F.O.Y. As far as acronyms go, this one doesn’t mean much to the vast majority of people. But to birders, it can represent a treasured landmark. First Of the Year. Many birders keep many different lists, but a perennial favourite is the year list. Starting on January 1st and ending on Dec 31st each year, this list lets you bury those painful twitching failures of the year past and start afresh. Come midnight, January 1st, it is a new beginning. My personal year list in 2009 was so great, that I don’t know if I’ll ever top it (just shy of 1500 species, or roughly 15% of all the world’s birds). In contrast, I didn’t even bother adding up my 2011 year list, but it likely hovered around 300.
Year listing also gives one the opportunity to get excited about common species all over again. You might see thousands of Mallards in a year, but you only get one first-of-the-year Mallard. It is in such spirit that some birders go to great lengths to try to make their absolute first bird of the year a really special one to kick off the remaining 365 days. Some will drive blind-folded and with ear plugs to avoid getting some scoundrel like House Sparrow as their very first bird. Those birders rarely report back, so I’m not sure if they ever succeed, but the point stands. For those birders that live in cities, it can be awfully difficult to nab some alluring species before one of the commoners swoops past or “caws” into your window.
The two most common birds in my neighbourhood are Glaucous-winged Gull and Northwestern Crow. Both considered “dirt” birds by many, owing to their sheer abundance and proclivity to human settlements. There is often a Song Sparrow around the hedges below our window though, and if I plug my ears and stare at the hedges long enough, surely I can manage that as a year first. At least the Song Sparrow doesn’t pick through garbage, happily float in sewage, or, as in the case of the gull, partake in extra-species relations.
But the best laid plans don’t amount to much when you have a toddler to chase after. I could neither plug my ears nor stare devotedly into greenery while a book-destroying bundle of danger and energy was running around. Shortly after sunrise I heard my first bird of the year: Glaucous-winged Gull. A few minutes later, out of the corner of my eye, I couldn’t help but notice the Northwestern Crow landing on the chimney pipe next door.
At first I was a bit chagrined. But after a while I realized that these were both extraordinary and iconic species to get. After all, the Song Sparrow is found continent-wide, but the Northwestern Crow is emblematic of coastal shores only from S. Alaska to N. Washington. The Glaucous-winged Gull is slightly more prolific, but not much more so. Birders from around the world come to the Pacific Northwest in part to see these two species. Both are masters of adaptability, being amongst a very small group of birds that not only tolerate human presence, but thrive in it. Unlike European Starling, House Sparrow and Rock Pigeon (other common city-dwellers), the gull and the crow predate human settlement on this coast by many eons. It is very likely that on New Years Day, many thousands of years ago, somebody from one of the coastal First Nations stepped out into the brisk, cold, wet air and was greeted by none other than a Glaucous-winged Gull. And if you listen carefully, you just might be able to hear his reaction in the whisper of the wind “Dang, I was hoping to start the year off with a Thunderbird!”