The Good Birder (I See, I Name, Therefore I Count)
That which today calls itself science gives us more and more information, an indigestible glut of information, and less and less understanding...Edward Abbey
Jeff Mundy is a Texas birder who asks questions that defy easy answers, or that at least ignore them. Recently he posted one on Texbirds:
Watching the evolution of the dialogue here over the years makes me wonder what others consider to be the qualities that make someone "a good birder"?
Obviously, identification and bird finding skills are important, but are there other qualities that should be considered?
Texbirds, like most web-based birding discussion lists, has evolved over time. The list has been drained of much of its original intrigue and soul, I will argue, and what remains is an endless recitation of the same interminable list. This is as exciting as the minute-by-minute stock reports, showing who is up, who is down, who is in the money, and who is screwed. I am in Sartre's No Exit, doomed to recite the daily posts from eBird.
Jeff's question is a nagger, one of those tail twisters that can't keep its hands to itself. I thought about "good" for days. Did he mean good as in skilled? Did he mean moral or ethical? What about existential good, whatever that may be? Is a good birder similar to a good Christian or a good fellow? I gave up trying to read Jeff's mind, and decided to throw in both the towel and my thoughts.
If good is skill, then I have known many good birders. Skill in birding is not complicated, and is easily learned. A skilled birder has the ability to find birds and identify them. On the surface this would seem a fairly elementary process; it is. Good birders find birds and identify them, good hunters find game and kill it, and good anglers find fish and catch them.
You can make as much or as little out of this skill as you wish. There are good birders who write field guides, good birders who give talks, good birders who fund their passion through leading other good birders to new good birds, and good birders who nip about the edges, the frontiers, of bird finding and identification. There are also people who are good beer can collectors, and those who know virtually everything there is to know about Fiestaware. They, too, are good.
Finding and identifying birds is not just simple, it's becoming simpler. Optics now are dazzlingly clear, argon-infused, end-of-my-nose close-focusing, Space Age wonders. By contrast, during my first trip to Palenque in the 1970s I divided my time between birding the ruins and sitting in my hotel room with a hair dryer trying to defog my Bushnells. Field guides delve into feather tracts before known only to stiffly turned professors fingering the stuffing out of the dead. The internet now offers information in minutes that used to take years to gather: how to find birds, where to find birds, when to find birds, how to identify birds.
But, stealing from Jim Collins, good isn't great. While I have known many good birders, those who can effortlessly find birds and identify them, I confess that I haven't known as many great ones. I have mulled this fact over for a while, and I think that I have a reason for the imbalance of good birders to great. To be a great birder, one must subdue that most human of all traits, ego, and place the bird in the center of the universe. Identifying a bird is simple, and there are those who become good at this. Knowing a bird is exceedingly difficult, and not many cross this threshold.
There are moments you share with birds when they invite you to actually live inside their skins. Through their eyes you see their world (actually, our world), and feel the revving rpms of hearts that carried them across the Gulf or propelled them deep into the boreal woods. You face what they face; you fear what they fear. In these moments you become Neruda’s “small bird on fire which dances out of the pollen.” In these moments good may become great.
Freeman Tilden addressed the same issue in his early writings about interpretation. Most birders, at least those who write, are not interpretive writers. Most bird guides are not interpretive guides. The reason for this discrepancy is the same as described above (i.e., most bird writers and guides are good birders, not good interpreters). Tilden wrote the following:
The true interpreter will not rest at any dictionary definition. Besides being ready in his use of research, he goes beyond the apparent to the real, beyond a part to a whole, beyond a truth to a more important truth.
To restate Tilden's words in the context of this current theme, a true birder goes beyond the apparent (I see, I name, I count) to the real, beyond a part to a whole, and beyond the truth to a more important truth.
Most birders turn back at this point, shying away from an approach that might involve subjectivity, intuition, or feeling. Most birders approach watching as a western-world, Linnaean pursuit, stripped of any emotional context or risk. I see, I name, therefore I count. The point system is clear (find rare birds and identify them), and the recreational hierarchy is defined by the number and rarity of birds seen. But I have known a number of good birders, those with heady lists, who knew squat about birds. They knew their haunts, they knew their identity, but they knew as much about birds as they knew about the people behind the names in the yellow pages.
Is conservation requisite to being a good birder? No. You can find birds, identify them, and give a flip for their future. But if you are willing to see birds through their eyes, and park your own persona for a brief moment, then you will care. With caring, with empathizing, transformation and greatness are possible.
Good birders are quickly forgotten. Their lists are amalgamated with those of other good birders, and their rare birds become eclipsed by the rare birds seen by others. Their accomplishments, a cause of celebration in their time, are ephemeral and sift away in the first breeze of generational change.
Great birders leave more behind than they consume. Ted Parker died trying to identify hotspots of avian diversity in the tropics that needed immediate protection. Roger Tory Peterson never stopped extolling the need for marrying birding and conservation. We remember them.
Given what I have seen in my 61 years, great birders transcend time and good birders quickly evaporate. Great birders, people like Teddy Roosevelt and Aldo Leopold, are memorialized by the flourishing birds, lands, and ethics they passed to us. Great birders leave an indelible mark, while good birders fade.
This, in my mind, defines greatness. Anything less seems a waste of time.