American Birding Podcast



Do they get it?

BigyearexpertopinionI was recently interviewed as an “expert” by Boxoffice Magazine, for an article they do about new movies called “Expert Opinion”. It was a fun interview, and I think the resulting piece captures most of what I wanted to say about the movie (and, they ran my mug alongside Steve Martin … good work, if you can get it).

There have been a lot of articles recently (movie reviews mostly) on the interwebs and in the newspapers, about birding. Or bird-watching … or whatever.

As Rick Wright puts it, “For now, though, what I’m finding fascinating is the rare opportunity to look at birding from the outside, as critics and reviewers explain the phenomenon to their non-birding readers.”

So, how do we look? Rick scoops up a few examples:

Bird-watching seems like a harmless hobby, and I’ve penciled it into the calendar for my golden years. – Joe Williams

For most of the general population the only thing more boring than birding itself is watching other people do it. - Robert Levin

Bird-watching — or birding, as practitioners prefer to call it — makes for a stupefyingly boring movie. – Rene Rodriguez

Aside from an international staring contest and the World Series of Texting, there aren’t many challenges less suited for a movie than competitive bird watching. – Matt Pais

An asinine sort-of sport. – Dustin Putman

…you get the idea. I got an idea, too. They don’t get it.

Even someone who should get it, like Jonathan Rosen (in the New Yorker), doesn’t seem to get it. He invokes Freud to help us understand “Our tormented relationship to the natural world—the world that produced us and from which we are estranged.”

Tangent: I found myself watching television this week. I never watch the teevee, but I was trapped with my wife and her mother. While flipping channels, my mother in-law stopped at a show that she “just loved!” The program was American Pickers. It follows these two guys who travel the backroads of America searching for junk. But not just junk … good junk. Great junk. These guys know their junk.

In one segment, one of them is poking through a barn piled with 45 years worth of some farmer’s hoarding habit. He glances into a mound of unidentifiable metal parts and stops, whipping out a flashlight. Inside the pile, he identified the handlebar of a 1925 Harley-Davidson. He pulls it out (it turns out to be an almost complete frame), and begins haggling with the farmer. He gets this rusted piece of junk for $250. Then a scorecard pops up on the screen: H-D frame. Paid: $250. Value: $400. Profit: $150. 

Tick! These guys are birding for junk! Put me and my buddy Jeff in there, driving the backroads of Illinois looking for birds … keep a running score of what we see … and you have the same show. And people love it.

Okay, back to where I was. Here’s what people who don’t bird, don’t get about birding: it’s about skill. It’s about learning, and sharpening your skills. Rosen says, “Birding is like competitive meditation.” He couldn’t be more wrong. 

He even goes so far as saying, “They don’t even have to see them—hearing their call is enough” to illustrate how cheap he believes the birding experience to be. Does he have any idea how hard that is? How personally satisfying it is to be able to do that?

I use golf as an analogy for birding a lot. It has a lot in common with birding: it’s based on the honor system. You can participate at any level you choose … by yourself, as a team, just for kicks, or competitively. But what hooks people on golfing is that as you do it more, you get to a point where you want to do it better. You practice, you study, you buy better equipment, you travel to more difficult or more interesting golf courses. You get hooked.

For those of us who get it, I’ve just described birding. It’s about improving your skill. Setting the bar higher. Finding bigger challenges.

Rosen makes a distinction—between “birder” and ‘bird-watcher”—where none really exists. When I started at this nearly 40 years ago, I might have looked over a mudflat and seen a flock of Avocets, some Semipalmated and Least Sandpipers, a few Yellowlegs and a couple Pectoral Sandpipers. 

Now, I look at the same flat and see Avocets, a Hudsonian Godwit, Semipalmated, Least, White-rumped, Baird’s, Pectoral and Western Sandpipers. Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Stilt Sandpiper, a few Dunlin, and way in the back, in the grass, a Buff-breasted Sandpiper.

“Birder” is just what we tend to call ourselves as we get better at it. But, I know birders who call themselves bird-watchers and bird-watchers that refer to what they do as birding. There’s really no difference between the two, and there’s nothing wrong with making the distinction … as long as you realize that it doesn’t matter, and you’re enjoying yourself. Got that?

And that’s the other thing that they just don’t get: both are having fun. So while the critics, pundits and philosophers are musing on our voyeuristic quest for balance, I’ll be out hunting for birds and having a blast. Hope to see you in the field.