Whittle: Chicken served at 'Bird Man' luncheon

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Did you ever attend a luncheon where colorful personalities rivaled the good food?

There I was, recently minding my own business and not bothering anyone, as in the Whittle Way, at McMinnville's Gondola Restaurant, when in walked Benton "Bird Man" Basham.

The Bird Man's presence, with his spectacular bushy-white beard, was instantly noted throughout the busy eatery.

The 77-year-old Basham, a globally-recognized Tennessee bird research expert, arrived after appearing that morning with Kelly Marlowe, a popular Warren County WBMC Radio talk show host, about the merits or non-merits of allowing a future hunting season of beautiful Sandhill Cranes that migrate by the thousands annually north and south through East and West Tennessee.

The Bird Man has published works on birding dating back to his school days in the mid-1950s. His works have been circulated globally from his perch of life in Viola, a sedate rural unincorporated community nestled in the rolling hills on the Cumberland Plateau between McMinnville and Manchester.

"Each and every time I have Benton on my daily morning radio program, callers light up the phone lines," noted radio personality Marlowe, a broadcast veteran of 25 years.

Other notable personalities at our table included Jimmy "The Greek" Zavogiannis, owner of the Gondola eatery on the Sparta Highway leading away from downtown McMinnville, plus award-winning newspaper columnist Mike Vinson, McMinnville insurance professional Wally Stern, who worked as a former newspaperman in Murfreesboro, and last, but certainly not the least personality, to wit, Lascassas' own Hooper Penuel, known statewide from his days as a former public information spokesman for the Tennessee Air National Guard, a former director of elections in Rutherford County and a volunteer force in helping raise $2.5 million to construct the Tennessee Fisher House currently under construction and due to be dedicated in November at the York VA Medical Center.

It was Stern who launched the first volley of questions to the Bird Man regarding whether Tennessee Wildlife & Resource Agency officials should or should not permit the hunting of Sandhill Cranes that number as many as 60,000 throughout the Hiawassee Refuge near Chattanooga and in Obion County, and have disrupted the migration routes of other waterfowl in that area.

A decision about a possible hunting season on cranes could come this month by government officials in Nashville.

"I don't have all the research, but I trust this state's government wildlife management professionals to make the right decision," the Bird Man responded. "As we sit here today, I would not be in favor of an open hunting season on the cranes.

"They are the state's biggest bird," the Bird Man accounted. "There are 50 to 80 sub-species of the Sandhill, but we have the Great Sandhills here in the volunteer state."

The Bird Man advised one doesn't have to venture far to appreciate the beauty of birds: "You don't have to go around the world to find fascinating birds, although I have been in countries too numerous to mention. This morning, for example, in Viola on a high line wire, I observed tree swallows staging, getting prepared to migrate en mass. I also noted that the cliff swallows are in their staging phase this morning."

Penuel asked about the "migration of butterflies?"

"Butterflies migrate up from Mexico…they're very delicate," the Bird Man responded. "It takes three generations of butterflies to complete their migration, that's how delicate they are."

That's when Cannon Courier columnist Mike Vinson arrived for the luncheon.
"I've known Mike since he was a boy, the son of locally-famous outdoor writer, the late Carlos Vinson," Bird Man acknowledged.

"My father had contributions published in most major wild life magazines in America, including Field & Stream and Outdoor Life," Vinson added. "Dad wrote during the time period before you had to have a college degree … he was a gifted, natural writer."

Zavogiannis, when asked his impression of all the stated research about birding at our luncheon, responded: "I enjoyed it. But, it's all Greek to me."


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Dan Whittle
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