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ABA President Jeffrey A. Gordon, in his “Birding Together” column in the September/October 2013 Birding (pp. 8–9), writes about the virtue of magnanimity:

First, a little philosophy. I don’t remember much from my sophomore-year Ancient Greek Philosophy class, but one idea that has really stuck with me, remaining fresh and detailed while so many others blurred and faded, is the virtue of magnanimity. Today, when we call someone magnanimous, if we do at all, we generally mean that he or she is generous and expansive, the sort of person who will likely spring for drinks. But the Ancient Greeks ranked it alongside more obvious picks like honesty.

Magnanimity once meant something far larger than just generosity, literally having a big soul. More broadly it denoted a readiness for big things: an ability to seize the moment, to rise to the occasion, to recognize and appropriately exploit opportunities that others might miss. It’s a quality to which I believe all birders should aspire and one that I find the best birders have in abundance. They’re seemingly always in a state of relaxed alertness, sifting the atmosphere for whatever that particular place and time has to offer. They don’t force it, jumping at shadows and trying to make too much from too little. Still, not much escapes their notice.

Jeff goes on in his essay to explore how magnanimity was on display this past summer at Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico. Right from the get-go, the scene at Bosque del Apache was about more than a very rare bird. Birders—individual birders, associations of birders, indeed the entire community of birders—comported themselves with magnanimity. Big things came of the wood-rail at Bosque del Apache: national media coverage of birding; a particularly bright spotlight on Bosque del Apache in particular and on the U.S. national wildlife system in general; heightened awareness of the ABA, especially the ABA Checklist Committee; and an undeniable spirit of bonhomie among birders everywhere.

13-5-04-03p [Rufous-necked Wood-Rail]

The New Mexico Rufous-necked Wood Rail. Photo by Jeffrey A. Gordon.

It could have been different. If the players were different, the wood-rail might have been just another rarity. Instead, the wood-rail became a national celebrity, and a great boost for the ABA and for birding. Let’s be honest: The wood-rail itself had nothing to do with the outcome. Instead, this was all about humans: about Matt Daw, who found the wood-rail; about the refuge staff, who went way beyond the call of duty in accommodating the great throngs of birders who came to see the bird; about Jeff Gordon and others at the ABA who greeted visitors and promoted news of the find online; and about sympathetic and enlightened media figures, regionally and nationally, who recognized what was going on and promoted it accordingly.


We at the ABA are constantly asking ourselves, What will it require, going forward, to achieve success for the cause of birding and, ultimately, the birds themselves? There are the stock answers: money and members, science and activism, marketing and advertising. Let’s not be dismissive of those things: If the ABA and birding are to flourish in the 21st century, we birders are going to need to raise more money and attract more members, we’re going to need to support conservation science and then translate the science into policy, and we’re going to have to get more serious about marketing and advertising. But there’s more.

13-5-08-05 [U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich]

U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich (D-NM) views the Rufous-necked Wood-Rail with ABA President Jeffrey A. Gordon and other birders. Photo courtesy of the Office of U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich.

Jeff started us off with a bit of Greek philosophy. Let’s wrap up in that same vein. Logicians and philosophers speak of necessary and sufficient conditions for some result to obtain. Lots of things in this life are necessary, but not sufficient. Water and air are necessary for our survival, but they’re not sufficient. So it is with the cause of birding: All the money and members in the world aren’t sufficient to ensure the future of birding. We need something else. I think Jeff’s right: We need magnanimity. We need to be magnanimous.

On that note, I’d like now, if you will, to open the floor for discussion. Can you think of instances in which you’ve seen magnanimity in action? Do you have ideas about how birders might be more magnanimous? Don’t hold back. Be magnanimous!

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Ted Floyd

Ted Floyd

Editor, Birding magazine at American Birding Association
Ted Floyd is the Editor of Birding magazine, and he is broadly involved in other programs and initiatives of the ABA. He is the author of more than 100 magazine and journal articles, and has written four recent books, including an ABA title, the ABA Guide to Birds of Colorado. Floyd is a frequent speaker at birding festivals and state ornithological society meetings, and he has served on the boards of several nonprofit organizations. Mainly, he listens to birds at night.
Ted Floyd

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  • Vince Cavalieri

    I would like to share a story about some magnanimous behavior by a pair of birders in Marquette, MI whose generosity of time, kindness and knowledge made a big difference in the life of a young birder. When I was 15 I had already been birding for many years, but the lack of any sort of birding mentor or even other birders to talk to had kind of left me stranded in a perennial advanced beginner stage. This was about the time that merlins were beginning to expand back into the northern Great Lakes area and I had heard there was a pair breeding in a Marquette neighborhood. I convinced my dad to drive me up to Marquette as I still needed Merlin for a lifer. He dropped me off in the general vicinity of where the merlins were supposed to be and I began wandering around the neighborhood with binoculars (we all know how that can go). Sure enough within a block or two someone was yelling at me from their deck, but instead of asking what I was looking at with those binoculors, to my surprise he asked “hey, are you a birder?”.
    He invited me up on the deck, showed me where the merlin nest had been (the fledglings were already out of the nest and in the extremely loud merlin begging stage) and watched the adult merlins bringing in food for the youngsters. His wife, also a birder came out and we ended up chatting about birds and birding and they shared lemonade and cookies with me for over an hour until my dad came back. They ended up inviting me to come along the next summer to volunteer for the Hiawatha Breeding Bird Survey, picked me up and drove me all the way over there. There I met professional wildlife biologists and field researchers, things I had barely known existed before then. I ended up getting invited to particpate on Kirtland’s Warbler surveys and getting hired the next summer to do breeding bird surveys for a graduate student’s PhD project! Soon, my plans to become a lawyer changed. I could make a living working on bird conservation! Its been a long road but its been great and enjoyable, I hope I am doing some good for conservation and I wouldn’t have it any other way. It all likely would never have happened if it wasn’t for that couple from Marquette. When you see a young birder walking alone, be magnanimous, you just might change their life.

  • Anonymous

    I have so many thoughts, but I don’t think any of them are worthy of posting here. No, I am not shy. You may have seen my comments before. I open up. I can do my own bit of sharing from time to time. But this post needs no extra words. I just want to take it and share it with every other birder I know, let it sink in, understand what it really means to be magnanimous as a birder, and then own that meaning, so that it becomes part of who I am. And then, only then, I may be able to make a comment here.

  • Frank Izaguirre

    For whatever reason, I never made lasting bird friendships in my hometown, or the various other places I’ve lived in, until moving to Pittsburgh, PA. But since then, I have again and again been moved by the generosity, magnanimity, and soul bigness of the bird community here.

    It usually goes like this: I meet someone, that person is very nice to me, I decide I like them a lot, I later discover that person is hugely influential in the local and often national birding scene, and am further moved by their generosity.

    The other thing these interactions have in common is that they typically occur within the existing social network of the local birdclub. So my contribution to the conversation of how to spread magnanimity in the birding world is to maintain and reinforce the robustness of local birdclub membership.

    As wonderful as it is that the ABA and birding culture in general has built such a vigorous online presence, that presence can’t be allowed to replace the strength of local, physical birdclubs. Magnanimity happens in person.

    • Ted Floyd

      “The other thing these interactions have in common is that they typically occur within the existing social network of the local birdclub.”

      I swear, I was just about to post almost the exact same words. (Frank, I was thinking of the spirit of magnanimity I recently observed in various folks associated with your hometown Tropical Audubon Society.)

      Anyhow, yes, agreed: local, “physical” bird clubs bring out the best–the most magnanimous–in us. Let’s support them, wherever we are.

    • Ted Floyd

      “The other thing these interactions have in common is that they typically occur within the existing social network of the local birdclub.”

      I swear, I was just about to post almost the exact same words. (Frank, I was thinking of the spirit of magnanimity I recently observed in various folks associated with your hometown Tropical Audubon Society.)

      Anyhow, yes, agreed: local, “physical” bird clubs bring out the best–the most magnanimous–in us. Let’s support them, wherever we are.

  • Justin Cale

    My birding story involves one of the biggest names in birding itself. Last September, I had just started birding, and I wouldn’t have even called myself a birder yet. My good friend Stewart took me up to Magee Marsh, and there, I was lucky enough to get a bird I’ll most likely never see again in my life, at least in Ohio. Stewart and I were on the boardwalk, and I had never seen so many birds flitting around. We walked up to a man with a camera lens the size of a small car (lol), and said hello. He proceeded to show me some warblers that were in the trees, and showed me how to tell them apart, how they moved, field marks…he was incredibly nice, during what I figured was me interrupting his photo taking. Turns out it was none other than Kenn Kaufman. Later on down the boardwalk, I saw and nearly photographed a Townsend’s Warbler. All of Magee was going crazy that day, as many birders were driving around and trying to direct other birders to catch sight of this beautiful bird before it was gone. I had no idea at the time how rare that bird was or how fortunate I was to see it. But looking back, I now see how lucky I was that day. I’m glad that Kenn is the ambassador that he is to other birders and the community in general, and I think Jeff hit nail on the head with this article. I do my best now, whenever I am out, to help out other birders as much as possible. Sometimes I help, other times maybe I complicate things. Who knows. But being magnanimous whenever possible, is a winning mindset.

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