On Birding

January 9, 2018

 "Miss Fry plays the flute and joins in the arduous sport of ‘birding’. This consists in following across country any strange species of bird, and of playing the flute beneath the tree on which the melodious songster performs."

- June 1927 Daily News

 

A Brief History of Humans and Birds

 

It cannot be denied that birds hold a mysterious and strange piece of the heart of humanity (see quote above).  Why this attachment to our avian relatives? After all, mammals rule the world now, and the days of ornithological domination are long gone.  Maybe our fascination comes from pure jealousy - everyone wants to fly.  The sight of a bird soaring into the sky, unbounded by gravity or street signs or fences, unburdened by the troubles that we ground-walkers seem so prone to, has inspired awe and envy.  We dream of flight, invent flying machines, even strap ourselves into wingsuits and parachutes trying to feel a fraction of the freedom of a bird, but we must ultimately accept that we are creatures of the earth, not the air.  We are stuck with our feet on the ground and our skin free of feathers, our bones solid and heavy and clumsy, watching our cousins take to the air.

If we can't fly, what's the next best thing?  For eons, humans have been drawing sustenance, artistic and scientific inspiration, and pleasure from the world of birds.  We hunt them, farm them, keep them as pets, include them in paintings and drawings and sculpture and writing, listen to their songs, even collect them. What I'm writing about today, though, is not our complicated relationship with the birds we consume, the inspiration they provide, or even the value and importance of collecting scientific data on bird populations (although it is incredibly valuable and important, kudos to all the bird biologists I know doing great work).  What I'm writing about today is the purely pleasurable act of birding - of stepping quietly, stopping often to listen, and feeling the brief but unforgettable jolt of joy that occurs when a flash of feathers or a beautiful song is found among the woodland branches and meadow grasses, the roadside weeds and urban jungles of the world.

 

What is Birding (And Also, Why)

 

The Oxford English Dictionary defines "birding" as follows:

 

colloq. The activity of bird-watching.

 

By the definition, birding is just watching birds (flute playing is optional).  But ask anyone who calls themselves a birder, and you will quickly find out it's much, much more than that. (As a side note: I'm differentiating between "birding" and "bird photography"; both noble pursuits, and I'm always amazed and impressed by beautiful bird photos, but watching a bird and getting a good picture are quite different activities and I'm writing about the former.) Many birders keep a "life list" of all bird species they've seen in their lives; serious folks have hundreds or thousands of birds on their lists and life lists are often compared among birders, with rare birds or unusual sightings being lauded as impressive achievements. Other birders count how many species they see in a certain time period, such as a year, and across a certain geographical area.  The book and movie The Big Year are both great explorations of this idea and a fantastic look into the world of "hard-core birders" (the movie is totally underrated, it's hilarious). 

 

The what of birding is easy to understand; for people not yet absorbed into the fascinating world of birds, the why is not so simple.  What could anyone possibly get from trying to observe a tiny, feathered animal that really doesn't care if you see it or not?  Birds live, breed, sing, migrate, raise babies, and die all the time, whether or not we look at them.  Some birders don't even set out to see birds - they're content hearing and identifying birdsong without a glimpse of the singer.  To a non-birder, this probably seems crazy, a total waste of time, and boring as heck.  To be honest, asking a birder for an explanation on why they do it won't necessarily clear anything up: they'll probably talk to you for a long time, but it's very hard to grasp the excitement one feels after IDing a new bird or hearing the first breeding-season song after the winter if you haven't experienced it yourself.

In practical terms, it's not very difficult to get started as a birder.  One of the appeals of birding is that it's not exclusive - anyone can do it anywhere.  Sure, you can purchase expensive equipment - spotting scopes, high-powered binoculars - and you can spend a lot of time and money going to birding locations.  But you can just as easily walk through an urban neighbourhood with no gear or money at all, taking note of the birds around you, and have an equally rewarding experience.  Most people are surprised at how many species of bird co-exist with humans in our towns and cities beyond house sparrows and pigeons (interesting birds in their own way): finches, chickadees, nuthatches, gulls, birds of prey, crows, ravens, magpies, cardinals, waterfowl, and shorebirds can all be found in cities if you keep your eyes open. Birding is blind (so to speak) and open to all.

 

But that still doesn't fully answer why people spend hours of their day peering through binoculars into the distance. One explanation I like comes from Kyo Maclear's book Birds Art Lifewhere I learned about the idea of 'spark birds'.  A spark bird is that one special sighting that inspires a person to take up bird watching and to learn more about birds. Maybe it's the bright red flash of a cardinal, so exotic-looking but found in such ordinary places, maybe it's discovering a beautiful intricate song comes from an unassuming little brown bird in a bush, or hearing the incredibly loud and odd call of the pileated woodpecker (when I first heard it as a child I thought it was a monkey in the woods). Many birders can recall this one bird that inspired them, gave them a passion for the avian among us, and led to the strangely addictive world of birding.  Sometimes the "why" of birding is as simple (and as complex) as a single bird.

 

For me personally, I don't remember a particular 'spark bird' so much as a general interest in all creatures that walked, flew, crawled, and swam.  I grew up with an innate and unquenchable fascination with the natural world, so any bird was interesting to me. I was a big collector of facts about wildlife and nature, and had many books featuring birds (later evolving to internet research on birds).  I learned about birds big and small, near and far: harpy eagle, large enough to carry off a monkey, terror of the South American skies; the ruby-throated hummingbird, common visitor to our garden, building minuscule nests out of spider silk and having tiny fierce battles in our backyard; the myriad species of vultures across the world, ugly to us with their bald heads but providers of essential ecosystem cleaning and nutrient redistribution services (worldwide vulture populations have plummeted fast in recent years - check out the Vulture Conservation Foundation for info and to help).  As I got older, I had a casual but consistent interest in birds; I didn't seek them out purposefully, but would always take note of species I saw and look up any I didn't know.  I had friends who studied birds at graduate school, and learned more just by being around them, but it was only in the last few years that I really entered the world of birding, with the encouragement of a friend.  Now I consider myself a true birder: someone who takes their binoculars everywhere, stops the car at the side of the road to jump out and identify a far-away speck on a tree, and leaves the house for the express purpose of looking for birds, and birds alone.

 

Once you get "into" birding, it becomes addictive.  There is an undeniable surge of adrenaline when following the pure, sweet notes of a warbler's song, trying to get a glimpse of the singer.  There's a nice hit of endorphins when observing two grebes building their nest together, the male bringing the female weeds and sticks that she carefully places in just the right spots.  There is a feeling of endless awe watching the epic mating dance of the bald eagle, two giant birds of prey grasping each other's claws and tumbling hundreds of feet through the sky before parting at the last moment before certain death. And then there is a drive to know more about the birds you see, understand what they're doing. In a way, birding is a feedback loop of knowledge: the more you see birds, the more you learn about them, and the more you learn about birds the more you want to see them.

 

Birding is also a bit like detective work and a bit like a brain teaser.  To identify which bird you see or hear, you must not only consider what the bird looks and sounds like, but where you are, at what time of year, in what type of habitat.  Birds don't sing all year round, and many have completely different plumage at different seasons, so a distinct song or breeding plumage aren't necessarily going to supply clues.  Many birds migrate, so they may live in an area for a few months of the year, or just pass through on their way to more appropriate habitat.  And then there are the features of the bird itself - shape and size of the body, shape and size of the wings relative to the body, behaviour and activity (perching on a branch, creeping up the side of a trunk, walking along the shore, gathered in groups or solitary), even the pattern of wing flaps of a flying bird can provide clues to what it is.  It's up to the birder to assemble this puzzle, fitting the pieces into place until the bird is identified.  There's no reward or prize for successful bird ID, other than the satisfaction of figuring something out and of getting a glimpse into the life of a wild thing for a few minutes, but it always seems strangely worth it.  Maybe that's the ultimate "why" of birding - we do it to get a look into another world that exists close to, but not entirely overlapping, with ours.

Conclusion: I Like Birds

 

As an artist, I find inspiration in birds - their beauty, the wide variety of shapes, sizes, colours, and patterns they represent, their relationship with their environment.  They feature prominently not only in my art but in drawings, paintings, sculpture, dance, writing and poetry, photographs and films of people across the world and throughout the ages.  Birds themselves, as well as their eggs and feathers, were collected, and rare feathers continue to be prized.  For a while, wearing entire dead birds on hats was in (dubious) fashion.  Birds are mentioned in the Bible and the Quran, in ancient Egyptian texts and modern-day pop culture ("put a bird on it"). Their songs inspire our songs. Birds seem to strike an artistic chord in many of us, maybe because they're something we all have in common. 

 

As someone who studies biology and ecology, birds are equally inspiring in a different way.  They've evolved so many different ways of living in the world, from the large and flightless ostrich running across the plains of Africa with comical yet effortless speed, to the blackpoll warbler, a bird that weighs as much as a pencil but flies for days without stopping across the Atlantic Ocean multiple times a year. They grow wild, beautiful, and often inconvenient feathers to impress each other, and conduct strange and intricate mating displays.  Some birds hatch from eggs blind and helpless, requiring constant parental care; others can walk, swim, and feed themselves moments after hatching.  Bird exist that eat everything from fish to grass, from seeds to insects to other birds and mammals, from fruit and leaves to nectar.  Birds fly, yes, but they also walk, creep, run, hop, climb, and swim.  Everything from the structure of their bones and feathers and muscles that allow them to fly, to their complex social lives, provides avenues of study for curious ornithologists, amateur and professional alike. 

 

Lastly, birds are inspiring because of how people come together to help them. Although the numbers of many species of birds have shown alarming declines in the last few decades, there are success stories too.  Some peregrine falcon populations in North America were almost completely wiped out by DDT until it was banned in the 1970's; due to captive breeding efforts, populations recovered enough to be removed from the US Endangered Species list. The black or Chatham Island robin from New Zealand was almost extinct, to the extent that there was only one breeding pair left in the early 1980's, but after daring efforts by scientists to foster black robin chicks in the nests of other birds, the population is now at around 250.  In more recent years, bird populations have benefited from programs that use citizen-submitted observations to create distribution maps, track migrations, and look for changes in where species occur.  This means that everyone can be a bird scientist; by watching what comes to your feeder and entering the observations into a platform like eBird you are contributing to a massive long-term research project.  It's not just the hard-core birders who participate; anyone who sees a bird from their window or on their commute can enter that information. These data are used in research to understand the distribution and abundance of species, as well as where and why bird populations are declining, although the culprits are often the same across species: loss and fragmentation of habitat, hitting windows and vehicles, death by pet, climate change.  Human activities are an unfortunate cause of decline for many bird species across the planet, but we are also the ones who, working together, can begin to make the changes required to halt or reverse those losses.  After all, what kind of world would it be without birds?

 

For more information about birds, here are some very helpful resources (and one song to inspire you)

  • Cornell Lab of Ornithology - amazing bird resource.  In addition to conducting research, they publish field guide information about bird species, have a bird ID app (it's called Merlin, check it out), and are great to follow on social media.

  • National Audubon Society - the OG bird organization, started in 1905. They also conduct research, publish online information, and work often with the Cornell Lab. 

  • State of North America's Birds Report Sobering to see so many declines, but also some evidence of successful conservation that resulted in increased populations.  

  • Ducks Unlimited - wetland conservation across Canada, strongly supported by hunting fees and hunters themselves. 

  • I Like Birds by the Eels - this is a song that I enjoy, and it's about birds. You should listen to other Eels songs, they're great.

 

All art in this post is done by me (Lucy) using watercolour and ink.

 

 

 

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website copyright Lucy Poley 2020.