Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Birding Is a Front for Something (We Just Don't Know What)

Birders get a bad rap in the public mind. Most people think we're senile, pith-helmeted dorks -- annoying, embarrassing to be seen with, but basically harmless.

Then this article in Slate.com (by Nathan Heller), comes along with its own strange view of what we do. This piece is so peculiar I couldn't help sharing it with the other birders in my life.

Here are some of the salient passages:

"...a bird-watcher's motives can seem puzzling, if not downright suspect. Rising at vampiric hours, these people leave polite society behind to spend long stretches staring not at dazzling vistas or strange beasts but at birds—and often unexotic ones at that. They pack enough high-end equipment and field expertise to undertake a hunt but never touch their prey; the consummating act of birding is, at most, a picture snapped for private use and from a distance, in the manner of a pervert with a beach pass. Birding is the sort of hobby that seems like a front for something."

I'm not clear what kind of mental leap was necessary to go from a fundamental misunderstanding of the pleasures and virtues of birding to an insinuation that birders are a bunch of perverts or worse. I could go on and on about his out-of-hand dismissal of "unexotic" birds -- which, to Heller, probably means anything smaller and less colorful than the Froot Loops toucan. But the bigger point is this: just because the pleasures of someone else's hobby are lost on you doesn't mean that hobby is somehow sketchy or evil. Seriously. If I lived in fear of everyone with a pastime I considered pointless and stupid, I'd never leave the house.

"...there are four species of birder at large in the world. The first and least intimidating group includes those who see bird-watching as an endeavor roughly equivalent to Tuesday-night poker, volunteer gardening, or mah-jongg—an open-access hobby and a chance to connect regularly with friends. These people are frequently novices... a second group, an autonomous cadre of enthusiasts who set their own schedules and often dwell on single bird groups or locales for stretches, like a book critic taking a month to read an author's full oeuvre. Then there are the specialists. These people focus on one kind of bird obsessively and always, often with accompanying Web sites. Fourth are the listers, who chase birds to check them off a list. Some keep life lists (birds they've seen in their lives);* some keep year lists (starting anew every January); and others make up to-do lists by country, state, and so forth (certain New York City listers work by borough). There is, possibly, something compulsive in this approach...."

There's perhaps some truth about the first and fourth categories -- but I don't think I've met anyone in the two middle groups. The only people I've met who systematically bird only one place are biologists who are paid to do so. And if there are serious birders who pursue only one kind of bird to the exclusion of all others, they are rare birds indeed. And many birders I know, myself included, fall into more than one category -- I love birding as a social activity, and I also like keeping lists of my sightings.

And what about the bigger, unspoken, fifth category that almost all birders fall into: people who enjoy birding as an opportunity to commune with nature and be reminded of the fundamentals of how the world works?

To his credit, Heller does actually follow a few birders into the field (he says nothing about whether he enjoyed his search for American Coots or not). But strangely, nowhere in his article does he ask any of them WHY they got into birding what they hope to gain from it, or how birders contribute to society as a whole. Instead, he wastes numerous column inches verbally scratching his head over why we're out there or trying to posit birding as a complicated metaphor for something related to environmental angst in the post-nuclear age.

Dude. If you want to know why we bird... just freaking ask.