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Beyond Birding…Sorta

03-Your Letters [LEFT]The letters to the editor in the current issue of Birding are about—wait for it—plants and mammals. They’re also about birds, and about the ways in which our other interests intersect with our passion for birds and birding.

I remember a conversation around the campfire, more than two decades ago, about birders’ other interests. We decided, in an entirely arbitrary manner, that every birder was entitled to two such interests. Then we went around the circle, and explored all the connections and commonalities.

I nominated astronomy and deserts. I just loved—I still do—being out at night in lovely, lonely, subtle places. I feel freedom—freedom to think different, even daring, thoughts—out there among the Lesser Nighthawks and creosotebush walkingsticks, immersed in dark matter and the gravity of distant black holes.

How about you? What are your two other interests? How does it all come together for you? What are the connections among, say, painting, sociology, and birding? Or how about exercise, acoustics, and birding? Literature, beachcombing, and birding?

Your turn!


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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

Latest posts by Ted Floyd (see all)

  • Corey Husic

    For me, observing other aspects of nature–insects, plants, and so on–would be up there, but I’m going to set that aside for the moment. I’d have to say that my two other hobbies would be running and playing music. Running is a wonderful hobby to accompany birding, especially along the quiet country roads along which I began my birding and running careers. Before I could drive (and honestly, riding a bike just didn’t work on the hills), running could get me to places where walking would take too long. There are these fields several miles from my house that hold Grasshopper and Vesper Sparrows in the summer months. I’d often run there so just so I could hear their buzzy songs as I stretched on the roadside. And, once schoolwork became more of an issue, there were often moments when I did not have time to do both birding and exercise as separate activities. However, a run could take me birding along eight miles of the hemlock-bordered stream at the base of the ridge. Not only would I get a workout, but I would also be treated to Winter Wrens, Blackburnian Warblers, and Veeries by the dozen.

    Then there is music. I’ve grown up listening to and playing Appalachian “oldtime” music. This particular style of music represents an aural tradition of passing music from generation to generation simply by hearing and remembering tunes. I don’t really read music, but that isn’t an issue since very few of these tunes have ever been transcribed. Picking up on notes, chords, and bowing patterns comes from the subtle differences in the way the music sounds. I cannot help but imagine that this “training” has made me a better birder-by-ear. I love deciphering the slight differences in flight calls of two species or the distinction of inflection in two similar chip notes. I find this to be remarkably similar to picking out a quick “ornament” in a fiddle tune.

    When I travel to a new place, I find a CD of the bird songs of that region, and I listen to it religiously. Repeatedly subjecting myself to these vocalizations allows me to remember them, so that the instant I hear that sound in the jungle of Costa Rica, I can know immediately what it is. The same is true with fiddle tunes. Once I listen to the recording of a tune several times, it gets ingrained in my head so that the next time I pick up my fiddle, I can just play it without thinking.

  • Kirby Adams

    I have so many consuming interests, but apparently it was voted that there can be only two (with a nod to Connor MacLeod) at a campfire meeting I was not invited to. I’m going to pass over my other addictions in the natural sciences. It’s painfully obvious how a fascination with ecology, evolution, or biogeography intersects birding. So I’ll have to say an obsession with maps and with books, which, come to think of it, are also clearly birdy.

    Since I was old enough to remember things, my room was adorned not with posters of celebrities, but with maps. My dad had been a National Geographic member since 1936, and every map was faithfully filed and alphabetized. I’d hang some in my room, and switch them out for different ones when I got bored with them. To this day, I cannot walk past a map – any map – without looking at it for a minute or a hundred. The local park, the surface of Mars, public transit in Vienna, Gondor, whatever. Growing up, places on maps were dreams. I’ve spent my adult life traveling to places that were names on a map of my childhood. I always stop for a moment when I go somewhere new, think back to what it looked like on a favorite map, and touch the ground. Less grandiose than the Holy Father kissing a tarmac, but equally profound to me. Birding, of course, leads to much travel (a subset lust of chartophily, which is a word now by the arbitrary rule, similar to that used at the aforementioned campfire) and has its own set of maps. So much of birding is about location, maps are nothing short of essential.

    Books I can trace back to my father as well. His personal library exceeded 2000 volumes stored in a library above our garage. My collection is approaching that number and growing steadily. Heck, you can replace the word “maps” with “books” above and all the statements remain true. Books are dreams of the future. They can also be escape or remembrance, but for me, I’ve always used them as a narcotic to both assuage and deepen my wanderlust. If I can’t be birding in Peru right now, at least i can be reading about it. Can’t be a founding father, but I can read John Adams’ biography (no relation, we’re from Virginia stock). I can’t visit Narnia, but I can read about it.

    So there you go. Did the lifelong love of maps and books push me into birding? Quite possibly. Add a fascination with ecology and nature, and a love of making lists of things, and it’s a wonder I waited 37 years to start birding!

  • 1775concord

    My problem is that I’m “ADDish.” Two would be music (played French horn for years, listen to almost everything) and history…be it political, social, achievements and exploration of the life of one person. But also current politics, coins (esp as related to history), aviation, sports. How wonderful it is to live in a country and at a time when we have “overchoice.”

  • David M

    My two hobbies tie into each other. I love history (have my degree in it) and since I don`t quite work in a field doing direct history, history is my hobby. As to how that ties into birding, I love reading about the original ornithologists and how the nomenclature came to be. As much as we talk about the evolution of the actual birds, as equally interesting is the evolution of how birders named, identified and split the birds into species. Fascinates me. Someday I hope to make a flash diagram of how the birds of NA came to be split the way they are today. But my wife says I have enough projects as it is…so that`s down the road.
    My second interest ties into history and is a little weird. I like to look at buildings that have died. Buildings that are no longer used or have fallen into disrepair. As much as you Mr. Floyd enjoy looking into space and thinking those thoughts, looking at a decaying building does the same for me. That ties into history because I always wondered what the history of that building was and it ties into birding because I always wonder what it will become, especially out in the country where they don`t necessarily tear down the derelict buildings.

  • Frank Izaguirre

    Literature and history. I was just thinking the other day about how I haven’t read a pure history book in awhile, and I’m starting to crave one.

    If we bumped the limit up to three interests (do we have enough votes yet?), I’d add rainforests. Rainforests are so cool. I’m lucky in that birds, literature, history, and rainforests all have a clear intersection: memoirs of early Neotropical ornithologists. Can’t get enough of em. Some of my favorites are Alexander Skutch’s A Naturalist on a Tropical Farm, Frank Chapman’s My Tropical Air Castle, and William Beebe’s Edge of the Jungle. I like stuff by other kinds of naturalists too, like the herpetologist Archie Carr’s High Jungles and Low. One of the books I’m most looking forward to is Alfred Russel Wallace’s classic The Malay Archipelago, but that’s for when I’m ready to explore beyond the New World.

    • Ted Floyd

      “Literature and history,” eh? You’ve succeeded, Frank, in pressing a button.

      I didn’t much enjoy either until it dawned on me that they are best appreciated in tandem. And that didn’t happen to me until I was in my early 20s–when I was “officially” studying statistics and plant chemistry and doing experiments. That’s when I discovered Tolstoy and Austen…*and* czarist Russia and Georgian England. Oh, I’d studied those time-periods in high school and college; but they were so dull and forgettable, mere histories. At last, they came alive in the magnificent novels of Tolstoy and Austen.

      Note to high school history and literature teachers: Talk to each other, please. If the English teacher has assigned Austen, then the history teacher needs to cover the Napoleonic wars; and get the music teacher on board, and have the students attend a performance of the Nelson Mass. Of if the history teacher is covering serfdom in czarist Russia, then the English teacher needs to assign Tolstoy; and get the music teacher to teach about the symphonies of Tchaikovsky.

      The situation is even more dire in the sciences. My bathroom reading thus far this year: William Dunham’s Mathematical Universe, John Barrow’s Pi in the Sky, Paul Nahin’s Imaginary Tale, and two books by John Allen Paulos (Innumeracy and A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper). These are books about math and history (the first three), and math and current events (the two by Paulos). Each one is wonderful, each in its own way, but I want to single out the Nahin book.

      [By the way, my response is going to get around to birds. Bear with me.]

      Nahin’s book is about the square root of minus-one, “one of the most pervasive and evasive” ideas in mathematics. Now check this out: Nahin approaches the idea in an explicitly historical manner. He’s not a historian. Neither is he a mathematician. Nahin is an electrical engineer. The result is a tour-de-force: an electrical engineer’s history of perhaps the strangest idea in all of mathematics.

      I wish my high school and college math classes had assigned books like Nahin’s–with a bit of Austen, Napoleon, and Haydn thrown in. Complex function theory, the Napoleonic wars, Haydn’s masses…they’re all part of the same historical current.

      I don’t want you to think I’m all about DWEMs (dead white European males). It’s sad and wrong that in my 13 years in the Pittsburgh Public Schools, I didn’t learn anything at all about Rachel Carson, the Negro Leagues, or the amazing contributions to jazz by so many Pittsburghers. Wouldn’t it be amazing to take a course that looks at how the same physical environment influenced such contemporaries as Carson, Josh Gibson, and Billy Strayhorn? Don’t you think high school students would love, and excel at, the subject matter?


      I totally relate to what you’re saying, Frank. Corey, I know what you mean about running and birding; and Kirby, I get it, 100%, with birds and maps; David, that bit about old buildings is “weird,” as you say, but also intriguing and inspiring. Even though I don’t believe we’ve met, I’ll always think of you–this meme of yours, anyhow–when I’m out birding and see an old building.

      I allow that a bit of compartmentalization is okay. [L’Italiana in Algeri with Dutch subtitles is streaming right now from the other computer. It would be a huge stretch–and a lie–to link that somehow with birding.] But I keep coming back to those connections.

      A couple of hours ago, my kids and I were sledding. I couldn’t help but notice the old building at the bottom of the hill, or the Common Mergansers on the lake up top, or the lay of the land (some cartographers are all over “imaginary” geometries), and a bunch of other things. Maybe I’m just being delusional, but I don’t think I’m “ADDish” (thanks for the contribution, 1775concord). For sure, I don’t claim to have worked out all the connections out there on the sledding hill; but I was well pleased by the magnificent tapestry of things and ideas on a beautiful, snowy night.

      • Ted Floyd

        Ha! I just thought of a link between L’Italiana and birding in Nevada’s Lahontan Valley. I’m serious.

        • Frank Izaguirre

          …. so what is it?

      • Frank Izaguirre

        So, I’m currently in the middle of reviewing a collection of critical essays on the nature writer Loren Eiseley (one of my faves; ever read him?). One of the most interesting essays is about how Eiseley, by expertly combining literary sensibilities with profound scientific knowledge (he was a professional anthropologist) in his writing, undermined the assertion of British chemist and novelist CP Snow: that due to the structure of our education system, there exists a titanic gulf between the humanities and the sciences, which in itself is a significant impediment to solving the world’s problems.

        As my mind often does these days, I superimposed Snow’s idea over birding culture. Is birding culture damaged by a division between the humanities and science? Are ornithologists and field technicians separated from or even at odds with writers, illustrators, and other artists? Is the community less cohesive than it should be due to diverging fields of education and career paths? If so, how can we address that problem?

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  • Morgan Churchill

    Related to birding, I would say my other two main outdoor interests are probably herping and mammal watching. My last big stateside “birding” trip last year was for instance focused on visiting the Yellowstone region, and almost all my targets were mammals. And not just things like bison or grizzlies, but also critters like Yellow-pine Chipmunk and Uinta Ground Squirrel. The year before that, my big annual birding trip was Eastern Colorado during spring migration, and the highlights of that trip were definitely the Speckled Kingsnake and Great Plains Ratsnake I found.

    I will certainly go out of my way to see and record new birds and mammals, and often the new mammals and herps I find to be way more exciting than the birds I saw, as I often find birds to be comparatively easy (with exceptions of owls and rails) than the typical mammal or herp.

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