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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 longtime Editor of Birding magazine, and he is broadly involved in other programs and initiatives with the ABA. Ted has written 200+ magazine articles and 5 books, including How to Know the Birds (National Geographic, 2019). He is a frequent speaker at birding festivals and has served on several nonprofit boards. Join Ted at The ABA Blog for his semimonthly spot, “How to Know the Birds,” celebrating common birds and the uncommonly interesting things they do.
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