The title means exactly what the words say: naked lunch, a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork… William S. Burroughs on Naked Lunch
I am more curious about what is at the end of every birder’s arm. What do we hoist, perch, lift, finagle, finger, and thumb to identify birds? We invest mightily in accoutrements such as binoculars, scopes, recorders, cameras, and field guides. How often do we use them? For every hour of birding how many minutes are we actually spying through those $2000 glasses? Leica promises that their binoculars offer “breathtaking images all day, any day.” Do we really screw these tubes to our eyes “all day, any day?”
My “Naked Hunch” is no. The survey that I recently posted investigated this suspicion. The results are in.
The Naked Hunch received 143 responses from 28 states and the District of Columbia. New York and Texas sent in the most. I also received surveys from four foreign countries: Canada, Dominican Republic, Denmark, and Costa Rica.
Participants reported an average of 19 hours weekly watching birds. I filtered out the zeros (if you are not watching birds, why are you responding?). Responses ranged from 1 to 136 hours.
Of that 19-hour average, respondents are without optics or field guide around 45% of the time. They have access to optics yet no field guide a similar percentage (45%). They bird with both (field guide and optics) only 10% of the time.
Combined our respondents spend around 55% of their birding time with optics. Of this optically-enhanced period, however, they spend only a third (32%) actually looking through these optics. In other words, our birders actually use their binoculars around 17% of the time they bird.
Let me make an assumption. These respondents are relatively active, committed birders. Given this forum, I doubt that Ma and Pa with their backyard feeders responded to the survey. This is a survey of birders. Proof? Our sample reported the ability to identify an average of 243 species without optics or field guide (the range is 0 to 2000, the median is 150). This is the hard core.
Thumb through your most recent Birding magazine. Most of the articles and ads are focused on this 17% of our birding time. We assume that people can find, detect, locate, and uncover birds, and devote our attention to the final act of identification. Yes, there are services advertised that address the 83%. Tours and tour leaders handle preparation (lodging, meals, transportation), finding, and identification. Most reduce the act of birding to look, see, and tick.
The process of birding, the act itself, has distinct phases. Preparation, detection, and identification demand different skill sets and resources. Birding addresses the first and last well enough. I scanned the 10,000 Birds blog this morning. Articles included "Essentials for Packing When Birding Anywhere in the World" and the "Pied-billed Grebe from Every Angle." Yes, we cover preparation and identification well.
For the most part we ignore finding, the actual act of detecting a bird. Birders purchase books, tapes, CDs, web resources, and optics to prepare for birding and to identify birds. We publish tomes dedicated to tail feather patterns in the Dendroica (or whatever the hell it’s called now). At every turn there is a new field guide. What’s available for finding or detecting, that critical act of uncovering a bird? How much time do we invest in developing these skills?
Birds are ubiquitous, spread throughout the earth’s habitats and ecological zones. This distribution is not random. We know that shorebirds like shores, and land birds like land. But within these gross delineations there is a fine partitioning of space and resources. To find birds, we must work at their scale.
Subtle, almost undetectable clues mark their presence. What is obscure to us is obvious to them. A quick flick of the tail, a whispered call note; that which is inconspicuous to us may be blatant to a bird.
For 83% of the time we are reduced to their level. We use our blessed panoramic vision to watch for motion: a quick flick here, a restrained bob there. We listen for the thinnest of chips and cheeps, the sound of birds advertising their presence.
For 83% of the time no optic or field guide aids us. Of course we depend on these tools for the final act of identification, the coup de grace, in instances when bare-naked birding isn’t sufficient. But what is the return on the investment in a new field guide or a new pair of binoculars? Fractional? Marginal? Negligible?
Is a new field guide that much better than the old ones? How many species will the new guide aid us with over the course of a year? To what degree do the $2000 binoculars actually help us find and identify new birds? As Ken Rosenberg wrote, “today’s mid-priced binoculars in many cases seem better than the top-of-the-line models of a decade ago.” This is not to say that the newest models do not deliver a remarkable image. But to what degree do they make us better birders as opposed to better gearheads?
To become a better birder, to become more effective at finding birds to identify with these close-focused, waterproofed, multi-coated, space age wonders, where better to invest than in the 83% of the time we spend watching birds without them? No field guide will find birds for us. No pair of binoculars will help us notice the winter wren rustling the leaves in the thicket along the stream, or alert us to the Nelson’s sharp-tailed sparrow poking through the smooth cordgrass. Knowing sounds, motions, behaviors, seasons, habitats, shapes, and relative sizes are all finding skills that can be learned and honed. Bare-naked birding is more feel and intuition than gear. When is the last time that you felt the presence of a bird?
I began this particular thread with an article in Birding in 2007. Bare-naked birding has evolved in this brief interlude, and its value has only been enhanced with this evolution. If we spend most of our birding time naked and unadorned, and if the general public is perpetually in a state of undress, why not invest our limited time and resources in developing skills that do not depend on the accoutrements? Why not learn to find, detect, and notice as well as to identify? Why not learn to sense their presence?