For a woman who loves birds, Grace Knowles’ Star Valley back yard is paradise. Gambel’s quail, black-headed grosbeaks and warblers flutter among bird feeders as squirrels scurry up trees.
“That was busy out there this morning,” Knowles said. “When I get up in the morning and I hear them sing, that makes my day.”
A slight 77-year-old, Knowles wore two different bird-decorated T-shirts on a recent summer day. During a morning interview, she wore one shirt that featured birds flying amongst flowers, and later during that afternoon’s meeting of the Payson Birders, Knowles switched to another T-shirt with more birds and a birdhouse.
The Payson Birders meeting was a tough one. Members decided to reduce their 10 monthly meetings each year to two. Knowles had reigned as president since 2004 when she took over from the founding president, and said she had enough.
“I’m just kind of burned out I guess. I’d be more than willing to help in any way I could; I’d just like for somebody else to be in charge for awhile,” Knowles said.
As it ended, Knowles will split the organizational duties for the two remaining meetings, as well as organizing a field trip and the Christmas bird count, with other members.
The bird lovers didn’t want to let go.
“It just breaks my heart,” Knowles said, referring to the prospect of a disbanded bird club.
Knowles’ affection for birds began with a pet crow, Jack, who adopted her family when Knowles was a girl in Wisconsin. Jack would eat pancakes off the porch railing and hitch rides on her father’s milk wagon to the cheese factory.
Unfortunately, Jack’s squawking irritated a neighbor so much that the neighbor shot him.
“We were very upset,” Knowles said.
As a teenager, she began identifying Jack’s brothers and distant cousins. After she and husband Del married, Knowles enjoyed Milwaukee’s many parks and the birds that fluttered there, ripe for identification.
Still, species remain that Knowles hasn’t seen. “I’m seeing birds all the time that I’ve never seen before,” she said. Different species of birds populate different areas of the world, and Knowles has been lucky enough to live in two of the nation’s quadrants, which has expanded her ornithological acumen.
For instance, Arizona blue jays differ from those in Wisconsin. Arizona has Mexican jays, scrub jays and Steller’s jays.
For those wanting to start bird watching, Knowles says the best place to start is in your back yard with a good bird book. First, examine the bird’s size, and then look for different body colorings and markings around the eye. Knowles still checks her bird books to discern unknown identities.
In one of Knowles’ bird guides, she checkmarks those species she has viewed, providing an orderly overview of those she has left to see.
She’s seen a lot, according to the checkmarks, but still has loads to see.
“One day I’ll add up all the birds I’ve seen,” she said. But for now, she’ll keep checking.