Stop and Smell the Rose-Breasted Grosbeaks

It is well documented (by his proud documentarian dad) that our 6-year-old son is a budding ornithologist. An admirer of all things feathered. A wing-loving Wingert who once mowed down an entire category of avian-themed Double Jeopardy questions without flinching. When he was four years old.

Greyson is our bird boy. In the past, he has been similarly obsessed with Christmas carols, cars and trucks, Caspian songs, farm animals, big cats, and various other genres of land animals. But for the past year he has been transfixed (eagle-eyed, if you will) on every single bird that exists. Heck, he even makes up birds that don’t exist, as if 10,000 species isn’t quite enough for him.

The latest stage in Greyson’s feathered fixation is fascinating to me. Previously his interest was primarily in reading bird books, sorting endlessly through his bird cards and cut-outs, and watching YouTube bird videos. Other than observing our bird feeder through the dining room window, he mostly wanted to stare at images of birds, in books or on screens, and read facts about what they eat and where they live. His interest was largely academic and encyclopedic.

But as of last week, he wants to get up close with the real thing.

Which is both deeply delightful and… a little difficult.

Each time we have gone outside or to a park in the last week, Greyson has gravitated toward the trees and craned his neck up to search for birds. While Violet swings and slides at a playground, Greyson wanders away from us and birdwatches. And while we hike on the Appalachian Trail, Greyson meanders off the trail and stares up at the tree branches. Which means we don’t get very far.

It’s logistically tricky when you’re presiding over two children, one of whom wants to go-go-go and the other of whom wants to stay in one place. But so far, Violet has been patient and accommodating with her big brother. As for me?

Well, I admire him. That’s the first thing to say. I look up to anyone who specializes in something, who can distill the world into one central focus. I love that Greyson, for as long as he has been able to construct a sentence (and maybe even earlier than that), has drilled down into one subject at a time and gradually rendered himself an amateur expert in that subject.

And taking the time to appreciate nature on a granular level is such a good and pure intention. In my desire to get from point A to point B, and to get some exercise in the process, I can easily lose sight of that. So my birdwatching boy is slowing me down. And slowing down is good.

Our minds operate at constant warp-speed these days. Our attention pings from worry to worry, from distraction to distraction. Our eyes dart from one screen to another. We rarely sit quietly with our thoughts, or even just sit quietly focusing on one thing (that isn’t on a screen).

But Greyson doesn’t look at screens all that much. When he’s inside, and when he’s not occupied with his sister, he plays with toy birds, sorts through bird cards, pages through bird books, and writes out lists of birds.

When he’s outside, he is now bound and determined to search for and stare at any bird he can. He exhibits patience in waiting for a bird to appear, and when it does, he eagerly walks toward it in hopes of seeing it up close.

And these are countercultural acts in 2022. Being intentional, slowing down, focusing on one thing at a time, being ambivalent to screens, and noticing the natural world are all things that don’t come, well, natural to us these days. So God bless Greyson for embracing these practices.

God bless him for unintentionally being intentional.

But I would be remiss not to also point out that our 6-year-old is a compulsive fellow, and compulsions are not always easy to manage. When we’re outside and Greyson insists on bird watching and bird seeking but then it’s time to come home, it doesn’t go over well and he can sometimes go to pieces.

It’s not like fussing exactly. I am well acquainted with his fussing jags, when he’s petulant or obstinate. But this is more of a sadness. Like he’s heartbroken at missing out on seeing some of his beloved birds. It’s frustrating to manage, but also oddly endearing.

In any case, Greyson is not good at drawing boundaries around his avian hobby. Not even remotely. And I’m not always good at knowing how to manage the ensuing friction.

I don’t know if Greyson would be clinically categorized as OCD. But I do know that he’s obsessive, and I do know that he’s compulsive. I’m not convinced that calling it a disorder would be helpful, though. In my mind, we’re all obsessed with something. Some of us are just more compulsive about it than others.

And my boy is compulsive about — and compelled by — all God’s feathered creatures.

When I think about what 6-year-olds obsess over in 2022, be it video games or Disney shows or other interests that require staring glaze-eyed and slack-jawed at a screen, I am grateful.

Grateful that we lucked out and were gifted a son who somehow hearkens from a pre-screen era. An era where the natural world was more than enough to enchant and enamor us.

A natural world which has been graced, to Greyson’s delight, with 10,000 species of enchanting birds.

So many birds to watch! So little time to watch them.

But our bird boy is doing his best to see ’em all.

One thought on “Stop and Smell the Rose-Breasted Grosbeaks

  1. Six-year-old’s aren’t the only compulsives. My compulsion seems to be puns and terrible jokes and I no sooner read “budding ornithologist” than my brain goes to “doesn’t that make him a botanist/ornithologist?” But then, you DID call him “eagle-eyed” so there’s that.


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