As a student at Jackson Street School in Northampton, I was already betraying the odd traits of a budding young birder: I filled sketchbooks with crude drawings of birds; I spent hours glued to the windows at home watching birds at backyard feeders; I could sit very still and very quiet for a very, very long time.
Then one day a man named Tom Ricardi came to the school. He had a mustache and he brought birds.
The most beautiful birds I’d ever seen.
He was patient and kind with both the birds and the children. He showed us a Peregrine Falcon that I fell in love with.
All kids go through phases of intense, specific interests, like dinosaurs and pirates and robots. Usually that thing — whatever it is — has a lot of names and categories and traits to memorize. For me, birds fit the bill.
Sometimes those interests last, but more often they fade like imaginary friends.
Tom’s visit to my elementary school, I think, showed me that didn’t have to be the case. That a love of birds and birding could be a lifelong interest, and that it could be something passed down from one generation to the next.
When I called Tom a few weeks back to see if he’d taken in the injured female hawk from the Race Street nest in Holyoke, I told him I remembered his visit to Jackson Street. He told me the school is still on his annual schedule of presentations.
I wouldn’t have guessed that I’d get to see one of those presentations again, but last week Tom took his birds to the Village Commons in South Hadley for a talk sponsored by the Odyssey Bookshop.
Things you remember from your childhood don’t always hold up if you witness them again as an adult, but Tom’s talk was just as enthralling as that first time I watched a falcon perch on his hand.
An Eastern Screech-Owl batted its eyes, twittering and trilling as Tom gave audience members a close-up view. A fledgling American Kestrel found in Deerfield this year — which Tom will release once it’s strong enough to hunt on its own — still wore a cap of nestling fuzz. A Turkey Vulture nuzzled and nibbled Tom’s nose. A huge Golden Eagle that Tom took in 30 years ago pressed its chest against Tom’s, resting its chin on his shoulder.
It was probably the same eagle I’d seen as a kid, and Tom’s way with birds — and children — hasn’t changed at all.
After his presentation, Tom stuck around to answer questions and offer audience members a second look at a few of the birds.
A boy with blonde hair asked to see the falcon again. He told Tom he loved birds.
“Keep studying, and do good in school,” Tom told the boy. “That’s what I did. My parents were always trying to get me to play baseball or football — but I just wanted to read books about birds.”
See more photos from Tom’s presentation in the slideshow below.