Bird-ing? Here’s to the joys of bird-watching

Spring migration is upon us. Here’s to the unique joys of slow birding.

Among the first lessons new birdwatchers learn has nothing to do with birds and everything to do with the people who watch them. Those who are serious about watching birds call themselves “birders,” eschewing the more generally familiar “bird-watcher” label.

I don’t remember when or how I learned this lesson. Certainly, it wasn’t from my field guide. Sibley uses the two words interchangeably, though he seems to prefer “birding.” Dictionaries, too, don’t much distinguish between the two words. Merriam-Webster defines one term by the other — to “bird-watch” is, simply, to bird.

I suspect I learned of the differences from other birders, whether from those I encountered in the field or those that write about birding online. Just google the distinction and you’ll find blogs, essays, and articles expounding on differences that are undetectable in the dictionary definitions of the two.

So what’s the difference? A New Yorker review of the film adaptation of Denver birder and writer Mark Obmascik’s The Big Year distinguished the two in this way: “Crudely put, bird-watchers look at birds; birders look for them.” Yes, but I think the differences are deeper. Writing last year for National Audubon, Freya McGregor described how she often hears birdwatching defined as a more relaxed, leisurely appreciation, while birding focuses on chasing and listing birds, often in a competitive way. Frequently, birdwatching is considered more amateur, while birding’s regarded as more serious and legitimate.

Many of us think of ourselves as birders, not bird-watchers. We do “watch” birds, but watching as a means to an end — identifying bird species, sometimes as many as possible, the “sport” of birding. 

I don’t want to make too much of this. Many birders are excellent bird-watchers, if we mean the simple act of observing birds to understand them better. Many serious birding outings — whether alone or in groups — have moments of long watching, to enjoy the beauty, behavior, or individuality of the birds we see.

Still, allow me to make the case for the particular joys and passions of bird-watching — watching a bird, the bird, closely. In a few moments, I’ll tell you about a bird that has done that for me this winter.

You’ve heard the saying, “Familiarity breeds contempt.” But between species, familiarity is a prerequisite for understanding. The longer we bird-watchers do our thing — watch a specific bird, species or individual — the more likely we’ll get to see birds do theirs. By watching, we may see, hear, and even feel their way of being in the world. “Feel”? Yes,  I’ve had a flock of Bushtits pass closely enough to feel the breeze of all those tiny wings.

Some watchers of birds attend so closely that they even know individual birds, naming specific ones and picking them out of flocks. I am reminded of author Leonard Dubkin and his daughter Pauline naming pigeons in The Natural History of a Yard — and of the great corvid observers Lyannda Lynn Haupt and Bernd Heinrich doing the same with crows and ravens, respectively. I can’t say I know which are the true resident Spotted Towhees in my yard — the Him and Her of that space — and which of the others this winter are their offspring or visitors. I don’t think I’d know the difference if another Northern Shrike suddenly replaced the one I’ve been watching, off and on this winter, at Willow Spring Open Space in Centennial.

Northern Shrike (Jared Del Rosso)

Even if we can’t yet tell a specific individual, we can still detect a lot. Take that shrike, for instance. I’ve noticed that the famously unafraid “butcherbird” can be as withdrawing as any other songbird. A male American Kestrel steals its perch, and the shrike retreats, calling in protest as it goes. (Birds of the World notes that shrikes on their breeding territory will chase off kestrels. But this young shrike is on winter grounds.) And like the American Tree Sparrows also at Willow Spring this winter, the shrike hid away when a male Northern Harrier, the “gray ghost,” coursed through and then above the shrike’s hunting ground.

Northern Harrier (Jared Del Rosso)

One more thing I’ve learned. This particular shrike seems to favor small rodents over small songbirds. Though my observations are admittedly limited, I’ve only seen it pluck rodents from the grasses and weeds. It seems to ignore numerous flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds that fly over. In one hunting attack in the grasses, the shrike landed next to a small flock of tree sparrows yet seemed to ignore them.

Birds of the World offers no clue to this shrike’s apparent preference for rodents. Maybe there are more voles this year. Maybe it’s the other predators. Or maybe it’s simply this: I haven’t yet watched the shrike enough to see its songbird pursuits.

Maybe that’s the point (it’s certainly one of the pleasures) of bird-watching. It forces us to slow down and notice more about where we’re watching birds and what else is there. Certainly, spending 30-45 minutes in one spot, and returning there frequently means less time in other spots, other habitats — and fewer species per outing. But remaining still, in one small patch, widens our view to other things, doesn’t it?

Things like the mammal tracks, the tufts of fur snagged on thorns of wild plum, scat, rodent trails, wasp and spider burrows — not to mention an uncommon or unexpected bird that may happen along as we watch. And also those fall and winter seedy weeds, wildflowers, shrubs and vines, all food sources to be surveyed to see how birds use them, and how that shapes our future bird-watching and birding visits.

Gradually, slowly, but never completely, the places where we bird-watch snap into sharper focus. I’ve known, in a general way, why I see the shrike, the kestrel, the sparrows, hawks, harriers and coyotes at Willow Spring — food, of course. But the gap between knowing that fact and experiencing it in the birds’ everyday actions is as wide and expansive as the open space itself.

One day, might we begin to list bird-watching experiences, observations, and learnings alongside our birding checklists of species and numbers? Stories may be harder to quantify, and eBird won’t be keeping state-level rankings of bird-watchers with the most of them. But bird-watching encounters are no less meaningful than birding ones.

This essay originally appeared in Denver Field Ornithologist’s newsletter, Lark Bunting.

Featured photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

Review of Elizabeth Cherry’s For the Birds.

I recently read Elizabeth Cherry’s book For the Birds: Protecting Wildlife through the Naturalist Gaze. For me, the book is several things at once.

It is first, and primarily, a book of sociology. Cherry is a sociologist specializing in animal studies at Manhattanville College in upstate New York. She used qualitative methods, such as interviews and observation research on Audubon bird trips, to explore how birders relate to birds and the environment. Cherry and I share an interest in how practices of attention are learned. While the topics we write about are wildly different — I’ve written about the role of attention-management in the denial of problems and Cherry’s written about it among birders! — we use similar frameworks and approaches in our work.

Read as a work of sociology, For the Birds is, as most outings of birdwatching are, a joyous trip through wild spaces and urban parks to see birds. Cherry shows how birders learn to see, identify, think, and talk about birds, usually in the accompany of more experienced others. She demonstrates that, over time, many birders — or at least those involved in the Audubon Society — develop what she calls a “naturalist gaze” that allows them to perceive and assess the quality of local ecosystems.

But as I’m also a birder, I read For the Birds as a description of the activity. Much of what Cherry documents resonated with my experience as a birder and field trip leader. I nodded along as Cherry describes a trip leader describing birds perched at “o’clocks” on a tree. This is a strategy I learned from long-time birders in Denver (e.g., “the nuthatch is at three o’clock on the bare branch on that large tree” or, better yet, “the Plumbeous Vireo is at 9:37 on the bare branch on the century-old cottonwood along the canal”).

As a birder, it also was enriching to understand that my sense of how I became a birder was fairly generalizable. While there may not be one path to becoming a birder, there are certain experiences that many of us go through that enable us to effectively use our binoculars, our cameras, our field guides, each other, and, eventually, our earned knowledge to find, spot or hear, and identify birds.

There was yet one more thing that For the Birds represented to me. As I mentioned, Cherry is based in upstate New York and studied with Audubon Societies in the area. I grew up slightly farther upstate than these groups, near areas where some of the birders who Cherry met would look for birds. I recognized the Black Dirt Region of upstate New York, where downstate birders seek Short-eared Owls. When one birder Cherry spoke to complained of birders trespassing on private property to seek a Gyrfalcon, I had a sense of where this might have been: Blue Chip Farms, not far from where I grew up, where a Gyrfalcon spent much of the winter of 2015. (The timing of the bird seems right for Cherry’s research, and a friend-birder [we need a word for that — “frirder”? “briend?”]) had told me of out-of-town birders and photographers trespassing at the farm to get better photos.)

Sociologists tend to write books that drain the joy from the world. By focusing, specifically, on birders relationship to non-human species, Cherry preserves the joys and passions of birders. Sure, she asks that more birders eat less meat — surely the one thing most birders could do at an individual level to protect habitats for birds. But she carefully documents the ways that birders care for the birds they see, even above their commitments to their list. And she shows how our “naturalist gaze” inspire us to learn more, appreciate more, and understand more about the delicate relationships among ourselves and the non-human species that surround us.

Featured photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

What’s a good bird? Elizabeth Cherry’s “For the Birds”

As a qualitative sociologist who’s also a bird-watcher—or perhaps, more accurately, a bird-watcher who is also a qualitative sociologist—I was thrilled to discover Elizabeth Cherry’s book For the Birds: Protecting Wildlife through the Naturalist Gaze (Routledge, 2019).

Cherry is an associate professor of sociology at Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York, mainly researching and teaching in the areas of culture, theory, and the environment. For the Birds is her second book on animals and society. Her first, Culture and Activism: Animal Rights in France and the United States, was also published by Routledge. Both books have also won distinguished book awards from the Animals & Society Section of the American Sociological Association.

For the Birds is a book I wish I’d written. Cherry participated in birding trips and interviewed birders to understand how we think about and act toward birds and the environment. The book dispels stereotypes about birders as obsessives interested mainly, if not exclusively, in their life lists to show how we learn to care about the birds we encounter and the habitats that sustain them. She describes us developing a “naturalist gaze” through which we observe the dynamic relationships between birds, humans, and urban / suburban habitats.

Two of the chapters in For the Birds address birders’ perceptions and ways of talking about specific species and categories of birds. Given my own interest in how people think about Nightjars and Nighthawks, these chapters are of special interest.

Chapter 3 addresses common birds; Cherry shows that birders are not nearly as indifferent toward the typical birds of yards and parks as we normally think. Rather, we take common birds as indicators of relatively healthy ecosystems, particularly in urban and suburban environments.

Cherry also demonstrates how birding trip leaders try to convey this quality of common birds, helping field trip participants value the numerically common birds. Her writing on this resonated with my own experience, both as a trip participant and trip leader. Field trip leaders may draw attention to common birds, teacher novice birders how to identify them, and share origin stories of those birds’ presence in urban and suburban landscapes.

Learning to see the connections between birds, food sources, water sources, and built environments is critically important in this. Urban and suburban habitats come alive when we can perceive these connections. And birders may develop a commitment to stewardship and conservation, creating backyard and neighborhood landscapes that can sustain these connections. That so many birders become proponents of native plants is an example of this.

Chapter 5, meanwhile, addresses the distinctions birders make between “good” and “bad” birds. The former are, in a sense, birds–in–place: native species in balance with ecosystems. Birders are take into consideration commonness of birds. Uncommon birds and/or those that we only encounter during migration tend to be described as “good” birds during and after our outings in the field. Bad birds tend to be species out of alignment with ecosystems — invasive species and those birders consider “harmful” to other birds. Brown-headed Cowbirds, which lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, are the main example of the latter.

For a while now, I’ve found it curious that birders, myself included, will use phrases like “good bird” and “best bird” when describing their outings. I’ve wanted to analyze posts in birding lists to see which birds us birders apply these terms to. My sense is that uncommon birds — migratory ones and colorful ones, especially — most frequently earn this label. I’ll tend to use the term to apply to some migratory vireos in the Front Range of Colorado — Plumbeous and Cassin’s Vireos, especially, but not the rather common Warbling Vireo.

But Cherry shows that birders also consider the broader, ecological context of bird sightings.

Birders deem birds “good” based on their behavior, including how they fit into an ecosystem and how they exercise agency to provide ecosystem benefits.

Cherry, For the Birds, p. 117-18

A bird like the Common Nighthawk — my favorite bird and almost always the “best” bird on my lists when I see this — fits most of these criteria. It is, most of the year, numerically uncommon (by comparison to common birds). Though not difficult to encounter, it’s not exactly easy to encounter. So sightings, too, are rather infrequent in most urban and suburban settings.

But their behavior, too, draws me in: their crepuscular flights; their singular calls; and their intense, unsteady pursuits of prey. (I’ve written of these in “The Nighthawk’s Trajectory,” for the Center for Humans and Nature.) And then there are Nighthawks relationships to ecosystems: their dependence on flying insects as prey and their use of human habitats for nesting, for instance. This is what Cherry means by “good birds” exercising “agency.”

I also have a tendency of designating every Shrike I see — Loggerheads during spring and fall migration, Northern during winter — as a “good” bird. Like nighthawks and some vireos, they’re uncommon. On most bird outings, I don’t expect to see them. They are also rather “picky” in their exercising of agency. They need particular habitats and food sources. In Denver’s suburbs, they tend to prefer weedy, overgrown areas with lots of insects and mice. This means you’re less likely to encounter them in a backyard than you are even the uncommon vireos. And many suburban parks wouldn’t attract them. Rather, you need wilder portions of suburban habitat.

All of this is to say that Cherry’s sociological analysis of how birders think and talk about common, good, and bad birds resonates with — and, indeed, clarifies — the birder’s experience.

Featured photo by Joshua J. Cotten on Unsplash

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