Major League Baseball has an affinity for birds: There are teams named the Toronto Blue Jays, the Baltimore Orioles and the St. Louis Cardinals.
A New York Yankee player named Greg Bird was featured a couple of years ago in a video that went viral when a pigeon landed on the field and walked toward him as he manned first base.
Who can forget the spunky American kestrel at Target Field during a miserably cold and wet game in May 2010 that starred on the jumbotron as it chased insects attracted to the field’s lights?
And now there’s Gene Glynn, third base coach for the Minnesota Twins, known to his team as Bird Man. And it’s not because he previously managed the Twins’ top minor league team, the Rochester Red Wings (whose logo looks like a Northern cardinal on steroids).
No, it’s because Glynn is a bona fide bird-watcher, one who spends much of his time outside the ballpark walking around the cities where his team is playing to see what birds live there.
“I find birds in every city in every park near the baseball stadium,” Glynn says. “In Florida the shorebirds are all over the place, on the West Coast it’s all about gulls, terns and herons and in Central Park in New York you can see just about anything. Birds get me outdoors and keep me occupied.”
In fact, Central Park, increasingly becoming known as a bird-watching mecca, is one of his favorite places to hike, always with his trusty binoculars around his neck.
Pro baseball dictates a nomadic lifestyle, with players and coaches spending time away from friends and families for long periods. For Glynn, bird-watching relieves some of the loneliness of life on the road. He enjoys discovering a new bird, but also finds comfort in seeing a “Minnesota bird” when he’s far from home. His entire career has been in baseball, many of those years with Southern or Eastern teams, so his favorite bird may not be a great surprise.
“We hear northern mockingbirds all the time during spring training [in Florida] and they’re such great mimics,” he says, fascinated by how they can sound exactly like other birds, a rusty gate and even a lawn mower.
Back to that nickname, how did he come to be called Bird Man? Glynn thinks it started with a player asking if he could name the state bird where they were playing. He always knew the answer, and more and more young guys started asking him that question as they traveled. If a bird flew over the stadium, he’d identify it and his teammates took notice.
A bit of teasing
“I catch a bit of grief about being a bird-watcher,” Glynn says, adding that it’s good-natured, even though he seems alone in his interest. Another coach, Eddie Guardado, enjoys making up fake bird sightings for him: “Hey, Gene, there goes a scissortail hawk!”
Like most bird-watchers, Glynn had a “gateway bird,” one that opened his eyes to the birds around him and sparked a consuming interest. Some 15 years ago, as a coach with the Chicago Cubs organization, a small bird landed at his feet in a park near Wrigley Field. He’d seen that bird his entire life (it turned out to be a house sparrow), but couldn’t put a name to it, so he bought a bird identification guide. This led to identifying a ring-billed gull, then a catbird, later cedar waxwings. He was hooked.
A family affair
Glynn grew up in southern Minnesota, in Waseca, within a large farm family — he was No. 13 of 14 kids — but doesn’t recall his parents or siblings showing much interest in birds. He and his wife have moved back to Waseca where he spends the offseason, much of it outdoors, hiking around his 70-acre property. His wife and two sons are avid bird feeders and bird-watchers, and family hikes, especially during migration seasons, are lively events.
“The huge number of blackbirds that gather in our swamp is breathtaking,” he says. “There can be hundreds of thousands of them, taking off in a great stream each morning, before they finally migrate away.”
Does Glynn ever watch birds during a game?
“It’s a very focused job, and there aren’t as many birds in a stadium as you might think,” he says. “But I have seen kestrels, kingbirds and phoebes before a game in some ballparks, and a few times I’ve seen a gull fly right between the hitter and the pitcher.
“But there are moments when I’m behind third base and a bird will fly by, and I’ll look up, I can’t help it.”
With spring training major league games starting Friday, the Twins’ third-base coach migrates to Florida again. He’s been looking forward to seeing and hearing Florida’s bird life, after a silent winter.
St. Paul resident Val Cunningham, who volunteers with the St. Paul Audubon Society and writes about nature for local, regional and national newspapers and magazines, can be reached at email@example.com.