Amid the coverage of Senator John McCain’s death and funeral this past week, I was surprised to learn that McCain was a birdwatcher. I had seen the photo (above) that was posted on his social media pages in August 2017 in which he’s wearing a “Backyard Birds” T-shirt, but I never investigated his interest in birds further.
I’ve since found out that McCain enjoyed identifying birds on his ranch in Arizona, including nesting Common Black Hawks. Audubon Arizona says in a tribute on Facebook that McCain “was proud of the inclusion of his family’s ranch in the Lower Oak Creek Important Bird Area (IBA), and personally participated with tours of his ranch and a dedication at Audubon Arizona’s IBA celebration… Most recently, Sen. McCain advocated for a new era of habitat restoration and economic and community development along the Rio Salado through central Arizona — a legacy that promises to transform our relationship to the river.”
My friend Jim Burns, a talented author and photographer whose work we’ve published many times, wrote the following appreciation about McCain for his “Bird Is a Verb” column. I’m happy to publish it below. — Matt Mendenhall, Editor
John McCain: A Common and Uncommon Man
It may seem odd that the name of John McCain has appeared once already in one of my birding columns, and I suspect it will never happen again, but the preponderance of tears at his passing and the troubling times in which we live present an opportunity to celebrate his humanity, the thing that binds us all together. John McCain’s physical courage and principled life came packaged with personal flaws. This made him at once a common man and an uncommon one.
As it did for many of us who came of age in the age of protest, i.e., the ‘60’s, the narrative of John McCain’s capture and torture at the hands of the Viet Cong was compelling enough to obviate my personal feelings about the war in Vietnam, all the more so because of my own father’s death in the Southeast Asian theater of World War II. In reading the outpouring of John McCain stories that appeared in the media after his death, two things I had not known about him resonated strongly. Two things I had not known the two of us had in common.
Two surprising things I had unsurprisingly neither known nor ever read because John McCain, despite his outsized public persona, kept his family and home life private and shielded from public view: one of Cindy and John McCain’s seven children is an adopted Bangladeshi daughter, and John McCain was a birdwatcher. Who knew!? But I can relate to both these things.
Apparently, someone knew about Bridget, the McCain’s adopted daughter, because during the 2000 Republican primary, thousands of South Carolina voters received calls asking if they knew candidate McCain had a “black baby” or had fathered one. In 1971 Deva and I, ever the ‘60’s progressives, had adopted a bi-racial son, and subsequently in the early ‘80s experienced on a smaller scale at a local level what the McCains were to endure two decades later at the national level. Social progress moves slowly.
But the birdwatching thing makes me smile. McCain was not a native Arizonan but transplanted here, raised his children here, and purchased their “ranch” on Oak Creek southwest of Sedona because of his love of nature and the serenity it offered at the end of a dirt road, isolated and surrounded by wildlife and scenic splendor. The Cornville residence was the family’s happy place, and they purchased the land across the creek because of the deer and other animals they enjoyed observing there. The future of that space has been pledged to the Audubon Society.
One of McCain’s sons relates that often the first thing the family would do when they arrived at the ranch in spring or summer was to check on the “endangered” hawks to see how their nesting was progressing. This comment most likely refers to Common Black Hawks, not endangered by any means, but certainly uncommon and beautiful raptors, awesome to behold by even the most casual birdwatcher.
“Common . . . but certainly uncommon” seems the perfect epitaph for a maverick who spent a thirty-five-year political career putting country before party and principle before ideology. And on trips home to the ranch apparently the first thing he picked up was a pair of binoculars. Here’s a quote from his son: “He’ll probably be mad at me for admitting this: he loves birdwatching.”
I can never forgive John McCain for Sarah Palin, but I have tears in my eyes now, and I want to hug him and tell him the birdwatching thing is alright because it’s not unmanly, and because the bonds that tie us to nature are as deep as the ones that should tie us all to one another. The last time I checked, we all bled the same color blood and shared the same dreams and desires. It gives me hope to know that Bridget has brown skin and her father was a birdwatcher. — Jim Burns
Jim Burns is an outdoor writer and photographer and the author of four books illustrated with his photos: A Beginner’s Field Guide to Phoenix Birds (Maricopa Audubon Society, 2004), North American Owls: Journey Through a Shadowed World (Willow Creek Press, 2004), Jim Burns’ Arizona Birds (University of Arizona Press, 2008), and Owls Rock (e-book, 2012). In the October 2016 issue of BirdWatching, he described a close encounter with an Elegant Trogon, and in our April 2017 issue, he wrote about toucans and barbets in Costa Rica.