Birding is a bit like hitting the lottery

As folks in 42 states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands scramble for a piece of tonight’s record $550 million Powerball jackpot — that’s a half-billion dollars — I can’t help but consider the odds: 1 in 175 million.

Kinda like bird-watching, amiright?

Honestly, what are the odds, on any given day, in any given instant, I might glance out my window to spy a bluebird on the wing? What odds would you give me on spotting three? AND YET …

I had never seen a live bluebird outside of aviaries or protected conservation areas in my life, and even then only glimpses, like a distant flip of a sparkling SOS signal.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned as a sophomore participant in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Project FeederWatch program is that timing and luck are everything. A bird might grace your yard for just 5 to 11 seconds in its lifetime, because, especially in winter, it may be only passing through. The planets must be aligned just right — first, the rare bird has to wander into the exact global coordinates of your bit of earth, then you have to be near a window, have enough clarity to notice it, enough knowledge to recognize what you’re seeing and BAM! Your life is instantly richer.

Like the other day, Nov. 14 at 11:18:27 EST (all good Powerball picks), when I absentmindedly walked downstairs and opened the front door to see how cold it was, thinking I might get the mail or take a walk, and saw something new perched on the curved iron pole holding the feeders. It sat a little cocky, like a house finch, but it was bigger, rounder and an odd shade of … gray? It bobbed delicately, vogued this way and that, just to show me it was something I’d never ever seen, not in a million years. Not gray, no! Blue! Oh!!! It darted down to our semi-circle of sod destined to be a future English garden, joining two others like it, one bluer than anything I’d known in nature. That one, the obvious male, hopped to the corner near the stoop, showed off its orange and white breast while I tried not to blink or breathe, before I squealed, that high-pitched, teeth-gritted-in-the-dentist-chair kind: “CAMERA!” Whirrrrrrrrrrrr.

By the time I had the camera raised and was switching it on, the three Eastern bluebirds wove a Disney dance, loop-de-loop in the air, sayonara, chica, harp glissando … and they’d vanished, magic.

Not quite that way, it was a little more dramatic. I floated on air the rest of the day, feeling touched by angels. A zip-a-dee-doo-dah day!

When I mentioned to workmate Tom how birding was like the lottery, with probably 1 in 175 million odds of seeing the birds I’ve seen, he begged to differ. “No — 1 in 175 million odds would be when you look out the window and see a 14-karat-gold ostrich wearing a diamond-studded bra crocheting on your lawn.”

Party pooper.

Well, I know money can’t buy happiness. I’ll take a bluebird … or a yellow-bellied sapsucker … any day.

“The bluebird carries the sky on his back.”

– Henry David Thoreau

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