For years I had an old newspaper clipping taped to my even older refrigerator. It was a Car Talk column by Tom and Ray Magliozzi called, "Who's Hardest on Cars, Anyway?" A couple had written the mechanics asking them to determine once and for all if men or women wore out their cars more quickly.
Of course, the brothers handled the question with their usual hilarity, taking opposite sides in a debate that never came to a definitive conclusion. Sadly, both clipping and fridge were lost in the Great Meltdown of 2013. But after careful observation, I can say the answer is clear and obvious.
This is not to say birders are bad drivers. In fact, the opposite is true. Most birders have exceptional peripheral vision and a proven ability to track rapidly moving objects. They're unfazed by low light and poor weather conditions. Long practice allows them to maintain high alertness and gives them superior reaction times. Their hands may be fixed at 10 and two, but their eyes are constantly on the move.
Still, vehicles used for birding tend to share certain traits. The suspension is shot after one too many rare bird chases down back roads pockmarked with potholes the size of Holsteins. The passenger-side paint is riddled with scratches from the blackberry vines that grow in spiny profusion along Humboldt's narrow lanes. There's a smattering of bird seed in the back seat, a splattering of cow manure on the fenders and duct tape holding up the right-side mirror. These cars won't win any beauty contests.
They didn't start out that way. Sure, some birders drive old beaters mile after mile, preferring to put their funds toward nicer optics. Others use their cars minimally or not at all for birding. But quite often the same car that whines its way up Kneeland Road to look for acorn woodpeckers or splashes through flooded farmland in the Eel River Valley because somebody reported a trumpeter swan is the same car that picks up the kids from soccer and hits the drive-thru on the way home. It leads a double life.
Mine is one of those. It was once a nice car with gleaming paint and a good sound system. It even came with a CD player — a rare find indeed. But a disc got stuck in the drive and now it plays only "Songs of Western Birds" on an endless loop. The wheels are plastered with muck and there's a branch stuck in the undercarriage I'm hoping will work itself free one of these days. Lately, the brakes have been making a funny noise when I apply them suddenly, like the time in the Arcata Bottoms when a Cooper's hawk swooped into the road to grab a sparrow feeding on the grassy verge. My coffee ended up on the floor that morning, but I managed to get a photo.
A few months ago, in a fit of conscience, I decided to treat my car to a makeover by a professional detailer. Four hours later, the exterior was gleaming again. He'd buffed out the scratches and gone over the wheels with a little brush to excise every trace of manure. The windows sparkled. He'd even detailed the engine compartment and removed the rat's nest from under the fan housing — no more free rides around the county for that little guy.
But I was most amazed by the interior. From under the seats, he'd pulled out three sets of binocular lens caps, a broken tripod, seven socks, four field guides, a bottle of lens cleaner, a dozen microfiber cloths, a spare rain jacket, two umbrellas, a pair of jeans, a pound of bird seed, 13 pens, my missing registration tabs and a turkey sandwich that had disappeared in 2021.
"It looks brand new," I told him.
"Well," he said, "I've never seen anything like this."
I vowed to do better by my trusty birdmobile. And for a while I did ... until a few weeks ago, when a pair of Pacific golden plovers was reported out in the bottoms. Hastening to the spot, I nearly cracked my head on the car ceiling as I splashed through potholes capacious enough to stock fingerling trout. Brambles scraped against the passenger side when I veered over to let a truck go by. While I was admiring the plovers with their lovely gold-flecked plumage, a huge flock of Aleutian geese took off from the north and flew overhead, filling the sky with their dark bodies and noisy cackling. When I got home, I saw my paint was no longer gleaming.
And so it begins.
Sarah Hobart (she/her) is a freelance writer based in Humboldt County.