Nikon Monarch 7

aba events

One Touch of Nature



Go to the gift shop at your local nature center and check out the section with journals, planners, and calendars. Pull one off the display, flip through the pages, and you’ll come upon the inevitable quotes by Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, and Aldo Leopold. And this one from William Shakespeare: “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”

We smile at those words. We love the thought that a sunset or rainbow or flock of cranes can have the power to unite us, as different as we might otherwise be.

The funny thing is, that’s not really what the playwright is saying. When he says “nature,” he’s not referring to mountains and forests and such. Instead, Shakespeare intends something closer to “human nature”—something inside ourselves, something along the lines of “empathy” or “fellowship.”


I’m aware that most of you reading this celebrated Thanksgiving a week ago. Thanksgiving is an occasion for fellowship, a time to reflect on the “nature” that sustains and strengthens our sense of community.

Not me. I took a pass on Thanksgiving this year. I skipped town, big time. I was in Malaysia, all the way around the world, a country where Thanksgiving is not observed. I was a guest at an international tourism and conservation conference based out of the bustling coastal city of Seberang Perai, population just under one million.

Nobody said “Happy Thanksgiving” to me the whole time I was at the conference. Nobody asked if I missed my family. Dinner Thursday night was anchovies and curry, not turkey and stuffing. And the only talk of “football” was of the sort played by Manchester United and Real Madrid.

No matter. The holiday was wonderful, a Thanksgiving I’ll never forget.

Turkey Day itself was a largely indoor affair, the conference proper, with presentations by policymakers, NGO heads, tour operators, scientists, and journalists. The conference was stimulating and inspiring, but I’d had enough. After sundown, my hosts kidnapped me—I put up no resistance at all—and took me to a forest where two species of frogmouths were singing. The experience was magical. Not just the frogmouths, on my bucket list for, oh, most of my life, but also my companions—Andrew, Azhar, and Azlina, so ridiculously similar to me. Our bodies and outer garb looked different, but our hearts and minds were conjoined in one touch of nature.

The author, left, and Maimunah Sharif, right, Mayor of Seberang Perai, study a Collared Kingfisher at the Air Hitam Dalam Education Forest, a coastal mangrove forest on the west coast of peninsula Malaysia. Photo by © Andrew J. Sebastian.

The author, left, and Maimunah Sharif, right, Mayor of Seberang Perai, study a Collared Kingfisher at the Air Hitam Dalam Education Forest, a coastal mangrove forest on the west coast of peninsula Malaysia. Photo by © Andrew J. Sebastian.

The first item on the Black Friday agenda was a bird walk. One of the attendees was the mayor of Seberang Perai, cheery and short of stature. A woman. A Muslim. Of “Asian” ancestry, and a Malaysian national of course. And me, a “WASP,” so much so that, when I’m in Europe, people sometimes address me in Dutch and German.

I could tell right away that she and I were soul mates.

The mayor spoke passionately and knowledgeably about climate change. She has a special place in her heart for “Gen Z,” the “iGeneration,” as do I. She hopes my country will not retreat from engaging the economic and environmental issues that affect the entire Pacific Rim; same here. And she’s a bird lover. She and I marveled together at Crested Serpent Eagles and Brahminy Kites, at minivets and malkohas, and more.

As we were saying our goodbyes, I asked myself a question. What if the mayor and I weren’t both bird lovers? Would we still be soul mates? Would I still feel a Shakespearian kinship with her?

I wondered about that.

A few days later, I had an experience that provided a definitive and satisfying resolution to the question.


I went back home on Sunday evening. The couple in front of me in the queue to Immigration were Muslims—he in plain khaki, she in the full-on niqab. I was ambivalent about them. They were young and beautiful, and I admired them for their evident devotion to each other. Yet like so many Westerners, I’m uncomfortable with the tradition of wearing the niqab. It’s not about personal safety. Rather, it’s a cultural judgment—a bias, a prejudice. The niqab signifies gender norms that differ from my own.

Collared Kingfisher (Todiramphus chloris), Air Hitam Dalam Education Forest, Pulau Pinang, Malaysia. Photo by © Ted Floyd.

Collared Kingfisher (Todiramphus chloris), Air Hitam Dalam Education Forest, Pulau Pinang, Malaysia. Photo by © Ted Floyd.

A brief digression. My ABA colleague Greg Neise joked with me a couple weeks ago that he was counting on me to precipitate some sort of international incident during my time in Southeast Asia. What can I say, Greg? Your wish is my command. Read on.

I got past Immigration and found myself on the airport train. Now you need to know that I’m a “stander.” I prefer not to sit while on public transportation. I like to pace around while eating lunch. I always take phone calls standing up.

The man next to me couldn’t have known those things, so he offered me his seat. It was the same young man who was in front of me at Immigration. He spoke in perfectly idiomatic American English; he was courteous and solicitous to a fault; and he wouldn’t take no for answer. There was no point in protesting, so I sat down—next to his wife.

The train was very crowded. But we made it a point to avoid contact, she and I. Fine with me. Let me tell you, I am so into the concept of the “personal space bubble.” There was also the matter that one interpretation of Islam prohibits women like her from having any physical contact with men like me.

She was loquacious. That much was immediately obvious. I soon discovered that she was also possessed of the sort of “nature” that Shakespeare says unites us. She asked me where I was going, and she said she was going to the same place, which surprised me. I had misunderstood her. She meant she was going “home,” like me, to her own country, a country officially at odds with mine. She asked me about my family, and she implied that she was happy about starting one of her own. And as we got off the train, she said, “I hope you can still enjoy some of your Thanksgiving,” followed by something in Arabic, a blessing perhaps.


I told you that I’ve now ticked frogmouths off the bucket list. Needless to say, a few items remain, and one of them involves Greg Neise. I want to do the Chicago Lakefront Christmas Bird Count (CBC) with Greg and his Chicagoland birding pals. It’s one of the very few CBCs held on Christmas Day.

Look, this coming Christmas will be my 49th, and Christmases are getting to be drearily similar. I need a change of scenery. No, not this year. I burned through my credits with that little Thanksgiving escapade to the other side of the planet. I’m so guilt-ridden, I’m even letting my kids buy a tree this year. (Don’t get me started on Christmas trees; we’ll just say that allowing a tree in the house is a huge concession from a Scrooge like me.) But one of these years, I swear, I’ll make it out there for the Chicago Lakefront CBC.

Part of it is for the birds. The last time I birded with Greg in Chicago in winter, he and his friends found me a Hoary Redpoll, a Snowy Owl, and a small flock of Monk Parakeets—all in sequence like that. The redpoll, then the owl, and then the parakeets, with no intervening starlings or gulls or anything. I’ll never forget that amazing trifecta, and I yearn for more.

Another part of it is for the insanity of it all. I hope it’s minus-two and snowing. I suspect someone will bring a ninety-gallon tub of chum. I’m picturing a tripod or camera or even a birder winding up in Lake Michigan. And I wouldn’t be surprised if I find myself involved somehow in an international incident.

Yet another part—honestly, the biggest part of all—is the promise of kinship and camaraderie, “the true spirit of Christmas,” me and sundry pagans, atheists, Jews, Muslims, and whatnot, the usual suspects on the Chicago Lakefront CBC. I really mean that bit about the Christmas spirit. We who celebrate Christmas say that it is supposed to be about sharing and giving, about acceptance and forbearance, about hope and new life. Those are the virtues I most esteem and the outcomes I most covet in this life.

I want to return to Chicago to reaffirm a powerful lesson from my visit to Malaysia: that one touch of nature makes the whole world kin.

Participants in an NGO workshop discuss ways of engaging local economies in ecotourism. Photo by © Sulaiman Salikan.

Participants in an NGO workshop, Pangkor Island, Malaysia, discuss ways of engaging local economies in ecotourism. The particular focus is on training community members to become professional birding guides. Photo by © Sulaiman Salikan.


The following two tabs change content below.
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)

  • Ken Cross

    Terima kasih Pak Ted. Your article is bagus sekali. Having birded in Malaysia a few times, often with Andrew Sebastian, your article brought back many positive memories. Of the birds, yes, but of the spirit and generosity of Malaysians. A few examples. Being bought fruit by people in markets and refusing to let me pay. A Muslim lady, after giving me directions to a birding site [her with limited english and me with very very limited Malay], unknown to me followed on bicycle with her kids in tow to make sure, as she explained, i was going the right way. On the same day a Malay drink seller, unsolicited, stopped, made me a drink, refused payment, claiming he was my host and me, a guest. Breath taking stuff!

    • Ted Floyd

      Andrew Sebastian is a national treasure, one of the greatest ambassadors for birding I have ever known.

      I have to tell a short story. Within minutes of my arriving at my hotel room, the phone rang. “Sir? You ordered a birding tour?”

      All I could say, dazed and jetlagged, was, “Huh?”

      It was Andrew, ever the prankster, ever generous. Within minutes, we were on the road, seeing such marvelous birds as Blue-tailed Bee-eater, Black-thighed Falconet, Whiskered Treeswift, Gold-whiskered Barbet, Blue-crowned Hanging-Parrot, Dollarbird, Tiger Shrike, and Scarlet-backed Flowerpecker.

      One other thing. I am quite certain that Andrew never, EVER, sleeps.

  • Sulaiman Salikan

    Thanks for the credit Ted..warm rgds from Kuala Lumpur..Cheers..

    • Ted Floyd

      And thanks to you, Sulaiman, for driving me all the way from Pangkor to KL. What Ken Cross was saying about “the spirit and generosity of Malaysians”…

  • Andrew J. Sebastian

    My dear friends! Ted, you are indeed an amazing writer and the angle of your article is amazing. The value that we get when birding is also about the amazing people we have the privilege to meet.. thank you for your insight, a good reminder about why we bird!
    Thank you and appreciate your kind words about me too😅
    Ken, I miss you buddy.. come over and we’ll try for the Cutia if you havent got it already..

  • Amar Ayyash

    This post speaks awesome on so many levels…peace to you, Ted.

  • Patch Davis

    Um, Ted, now I’m kinda disappointed you didn’t get involved in an international incident.
    Does that make me a bad person?

    • Ted Floyd

      I neglected to mention that little episode at the border crossing . . .


American Birding Podcast
Birders know well that the healthiest, most dynamic choruses contain many different voices. The birding community encompasses a wide variety of interests, talents, and convictions. All are welcome.
If you like birding, we want to hear from you.
Read More »

Recent Comments




ABA's FREE Birder's Guide

If you live nearby, or are travelling in the area, come visit the ABA Headquarters in Delaware City.

Beginning this spring we will be having bird walks, heron watches and evening cruises, right from our front porch! Click here to view the full calender, and register for events >>

via email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

  • Announcing the 2017 ABA Young Birders of the Year! February 28, 2017 10:48
    The judges have reviewed all of the outstanding entries. ABA staff has compiled the scores. After much anticipation, we are thrilled to announce the winners of the 2017 ABA Young Birder of the Year Contest! Your 2017 ABA Young Birder of the Year in the 14-18 age group is 18-year-old Johanna Beam from Lyons, Colorado. […]
  • Open Mic: Birding opens up a new appreciation for the Sonoran Desert December 1, 2016 5:02
    In 2014 I was given the opportunity to go birding for the first time as part of a new All About Birds Program. Without previous experience, I decided to take the offer the staff at Ironwood Tree Experience gave me. […]
  • Birding Alaska and an Interview with Dr. Nils Warnock October 25, 2016 6:57
    Did you know the Bar-tailed Godwit has the longest non-stop, flapping flight migration of any bird in the world? Learn more from young birder Dessi Sieburth and Audubon Alaska's Dr. Nils Warnock. […]

Follow ABA on Twitter