention to duty did not sit well with his supervisor and George had been scolded on a number of occasions already.
But it wasn’t the birds’ fault that George found them so fascinating, so he took the admonishments and went right back to his position each day, hoping not so much to not be distracted from his true assignment, but hoping that his assignment did not distract him from his new found hobby.
They could not fire him, but they could move him somewhere that would require constant attention to detail such that he would never notice a single bird. They could also potentially move him to a place where there would not be any birds to notice. The lush green fields he currently patrolled were ideal, but there were others assigned to locales that were dry and dusty. “What exactly were you doing out there?” his supervisor would ask. “Do I need to move you to keep you paying attention?” George did not want that.
Avoiding such a fate required that George find a balance, which was difficult at first. George barely hung on, performing at a level that kept him just above the point of complete failure, but left scrutiny upon him. What was more painful was that George was absolutely certain he was missing out on some birds.
Yet he stuck with it, assuring himself it was better to fit some bird watching in from time to time than to have none at all. This caused George to take the opportunities he had more seriously. He appreciated them more. He also spent more of his free time researching.
Suddenly, George discovered a breakthrough. The most simple of observations led him to what would be the perfect blend of attention to his assignment and attention to the birds he loved. It was the summer tanager that sat before him and the surprise in its demeanor showing it had uncharacteristically not noticed George before it landed that led to the epiphany.
Most animals, specifically birds, tend to be acutely aware of their surroundings. More often than not, they notice things before humans do. George had heard of numerous accounts of people realizing something wasn’t quite right based solely upon the behavior of animals in the area. By that rationale, should there be an occurrence that required George’s attention and he happened to be observing a bird at the time, the bird would surely react before he would. He could react to the bird’s reaction.
Thus, thought George, the answer lie not in paying less attention to the birds, but in paying closer attention to them. Being keenly aware of the bird’s behavior and mannerisms would give him a sort of precognition.
The opportunity to test his theory arrived shortly. The summer tanager that he watched so intently and who in turn watched George intently (with what George noted as a hint of distrust, if you can pick up on such a thing from a bird), quickly turned its head away from George and took flight in the opposite direction.
Sensing an oncoming threat via the bird, George snapped his attention in the direction that the tanager had flown away from. As it turned out, he did so just in time. Had he not taken the cue from the bird, the baseball hit directly at him would have struck George in the head. Instead, the mitt, raised in nothing more than self-defense, ended up with the ball inside of it.
The parents in the bleachers roared their approval and the rest of George’s team cheered and started heading for the dugout. George followed in a jog and dropped the ball at the pitcher’s mound on the way in.
“Nice catch,” his coach told him. “I didn’t think you were paying attention out there.”
George didn’t respond as the coach patted his head and walked away. He was scanning the treetops out past the fence in right field from where he had just returned. As a slight gust of wind blew and the branches swayed, George saw a tiny but obvious flash of red and smiled.