American Birding Podcast



25 Things That Changed Birding—Recently

About five years ago, I heard Pete Dunne give a talk on “Twenty-five Things That Changed Birding”—rare bird alerts and bird finding guides, commercial air traffic and the U.S. interstate highway system, the internet of course, and so forth.

And just a week or so ago, Laura Kammermeier posted to her Facebook wall a solicitation for ideas about things that have changed birding in just the past five years—that is to say, covering the time span from when I heard Dunne’s talk up to the present.

I’m going to take a stab at it, too. My time frame will be the 21st century. If it happened since the stroke of midnight on January 1st, 2000, then it’s fair game.

Two comments before we get under way:

First, my enumeration will be decidedly personal. Such enumerations inevitably are. So I’ll just come right out and say that these are 25 things which have changed birding for me. At the same time, I’m a member of and a product of the broader birding community; so I hope my personal enumeration will resonate with you at least to some degree.

Second, I’d love to hear from you. What are some of the big ticket items that are missing from my list? How ’bout if we view my personal list as just a starting point in the process of generating a Top 25 that can be said to apply much more broadly to the birding community? Who knows—maybe this exercise will provide the basis for an article or commentary in Birding magazine.

Without further ado:

Facebook-logo 25. Facebook. Did Facebook even exist, five long years ago when Pete Dunne gave that talk? And here’s another question: Is Facebook good for birding? Of course, Facebook has changed birding; but is online social networking good for birding? For some powerfully disturbing perspective, see Rick Wright’s essay, “Birding Alone,” pp. 42–47 in the January/February 2008 Birding.

24. Digital Photography. When I started my job at Birding magazine, not all that long ago in 2002, most photographic submissions were of slides, prints, or scans thereof. Today a submission of a slide or print would be as quaint as a submission of a manuscript on a 5¼-inch diskette—or a birdsong recording on an eight-track cassette.

23. Handheld recorders. They’re smaller than cell phones, and they cost a lot a lot less. I’m a recent convert to this technology, but it’s already radically altered birding for me. I record bird vocalizations, instantly generate sound spectrograms (“sonograms”) thereof, and learn lots of cool stuff about birds’ beautiful songs.

22. Xeno-canto. Imagine a website with the songs and calls—even the alarm notes, juvenile begging, and non-vocal sounds—of all the birds in the world. Guess what? It’s here. Scoot on over to and see for yourself. This remarkable new resource for birders depends on UGC, short for user-generated content. Speaking of which…

21. Wikipedia. In the preface to his latest book, Arctic Autumn, Pete Dunne states that he couldn’t have done it without Wikipedia. True, there are a few infelicities—even some outright crap—on this mother-of-all-UGC resources. But I’m a glass-half-full guy when it comes to Wikipedia: There’re an awful lot of knowledgeable birders out there, and it’s fantastic that so many of them are contributing to Wikipedia.

Books 20. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Everything’s online now, of course, but a few old books are worth hanging onto. The Sibley Guide, published in 2000, is one such book. It remains, quite simply, the greatest field guide of all time.

19. Apps. No need to lug The Sibley Guide around anymore! Just buy the app. I’ll be honest with you: I have not been all that impressed by the first generation of apps. But tech guru Diana Doyle—whose stuff we’ll be seeing a fair bit of in upcoming issues of Birding—has more or less convinced me that the next generation of apps, coming real soon, will profoundly alter birding.

18. Google Earth. When I first heard about this technology, about five years ago, I thought to myself, “Cool. When they get this figured out decades from now, it will turn birdfinding upside-down.” It didn’t take decades. Google Earth has been fully functional for several years now, and birdfinding has perforce been turned on its head.

17. The Big Year. It hasn’t come out yet. But the hype is here. A full-on movie about birding. And this isn’t thoughtful coverage à la NPR or The New York Times. No, this is cornball humor and car chases, profanity and nudity. We birders have hit the big time.

16. Kenn Kaufman. He’s been a famous birder for nearly forty years, long enough to earn him the title of “elder statesman.” But Kenn Kaufman is constantly reinventing birding—with innovative new field guides, bold and sometimes controversial approaches to bird conservation, and creative ideas for preaching the gospel of birding as widely as possible.

15. Gay Birders of North America (GBNA). I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. One of the greatest things about birding is its transcendence. We’re all in this thing together. Our differences are transcended—more than transcended, they are wonderfully obviated—by our shared passion for birds. Check out the GBNA website. Check out this guy’s site, too. Vive la différence!

Sharonheadshot 14. BirdChick. Think of a really famous birder. Then Google that person’s name and the word “birding.” Next, Google “BirdChick + Birding.” Note to purists, traditionalists, and any other holdouts in the Old Boys’ Club: Google doesn’t lie. BirdChick has “arrived.” Birding has changed.

13. Aimophila Adventures. What a concept. Call up some guy (it happened to be Rick Wright, proprietor of Aimophila Adventures), and tell him what you want to see, where you want to go, and how you want to go birding. Surely, Aimophila Adventures—and other outfits like it—will soon come to dominate the bird tour market.

12. SOCs reascendant. SOC stands for State Ornithological Society. Some SOCs, I realize, are on the verge of extinction. But others are flourishing. What does it take for an SOC to succeed in the 21st Century? Four things: (1) programs for young birders; (2) support for bird conservation; (3) internet savvy; and (4) a good ole fashion commitment to having fun together in the field.

11. SORA. The Searchable Ornithological Research Archive, or “SORA” for short, is a wonderful blending of new media and old—really old—media. Go online and read old—really old—papers from the ornithological literature. Back issues of North American Birds, published by the ABA, are in there, along with complete runs of Auk, Condor, and many others.

10. NFC-L. I’m old enough that I still remember the sense of awe when I first experienced BirdChat. Now we have listservs devoted to every aspect of birding—for example, nocturnal flight calls, the sole topic of discussion on the NFC-L list.

9. Flight Calls of Migratory Birds. I suspect I’ve spent more time, this past decade, with this bird “book”—it’s a CD-ROM field guide—than any other. Flight Calls was revolutionary when it came out, in 2002. It remains a brilliant inspiration to all birders who are serious about taking fieldcraft to the next level.

8. The Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Do you remember where you were, when you heard the news on April 28th, 2005? Remember the amazement and elation? And then the gradual letdown? The Ivory-billed Woodpeckernot—has been a bittersweet coming-of-age saga for the modern birding community.

Eurasian_Collared_Dove 7. The Eurasian Collared-Dove. It just hasn’t sunk in, I dare say, for most of us. This was the avian sensation of the ’aughts. We all know of the spectacular and problematic “success” stories of such invasives as the European Starling and House Sparrow. Well, the spread of the Eurasian Collared-Dove has been vastly more impressive. Think about that.

6. Twitter. As I said at the outset, this enumeration is personal. Honestly, I haven’t gotten the hang of Facebook (see #25, above). But Twitter has made a big difference for me. If I want to spread the word about some cool new initiative with Birding or the ABA, I rely on Twitter. It works. I’m impressed. Three years ago, I wouldn’t have believed it. Heck, three years ago, I’d never heard of Twitter.

5. September 11th. I sense it every time I’m in an airport. We’re crankier and more paranoid than we used to be. And I think it’s harmed birding. Birding is, at its very essence, fun and friendly. Birding flourishes best, I believe, in a culture that is open and tolerant, joyous and insouciant. September 11th—or, rather, our reaction to it—has eroded a lot of that.

4. The Bush Administration. Sorry, I won’t tell you in this forum if I was “for” or “against” the eight-year presidency of George W. Bush. Indeed, it could be argued that the revised bylaws of the ABA prohibit me from doing that. But I think the following is simply a matter of historical record: During the Bush years, there were a lot of changes to environmental laws and regulations. And those changes have importantly shaped our experiences as birders.

3. The Darwin sesquicentennial. Did you notice? Darwin’s seismic Origin of Species turned 150 in 2009. Increasingly, birders are coming to terms with the consequences for birding of the Darwinian revolution. An authentic Darwinian approach, if applied to birding, would signal the end of orthodox, 20th-century methods of bird identification—taking down listing in the process.

2. eBird. I started eBirding on January 1st, 2007. As a result of eBird—and something else (see #1, below)—I’ve gone birding every single day since the date of my “conversion.” I think that says it all.

Hannah and Andrew 1. Kids. I used to think of myself as steady-as-she-goes with regard to my commitment to birding. I had never let “real” life—higher education, employment, marriage, what have you—get in the way of birding. And I assumed it would be the same with children. That is to say, I assumed I would keep birding at the same intense level. I was wrong. Ever since the birth of my first child, in 2004, my birding intensity has sharply increased. I go birding far more now than at any other time in my life. My kids and I just got back from our umpteenth multi-day birding excursion of 2011. If you want to go birding more than ever before, have kids!