Perhaps the best days I spent with my father were when we hunted ruffed grouse along the Snake and Knife rivers in Kanabec County.
Shooting grouse — that's how I became a serious birder.
The thing about hunting is you have to see. Not just look, but see. You have to pay attention.
This was my teen years, on Saturdays in the fall. We'd stop now and then to rest, my dad smoking. The smell of smoke in cold fall air is a sharp memory. There were the piercing cries of blue jays, my first great horned owl, the soft rap of woodpeckers when snow muffled our steps.
I fell in love with woods and rivers and fields and everything in them.
I had a great-aunt in Mora who fed birds, outside her kitchen window a feeder holding blue and yellow birds. She drove me to Crex Meadows, the wildlife area just across the Wisconsin line, to watch deer graze in the twilight.
So those people — my father, an old-lady aunt, an occasional uncle — were the gateway to where I am now. I still try to see, birds, of course, and, well, everything. A few years ago I discovered a slime mold growing on a tree in our neighborhood. You just have to be looking.
Kids need gateways to nature. That's the point.
I thought about this just before Halloween when two grandsons texted photos of recent hunting success. Parker, 11, shot two pheasants and a duck. His brother, Cole, 14, shot ducks, a Canada goose, and an eight-point buck (bow season).
I've taken Cole birding for seven years. He has binoculars, a camera, long lens, several books and a life list, more or less. He has called me, asking to go birding. Imagine how special that is.
Their father has taught them to fish. He takes them hunting. They have an uncle who hunts with them. They have a mother who has welcomed into her house birds (40 button quail in a bedroom cage at one point), frogs, toads, butterflies (catch and release), a lizard named Lenny, crickets, meal worms and minnows.
There are bird feeders in the yard, and chickadees nesting annually in a bird box 15 feet from their front door.
Those boys have a very wide gate to nature.
Hunting? Shooting birds? If those seem an unlikely gateway to you, well, consider that you can't hunt if there's no game. Hunters are likely to understand limits and seasons and the need to preserve habitat. You can't go into the woods if there are no woods.
My daughter and her husband aren't raising hunters as much as boys who want to be outside, and who can see when they get there.
Take a kid hunting or fishing or birding or for a simple slow walk in a park. Help her/him see. Get away from paved surfaces and anything that requires a charging cord. Do it often.
Those kids are the ones who will — or will not — save the natural world.
Read Jim Williams' birding blog at startribune.com/wingnut.