ST. PAUL - It doesn’t take long to grasp how much knowledge, excitement and wonder 10-year-old Zander Yakiwchuk contains - and it's a lot.
While he may be of average size physically, his ability to recall the names of countless types of birds, where they live, what they eat, how large their wingspan is, and so much more is anything but average.
The young St. Paul resident spends plenty of time feeding and watching birds. Those closest to him even had to explain how it’s not feasible to spend more money on bird feed than they spend on their own groceries. But, the bird feeders remain full, and Zander remains filled with enthusiasm.
When asked what he feeds the birds to keep them coming around, Zander says it's a mixture of things.
"I just kind of know what they like, and just seeing them, what they eat," he explains. Some like Black Oil Sunflower seeds, others prefer Canary seeds, such as the Finch.
According to his mom, Kim, her son has a type of photographic memory, although it may not be quite that easy to describe or explain.
Zander appears to be a real life Google search engine, as he estimates what bird has a similar wingspan to someone who is 5’5”, but his knowledge didn’t come from modern technology or the popular search engine - instead, he learned most of what he knows the traditional way - books.
"When I first started learning about birds, I was just three years old, and I had come over to my grandparents' place and they have this huge book that had a recording in it so you could listen to different bird calls," recalls Zander, as he makes the sound of a White Pelican.
"The first bird book I ever got has 300 birds from all over the world, and now the place is like slewed with bird books... That's literarily my favourite thing to read about."
Kim recalls how she once bought her oldest son a collection of bird books, thinking it would keep him busy for a while. But, it didn’t take Zander long to work his way through the books - and he is now able to recall the facts found within the pages with ease.
When asked if he has a favourite bird, the answer takes some thought.
"Well, there's lots of birds I really like," he begins. "I really like pigeons, I also really love Golden Eagles, and I also like this crazy, whacky, weirdo bird called the Marabou Stork. I wish I had a paper and pencil, because I know some people who are all butterflies and flowers type would scream if they saw it. It's hideous," says Zander, as he is taken away in a description that truly does sound like it is right out of a book.
"It poops all over its legs to keep itself cool in the hot African plains," he adds.
Zander's mom goes back to around the same time period when asked when she noticed her son's interest in birds. It was when he was about three years old, but she also noticed his keen ability to remember things around that same time.
"If I was to tell you, it's not photographic for me, it's just remembering hundreds upon hundreds of things," describes Zander, as he watches birds from a nearby window.
Sometimes, he does in fact pull up word-for-word facts that he's read from a book, repeating it almost exactly - and sometimes, those facts are pieces he's read years ago.
This summer, Zander spotted a unique bird in St. Paul - a rare piebald raven fledgling. Zander noted that it had a rare genetic mutation called leucism, which causes some of its feathers to be white, because pigmentation and melanin are not present as usual. The bird was spotted near the courthouse.
When talking about the bird, Zander is quick to offer interesting facts about ravens, how they play and "they even do the loop-de-loop."
When asked if he ever gets tired of watching birds, Zander's enthusiasm shines through. "I could do it all day! In fact, the biggest place on my bucket list is the Inglewood Bird Sanctuary." The sanctuary is located in Calgary, "and the place is swarming with birds," says Zander.
There's also another bird sanctuary in B.C. that Zander has visited with his uncle. When recalling the trip, he's eager to list all the birds he saw, which was "literally everything."
"Then, as we were about to leave, a giant Sandhill Crane swooped out of the middle of nowhere," says Zander. "Then, something adorable happened, a tiny, fluffy, grey thing about five inches tall, bolted across... we realized that it must have been trying to protect its colt," which is a baby Sandhill Crane, he notes.
For Zander, bird watching isn't really relaxing, but more exciting. It also involves some work, building specific feeders to attract specific birds. He also enjoys educating people about birds, admitting that he sometimes mind boggles people with facts. Zander's knowledge is even becoming known across the community.
"We even have people who will call or send pictures, and say 'Can you ask Zander what this is?' or I'll get phone calls asking 'Is Zander there'?" says his mom, with a laugh.
And his interests do stretch beyond birds. Zander has been known to delve into the world of dinosaurs and outer space, but he admits that "80 per cent of the time you'll find me with my nose in a book labelled 'Birds of Western Canada'."
During a quick walk outside, Zander shows off some of his many bird feeders, explaining why he feeds certain things to certain birds, his attention is shifted to a lone blue feather on the ground - a sure sign that his efforts of feeding birds have attracted even more visitors for Zander to watch out for.
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