Getting over not fitting in

Why I have a jackalope tattoo, and another of a covered wagon.


I begin birding by accident. I am 16 and at a Waldenbooks at the Eastridge Mall. I have gone there to read magazines — to flip through Seventeen and maybe buy a Harlequin romance, if I can get past the embarrassment of buying one. Propped up near the cash register, under a banner marked LOCAL INTEREST, is A Field Guide to Western Birds by Roger Tory Peterson. I skim through it, admiring the pictures. In the index, I look up the American robin, one of the only birds I know. There, in simple prose, is a description of a bird I see daily in Casper, Wyoming. I read about its habitat, its song, its plumage, its range. 

I have always loved a taxonomy, any kind of categorization. When I was 13 and in 4-H, I studied botany and entered the county fair with a handmade flower press. I bought a photo album at the mall and lovingly arranged the flowers I had pressed beneath flimsy plastic. Sego lily. Indian paintbrush. Cow parsnip. Arrowleaf balsamroot. I wrote their common names and Latin names on scraps of paper, identifying every flower. I won a blue ribbon at the fair. 

So, naturally, I buy the bird book. At night, after homework, I study each plate carefully. The book gives me comfort. I start with songbirds and see that in our backyard are mountain chickadees, sparrows, flickers and blue jays. There are a lot of small grayish birds I am no good at identifying. What are you? I look out into the yard, flipping pages quickly, trying to ID them before they fly away. 

What are you? 

When I am 16, my answer for this question is cocky. A human, I’ll say. 

No, but what are you? And I know the answer they want. They want to know why my skin is brown, and so they’ll try a different approach. Where are you from? 

Wyoming. I’m from here. Being biracial, I don’t have a better answer. I have never been to India, where my mom is from. I have only been to Ireland, where my dad is from, once. 

That winter, I sign up for a field ornithology class at the community college. It is a continuing education class that meets once a week, with field trips on the weekends. When I go to the first class, notebook and field guide in hand, I am the only person under 50. My classmates all have binoculars and scopes. They tell me where to see owls. And when I tell them I’ve seen almost no waterbirds, they direct me to Soda Lake, north of Casper. Originally a repository built by Amoco for refinery waste, it’s become a haven for waterfowl and shorebirds. 

The instructor hands us a copy of the Wyoming Bird Checklist. When I scan the list, I think it’s a joke. There can’t possibly be that many birds around here. I have always thought of Wyoming as lacking — people, restaurants, rock concerts, cool clothes. Yellowstone and the Tetons have lots of animals and birds, but not here. Casper is firmly an oil and gas town. 

My classmates, all seasoned birders, assure me that most of the birds on the list can be seen around here. I just need to look hard — to learn how to recognize a silhouette in the sky, to hear birdsong, to stay still and sit with binoculars in hand. 

I look for the hardest ones first. Greater sage grouse. Ross’ goose. Philadelphia vireo. I spend weeks checking birds off. Mountain bluebird. Cedar waxwing. Red-naped sapsucker. I look upward and mark red-tailed hawk, American kestrel, ferruginous hawk. I see a peregrine falcon on a fence while walking. I seek the uncommon. Big birds are easy; I can tell what they are from afar. I work my way through the corvidae: ravens, magpies and blue jays. With every tick of my list, I feel a kind of lightness. I can identify them. I know what they are. I even begin to see that the little gray birds have names: house sparrows, catbirds, finches, juncos and towhees. 

It is the easy birds that I have trouble with. The first few come quickly. American robin, check. Band-tailed pigeon, check. California gull, check. But there are so many common birds I seem to miss. And then there is my jinx bird. A jinx bird is a relatively common bird that manages to elude you despite your best efforts. A common thing that isn’t seen. Mine is the western meadowlark, the state bird of Wyoming. I see it everywhere but in the wild — in my Wyoming history book, in paintings and on murals. On T-shirts. I know its song. I scan fences for a flash of yellow, for the black V on their chest. 

With every tick of my list, I feel a kind of lightness. I can identify them. I know what they are.

GROWING UP, I liked to examine the maps hanging in my dad’s office. He is a petroleum geologist, and I wanted to see where he was when he would head out to a rig for long stretches at a time. Most of the maps used “township and range,” a mapping system created from a land survey. It’s sometimes referred to as the Public Land Survey System, but it includes all land, both public and private. It’s an incredibly specific grid system, developed after the Revolutionary War as a way of legally recording land. Recording appropriated land, that is. Following that violent and illegitimate appropriation, the whole of Wyoming, and the West, was broken up into squares. Each square has more little squares in them. They’re called sections, and there are even littler squares within each section. Each section is one square mile and contains 640 acres. A number for the township marks the location of the section north to south, while a number for the range marks the location east to west. 

I was drawn to this system as a way of framing order on something as wild as land. I used to play a game where I would figure out the township and range of places I loved. Casper was T33N R79W. Later, I would get those numbers on my first tattoo across my back, under a covered wagon to mark that we were immigrants — that we had migrated here to the West.

This may be why I identified with birds. They are migrants. They leave their homes. They have a strong sense of direction; they have unmatched fortitude when it comes to making a journey. 

Years after I have given up on bird checklists, I am at a rest stop in the Shirley Basin, trying to avoid an early storm. It has begun to snow, and visibility is already blurry, and I hear a meadowlark: the clear whistles, then warble of its song. I hear the song again. I have stopped to use the pay phone as there is no cell service. The flute-like song is clear. I cannot see it. But I can hear it. I did not have to see it to believe it there. 

The next tattoo I get is of a jackalope: The most fantastical of creatures, and as I joke to people, an emblem of all things mixed race. 

What are you? There are so many ways to identify something. A field guide. A map. My old birding checklists. As I have gotten older, I am all about not categorizing. Much of the world is not an either/or. The maps I pored over only tell one side of a story — usually a story of colonization and naming that doesn’t take those who look like me into account. I am Indian in the American West. I am like a non-Native species that in migrating through, found a home. People say a jinx brings bad luck to something, like not being able check off a bird on a list. But I can identify with not being easy to pin down. I am now drawn to the unseen, to things that don’t measure in straight lines or are easily classified, to what cannot always be explained. I’m drawn to the jackalope and the meadowlark. I still haven’t witnessed either.   

Nina McConigley is a professor and writer living in Laramie, Wyoming. She is the author of Cowboys and East Indians. This is the first installment of her HCN column Township and Range, where writes about the intersection of race and family in the interior rural West.

We welcome reader letters. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.

High Country News Classifieds
    Popular vacation house, everything furnished. Two bedroom, one bath, large enclosed yards. Dog-friendly. Contact Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
    We characterize contaminated sites, identify buried drums, tanks, debris and also locate groundwater.
    Central Colorado Conservancy is an accredited land trust and community-based conservation organization based in Salida, CO. Our mission is to protect the land, waters and...
    Welcome to your new tranquil oasis in Montana. This beautiful 2-bedroom home FSBO is just an hour's drive to the east entrance of Glacier National...
    Areas of Responsibility: The Development Director collaborates with the Executive Director, other HEAL Utah staff, board, and supporters to continue building one of Utah's most...
    Position Summary Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is hiring an organized and creative Digital Engagement Specialist to join our Marketing and Communications Team. The Digital Engagement...
    Welcome to Lost Creek Sanctuary... a true hidden gem in the heart of the Palouse. 1900 square feet, the main house is warm and charming,...
    Vibrant, financially successful 1,100 print run, community-focused subscription newspaper in beautiful Pacific Northwest Washington seeks owner/s. It is time to retire. Now, your Norman Rockwell-like...
    Job Opening Announcement: Wildlands and Wildlife Program Staff Attorney Reports to: Wildlands and Wildlife Program Director Location: Pacific Northwest, ideally in Eugene, Oregon, Portland, Oregon,...
    The Head of Project Management will oversee our project execution to ensure that we are providing our partners around the world with the field data...
    Trustees for Alaska is the only nonprofit environmental law firm founded and based in Alaska. We are seeking a Legal Director, full-time based in Anchorage....
    The Fund for People in Parks seeks leader to identify, develop, fund, and facilitate high-impact projects in western National Parks. Remote position with some travel....
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness is a women-led national grassroots organization that engages and inspires activism to preserve and protect wilderness and wild lands. The...
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness is a women-led national grassroots organization that engages and inspires activism to preserve and protect wilderness and wild lands. Position...
    The Grassroots Leadership (Director) oversees the training, guidance, and support of volunteer Broadband Leaders. (Broadbands are women-led grassroots chapters, with 40+ across the country.) They...
    We would like to invite you to participate in a 60-minute focus group to help us enhance the New Mexico Courts website ( Our aim...
    New Mexico Wild is seeking a Gila Grassroots Organizer who is passionate about public lands and community engagement. The Gila Grassroots Organizer will take a...
    Chiricahua riparian ecosystem: 5100 ft elevation:18+ inches of rain/year: 1/4 mile creek through property: The Chiricahuas' have been called: "The most biologically diverse place in...
    Adorable quaint cabin on the Arizona Strip, on the foothills of the Kaibab Plateau with 260 acres bordering BLM lands on two sides of the...
    A must for campers and outdoor enthusiasts. Cools, cleans and hydrates with mist, stream and shower patterns. Hundreds of uses.