Who Are The Next “Great” Birders?

Who Are The Next “Great” Birders?

The next era of birding will be ushered in by a new crop of great birders. Who will they be?

I wrote this post a few months ago but chewed on it a while after sharing it with a few friends, birders, and members of the ABA board. After reading so many good opinions on the future of birding lately, most recently Kenn Kaufman’s piece on Inclusiveness, the time is ripe to share my thoughts.

Click HERE for the Spanish Version as translated by the folks at Clandestine Bird Website.

In a January blogpost, I proposed the following:

“Birders and nature enthusiasts: I propose we collaborate on an important mission: spread the accessibility of nature. Make it knowable to someone who hasn’t yet discovered it. Vow to take as many of your uninitiated friends as possible into the out-of-doors this year. Show them what you see and hear, help mend that disconnect…”

This weekend I took a group of beginning birders out to watch birds. They were friends of mine, people with a curiosity of birds but who hadn’t ever received the benefit of a one-on-one introduction to their color and song.

I thoroughly enjoyed that weekend field trip. Besides collectively basking in the brilliance of a Blue-winged Warbler, I was able to give back in a way that so many friends and guides have done for me. And I didn’t have to wear, or pretend to wear, the mantle of “Expert.” I was just K-Lo from the Block, showing her peeps some birds.

Beginning  Birders Have it Tough

I’m sympathetic to beginners, they were me not so long ago – and they still ARE me every time I venture into new habitat. But much of what I know today, I owe to the instruction of patient bird guides over the years. I never take for granted the gracious help offered by someone more knowledgeable than me.

Yet beginning birders—those of us with a thirst for knowledge but a world of birding yet to learn—have it tough. First, we don’t know the possibilities yet–there’s an overwhelming amount of information about birds to absorb and apply but it takes a long time to be confident in what we know.

Second, it takes a long time to earn a sense of our own limitations. Ironically, it often happens that once we DO feel a sense of confidence in something, our assumptions are premature or overreaching, and we make a bad call. The sting of our goof impairs future progress.

Third, beginners just entering the birding scene are told there’s a certain way to do things, from describing field marks, to reporting trip lists, to conducting oneself appropriately on listserves. If we do it wrong, or do it in the wrong place, the error is revealed by awkward silence or direct reproach. While there’s a need for precision and accuracy when it comes to the scientific record, there’s a time and place for it. Rigid protocols in more casual settings (e.g., listserves or birding outings) can have a chilling effect on outsiders who aren’t in the know.

Costs of Birding Exclusivity

Beginners soon sense what really goes on in birding circles: the catty judgment about who knows what more than who. Some segments of birding operate like an exclusive country club where the cost of entry is not piles of cash, but loads of birding cachet. But whom does that leave behind — and what is the cost?

Regrettably, we’ve all seen the enthusiasm of novice birders stamped out by the corrective whoop-di-doo of birding hotshots. We’ve seen dialogue on listserves squelched by those who assert that feeder sightings, backyard raptor kills, and birding trivia has “no place on this list.” We’ve seen legions of birders too afraid to ask questions for fear of being wrong, stupid, clearly “not a REAL birder.”

Yet even if someone can’t identify every warbler in the forest or sandpiper on the shore, they still contribute mightily to the world of birding. The growing field of citizen science—where everyday birders collect bird data and submit it to scientists—is one example. The legions of volunteers who run small nature centers and birding clubs is another. Anyone with the curiosity, passion, and cooperation to get involved should be welcomed, their talents harvested.

Changing of the Guard/Increased Visibility

Around every corner, we hear chatter of declining memberships in birding organizations. The old guard is making way for the new, but the new is nowhere to be found. Birding is as relevant today as it ever was—indeed more so due to the rapid pace of habitat destruction that threatens populations plus all the tools, gadgets, and electronic accoutrements that help us dive deeper into its fascinating minutiae.

This burgeoning public interest is reflected in the media. Newspapers are supporting bird-watching columns in a number of states, best-selling books such as The Big Year by Mark Obmascik and Life List by Olivia Gentile chronicle the birding lives of our most rabid members. As I write, Hollywood crews in Vancouver, BC are filming scenes from a screenplay based on The Big Year, with the birding behavior of our own friends (e.g., Greg Miller, an Ohio birder and character in the book) being “studied” by actors Jack Black and Owen Wilson.

But now that Hollywood and Harcourt are hot on our trail, what are we going to do? Capitalize on the increased visibility, of course!

Become an Ambassador for the Birds

By nurturing the spark of new birders, we create a win-win: either we have new birders coming up the ranks of birding clubs and conservation organizations, or at the very least, we help promote an understanding and appreciation of the natural world–one that will inform a person’s decisions the rest of their life.

To reach this goal, I would like to see each of us make a pact to be an ambassador for the birds—I submit that you do not need an official pulpit or loads of birding cachet to be a great ambassador. Just realize the power that you have to spread the joy of birding, to demonstrate curiosity in the field, and the kindness to bring others into the fold.

Together, we can create a Birder’s Welcome Wagon of epic proportions and refine the hospitality of the sport. A number of small but important efforts will help:

  • We commit to teaching nonbirders about birds. Again, teaching is not only for the “experts,’ any birder can do it. Just take friends into the field and show them what you see and hear. Birds’ beauty speaks for itself, so you’re sure to impress. To reach new birders, link up with your local birding club’s “new birder” trips or organize your own—just do it.
  • We talk to kids about birds. Offer to go into your local school(s), lead a field trip, teach a grandchild, or simply read a short bird book. The awareness you create will have a ripple effect.
  • We offer to write an article for a local paper or website. If you have a gift for words, offer to write a short piece on seasonal migration, local birding hotspots, or anything to engage beginners in the sport.
  • We make an effort to show nonbirders the view through our scopes. If we’re excited by what we see, they might be too.
  • Speaking of floppy hats: We stop dressing like geeks. A number of birders I know lament our choice of field dress as being so geeky as to be unapproachable. Others are on a mission to ban khaki across the sport! I personally love my khaki zip-off pants and multi-pocketed vest, but the idea is this: does anything about your dress make you seem unapproachable in the field? Especially to younger birders who we desperately need to attract?
  • We stop being cliquish. Why do so many serious birders exclusively hang out and bird with other serious birders? Too much exclusivity can hasten one’s irrelevance. We bring others, especially younger birders, into the fold. We talk to others on the boardwalk. We lean over and say “Did you see that?” to someone outside of our circle once in a while.
  • We go out of our way to make new birders feel welcome—in the field, on the phone, in the backyard, on the listserv. We let them know it’s okay to ask questions. Rather than remain quiet, we reach out after they’ve shared something exciting. Most of all, we demonstrate that we relate to their enthusiasm.
  • We curtail the moral melodrama about how humans are wrecking the environment and harming birds. The truth is, many new birders don’t want us to harsh their new-birding mellow. They’ll pick the rest up if they are meant to.
  • We freely admit our own mistakes and gracefully accept those of others. Beginning birders should understand that the truth of an ID is to be held higher than all other truths, even that of a fragile ego, and all birders need to demonstrate gracious self-correction. While I’ve seen many great examples of this in the field, we need to realize that beginners can still be stunted by the perception of quiet, unspoken judgment. So by sharing a story of our own fallibility, we make birding more human, more accessible, and start to change the world.

The Next Great Birders

The next era of birding will be ushered in by a new crop of great birders. Whereas we commonly measure a Great Birder by his or her skills in bird identification and insights into changing bird populations, our assessment should broaden to include “softer” skills such as enthusiasm, approachability, and level of cooperation. Many of us are fortunate to have brushed with such great birders – their imprints last a lifetime.

While scholars will always hold a special place in birding, a broadened definition of “great birder” will help ensure a new generation of recruits is around to carry the baton.

What do YOU think?  What on this list are you already doing, or would you LIKE to do more of, to reach new birders (and deepen your connection to birding)?

In appreciation of Jane Goodall’s “feathers on the eagle” analogy, I’d like to pay special recognition to all my friends and colleagues with whom I’ve discussed these ideas–you know who you are. And I want to say thanks to all the birders who already live by this creed. I’ve met many of you, and you’ve made a huge difference.  Finally, special thanks to the new birders in my life. What a great day of spring birding we had.

Comments ( 218 )

  • Kimberly

    I’m taking the pledge…except for the bit about the vest and hats. I’ve been approached about my attire many times by non-birders, mostly drive-bys shouting out “love those boots!” or similar….but I love my Neos trekkers despite the comments. 😀

    I’m not afraid to make fun of the clothes I choose to wear, and I think if one can laugh about some of the gear, people won’t be afraid to laugh along. It can be a great ice-breaker, if its played correctly.

    Aside from that, great ideas all! I know I would have liked to see these rules in play (again, except the hat thing) when I was more new than I am now. I remember how mortified I was when I tried viewing birds, with my horrible binoculars, at the same spot as a group of experienced birders, all of whom started whispering and laughing when I walked away. I almost dropped the hobby right then and there. I’m so glad I persisted! I’ve met many fine, friendly people since…and have become more determined to become the same for others.

  • Deb

    I love where you’re going with this, Laura.

    (“A new crop of great birders”… Wouldn’t that be a good collective noun for us? A gaggle of geese, a stand of flamingos, a charm of goldfinches, and a CROP of birders… )

  • Liz Gordon

    Nicely stated. All of it…good points.
    I love wearing sparkles in the field…being a woman birder doesn’t mean you have to look like all the men birders. I have often misdressed for birding and suffered due to environmental conditions so I realize some aspects of the uniform are simply functional. But I do like to be pretty in the field. Sometimes the new birders like the uniform…looking the part can be part of feeling the part. It is easier to buy the uniform sometimes than knowing which bird just flew by. So It can be a comfort if one can’t totally id birds to at least feel like they look like they could. Be who you are–make no apologies–live to bird.

  • “Live to bird.” I love it. Your point on FB about some good birders being a bit socially awkward and therefore SEEM unapproachable is true…for many, birding is a solitary pursuit and not a social thing. But to move forward we all need to reach back and pull someone up with us.

    Crop of birders…does have a ring to it, no? The other point I chose to leave out was: can we come up a better name for beginning birder? And strike ‘nonbirder’ from the record? I will gladly do so once a suitable alternative arises!

    Kimberly — humor overcomes all so I’m right with you. I poke fun at my vest all the time.

  • Insightful and valuable. Thanks, Laura. My humble, suggested additions would be:

    Do less harm to habitats. Although we mean well, some birders are myopic in their pursuits. They’ll trample an orchid on the way to a warbler. Let’s recognize – and conserve – the world beyond birds. Let us also recognize that in our pursuits of birds, in our driving and purchasing, we are consumptive of natural resources. So, when we can, let’s also try to curb the consumption.

    Mingle with the locals. On the way to solving our image problem, we can do a better job connecting with local folks, the merchants, the leaders in some of the rural and economically depressed areas where we inevitably chase birds. Be friendly, inquisitive, and attentive to their communities and their notions of us geeky strangers.

  • Soma

    Laura – I am completely with you in this. Have been there (wide eyed beginner birder in a gang of serious ones) and felt the cold reception many times. But I have persisted and have along the way met some extremely wonderful birders who are so knowledgable but yet so humble and encouraging for beginners. In fact I owe my persistence to those serious but encouraging birders.
    They act like parents and friends rolled into one on the field, gently correcting an incorrect ID and pointing to correrct ways of IDing and showing us multitude of colours through their expensive scopes.
    I try to pass it on to uninitiated as well as I received from others but the good birding spirit and desire to connect with nature must be nurtured by all of us.

  • I do lots of birding in urban settings, including eBird monitoring in an urban park on the west side of Chicago and a densely-populated suburb (Oak Park).
    Even though I wear a floppy hat and khaki shorts, I have people stop and talk with me all the time, either to ask me what I’ve seen or to tell me stories about their experiences with birds. Maybe it’s because I always smile and say “Hi!” to everyone, even dog walkers and joggers and people on their way to work (and give a little wave to folks with earbuds). I also post frequently about my neighborhood sightings on Facebook, mostly for my “semi-birding” friends and relatives. These folks pay at least a little attention to the birds around them as they run or garden or eat breakfast — and when given an opening, they tell their bird stories on Facebook, too.
    In the urban park, I’ve found that most the people who watch birds carry fishing poles or golf clubs, not binoculars. Again they are “semi-birders” at most, and they mostly want to talk about the the “cranes” they see beside the lagoon (Great Blue Herons) and hawks that soar over the golf course. I usually try to mention at least one or two other species they might look for, but I mostly just express my appreciation for the birds they have already seen.
    I guess my real point is that most of these folks will never become “real” birders, but that’s OK with me. I just want to help them enjoy the birds they see, and maybe pay attention to and appreciate a few additional species that live or visit in the neighborhood.
    That’s enough to make their world, and mine, a better place.

  • Great post Laura, truths that apply on this side of the pond as well as your own. We’re currently pondering how to increase membership and be more inclusive at our county bird club and you’ve provided timely food for thought.

  • “Be friendly, inquisitive, and attentive to their communities and their notions of us geeky strangers.”

    “That’s enough to make their world, and mine, a better place.”


    ” In fact I owe my persistence to those serious but encouraging birders.”

    Thanks for your good thoughts. In these days of struggling leadership and loose memberships in birding organizations, I want to stress that we can all do something small to bring others into the fold…even if we are not natural born leaders or experts in the field.

  • Paula

    What great ideas! Thanks to all for sharing them.

    I suggest taking an extra field guide to give to someone. (On a recent trip to Mexico I took 4 copies of the Kaufman Guía de Campo a las Aves de Norteamérica as presents. They were a such a big hit that I wish I’d brought twice as many.) Recycling lightly used field guides to family, friends and young birders is another suggestion.

  • Nicely done. I come from a captive wildlife background and live near the shores of a lake in the mountains in the Pacific Flyway.

    I am always amazed at what I take for granted–just look at the frenzy over Molly the barn owl.

    People want to learn, want to watch and connect.

    So, if you are serious about starting a “new flock” I have an opportunity.

    My local blog for the town needs some guest posters and wildlife and birds are a great interest.

    Please check out the link attached to my name and if you are interested–just drop a line.

    I’d love to see a few posts every month just on birds–or how to start birding in the mountains at your second home or on your vacation!

  • Thank you for saying what I often feel, but saying it SO much better! I am, with your permission, referring to this blogpost on my blog.

  • Wonderful post Laura. I admit not enough involvement with local groups, due to time constraints, but feel charged to become more involved now. I have had wonderful experiences with experienced birders helping me out, and try to pass that forward to others , trying to get friends and colleagues to come out birding.


  • This is wonderful post Laura…!! I wish if I could be out there watching those wonderful beings..!!

    That we address them just as “Birds”.

    Indeed they are much more than what we believe & think they are…!!

    What more they have Natural “WINGS”

    That we the so called human beings cannot even dream to have..!!

  • Jan Allen

    I’m a volunteer at Acadia National Park. I give a children’s loon program, which the parents seem to enjoy too. And, on the 22nd we start Hawkwatch on the top of Cadillac Mt. We reach a wide variety of people, from 9-2 every day. Our goal is not just to count hawks, but to talk with people about them. Peregrine Watch, which we just completed, reached anywhere from 200-500 people a day, and was the most fun I’ve had in a national park!

  • Thanks, all, for going out of your way to comment.

    I vow to use Paula’s idea about taking a Spanish guide down with me on my next Central/South American trip.

    Vittal and Deepa, welcome and I am glad this resonated.

    Jan, I applaud what you do and it’s a nice hat tip to all the fantastic environmental educators out there who do this for fun or for a living.

    Ark Lady, afraid I am overbooked, but there are many wonderful nature writers on NatureBlogNetwork.com. Perhaps you could find someone that knows the Pacific areas well?

    I have to add this note that BirdChick wrote on my Facebook: “One of the things that I have found so refreshing about beekeeping in contrast to birding is that the more mistakes you make with your hive, the more are embraced by your fellow beekeepers. In beekeeping if you accidentally kill your queen by doing something foolish, others will pat you on the back and say, ‘It’s okay, that happened to me, here’s the number of a good queen dealer, let me know if I can loan you larvae.'”

    How illustrative.

  • Hi Laura,

    I loved your post. I would like to add one thing in, at the risk of playing devil’s advocate, but as someone who enjoys birding on many “levels” (for lack of a better term): when entering into something as varied as birding, posting to listserves actually should be approached carefully. I say this as a perpetual beginner, a firm believer in making mistakes, in not knowing the answers, and in constantly trying to learn more. I think it is as equally important to do some homework as a beginner as it is to respond politely on the part of those who are more experienced: if a forum is geared towards brief reports of unusual sightings, then it follows that a lengthy description of a common feeder sighting is not completely appropriate for that forum. It is not that it is unimportant or unworthy, it is just not on topic. I have witnessed overly snarky responses on listserves, but I have also seen decidedly insensitive (often repeated) posts by beginners.

    When I was starting out, I was especially careful to seek out learning experiences by researching as much as possible on my own time. In return, I have, for the most part, found experienced birders to be incredibly welcoming.

  • Catherine (BirdSpot),
    I love Devil’s Advocates. Too much agreement gets us nowhere.

    “I think it is as equally important to do some homework as a beginner as it is to respond politely on the part of those who are more experienced.”

    You are right, and this hits on the cultural side of birding, the set behavioral expectations. If beginners post very general questions when it is clear they attempted no research of their own, it rankles the long-timers, and rightfully so. I’ve been on both sides of this. Consideration and respect goes both ways.

    I think that listserves are an entry point for many people who are new to birding, so the more welcoming we can be to lay out the ground rules and welcome their enthusiasm, the better. And gentle guidance on the rules and etiquette of birding should be accepted gracefully by newcomers.

  • Umesh

    I have heard it said that a weakness is simply an insufficiently developed strength.

    Similarly, maybe a non-birder is simply “not-yet-a-birder”? Or “soon-to-be-a-birder”?

  • Love your post Laura. I think there is a very big potential for new birders in a near future. The key reason is the digital revolution and social media. All of a sudden it is not only the “not-yet-birders” coming up to you telling you they saw a strange bird and give you a description that fits with about 30 birds – now they post a picture on their facebook. All of a sudden anything photographed can be id:ed and no need to worry about wasting film. The point and shoot cameras make a lot of people birdwatchers – without knowing they are becoming one. It is a good time for recruitment. But we need to think in new ways, and that is why your post is so important, Laura.
    Another way to reach out, is to help non-birders that post birds on Facebook and Flikr and offer ID:s to all those nameless birds.
    I have recently taken up Dawn Fine’s idea to do some birding meet-ups here in Lima. On the first one we went to Pantanos de Villa – a wetland slightly south of Lima. It was greatly appreciated. I photographed a for me new Peru bird on this excursion – a Wilson’s Plover. I shared the photo on the local birding Peru list – and an Argentinian Shorebird expert pointed out that it was the nominate race…a first for Peru. Noone else could re-locate the bird afterwards. Had I not taken out beginner birders it would have been missed. Had I not shared the photo I would have lived in oblivion of the new taxa for Peru. We all learn everyday when birding – and the digital revolution and social media help us on the way.

  • Gunnar,
    I agree…and you’re right on target that the digital revolution serves up dozens (hundreds, thousands?) of niche avenues for people to learn what they want in a manner that uniquely resonates with them: photos, blogs, ornithology sites, social media, etc.

    The Wilson’s Plover story is a great example of the power of the Interwebs!

  • Superbly written!! I think it is our duty as birders (of any level) to recruit and promote birding to everyone we come in contact with.

    Some of the most fascinating stories I hear are from coworkers who passionately share their backyard (and beyond) sightings with me.

    And every year I make it a goal to fully attract at least one new person into the birding world.

    (We also need to use The Big Year movie to our collective advantage to increase “birding awareness”.)

  • Yes, we do need to become ambassadors for birds and I send you some serious kudos from Costa Rica for convincing your non-birding friends to go birding! I fully agree that we should all strive to show birds to non-birders or at least encourage them to get up off the couch, turn off the computer, and simply go outside and experience nature.

    I like your point about maybe not dressing as geeky. Birders need to realize that they can wear whatever they want when out in the field and it’s good for non-birders to see that you don’t need a “uniform” to go birding. The craze for khaki, floppy hats, and vests is a rather recent phenomenon in the birding and travel community and that’s cool but I wonder if it makes new birders or non-birders feel excluded or like they need to buy a bunch of lightweight, dull colored clothing just to watch birds?

  • As a newbie birder, I find this post to be very refreshing and comforting. I gained a passion for birdwatching while in Costa Rica and have carried that over here. The problem is that I can identify more Costa Rican birds than birds of the Eastern US! I wish I could gain that knowledge, but find birding groups to be too cliquish and often too pricy. It is very intimidating.


    • Great to hear from a “newbie.” Your comment is a good reminder of the stumbling blocks encountered by new birders.

      Once you have the ‘birding bug,’ you can become as proficient as you want to be with time and effort — which has the added value of requiring you to be outdoors in fabulously birdy settings. But it’s not a race, so take your own sweet time. Look at every bird…

      Also, know that most birders are willing to help you along with advice on locations and identification, so don’t be shy to ask. You can find them at beginning bird walks, birding festivals, and local nature centers. There are also many social webs of birders that have formed on the Internet…blogs, Facebook, Twitter, eBird, etc.

      I wonder: As a newbie, what do you need MOST to help you enjoy birding?

  • I certainly have the bug, but what I fail to have is the time to invest. Being a college student studying bioengineering and environmental studies with other interests like jazz trumpet, climbing, linguistics, and hiking, make it difficult to put too much time into it. I find myself being very stretched. Perhaps I will not gain proficiency because I am not focused enough? Have you found that to be common/true?

    Another problem is that at my school: SUNY Binghamton, there is no Audubon or birding group or organization that I know of, so I can’t learn from those who are more experienced than me, as there is no setup to facilitate that.

    As a newb, a mentor or teacher program would help me the most. I like to read my Sibley’s Guide, but there is nothing like being out in the field who knows the birds of the area to help you learn how to identify and spot birds.

  • Laura, I solute you. I think you have brilliantly expressed what so many of us feel in our hearts.

    Everyone who enjoys bird watching began their hobby, sport, passion, profession or obsession for birding somewhere, at some age, and advanced their knowledge and skills from that point to where they are now.

    You are so very right that “birding is as relevant today as it ever was—indeed more so due to the rapid pace of habitat destruction that threatens populations.” Not only bird populations but other species as well.

    If we don’t turn on the kids (and adults) of today to nature and all that is around them, I feel that we will be lost.

    Your bullet points are right on. We need to coach and mentor others as well as making them feel welcome, whether in the field or in a meeting.

    This post was so important and timely to me, that I wrote a post on my blog titled “what makes you a good birder” simply to send my readers that may not know you, here, to read this post.

    Thank you for your insight and honesty. I hope your ideas, especially those bullet points, get spread all over birderdom!

  • ScienceGuy: I agree, mentoring is a great way to learn birds…

    You’re already a keen observer, so in time you’ll build the skills. In the absence of field time, surround yourself with information on the Internet or magazines. Troll your local birding listserv (http://birdingonthe.net/mailinglists/CAYU.html) to become familiar with locations and bird names and patterns.

    If there’s anyway you could take the Spring Field Ornithology course through Cornell you’d love it! Make visits to Cornell Lab of O occasionally. Try to meet a few good birders and invite yourself on a trip.

    Subscribe to a birding magazine or join the American Birding Association just to observe for now and when you have more time you’ll be that much ahead of the game.

    Also, are you still under 19 by any chance? The NY Federation of Bird Clubs has a young birder program that provides mentoring. http://www.nybirds.org/ProjNYSYBC.htm

    Keep it up no matter what. And good luck.

  • Larry (Soaring falcon)

    So pleased to hear this resonated with you. Mentoring, mentoring, mentoring seems to be the evolving theme. And thank you for spreading these ideas through your own blog. Doing so helps build that “Birder’s Welcome Wagon of epic proportions!” Cheers!

  • Blessan

    I always had this remorse of not being able to “identify all the warblers in the forest or all the sandpipers….” even though being in the field for some time.your post is a thumbs up for me to go ahead.. The assurance that a great birder is beyond the skills in bird identification will help me for sure. Thanks!

  • Ann Yeend Weinrich

    Laura: Your suggested list of things birders can do to improve our Ambassadorship in the Bird World and to start the Birding Welcome Wagon was inspirational! I write a monthly bird column for the Palm Beach Post, have led field trips for years, taught birding classes, and tomorrow will be helping my husband take some of his high school “birding club” to a local park. But you have inspired me to do more. I recently received an email from a woman who enjoys my column but hoped she would someday be a better birder. So there are folks out there who are looking for help and I think I’ll start running a “how to id birds” section of my column. Thanks for the ideas!
    Ann Weinrich
    Lake Worth, FL

  • John Rumm


    I’m late in running across your thought-provoking column, but really appreciated the sentiments you expressed in it. They apply, or at least should apply, equally not only to beginners, but also to those of us longtime birders who, like me, are concerned that the emphasis placed on identification and list-building detracts from the joy and wonder that observing even “ordinary” birds can yield. I elaborated on this in an article I wrote some months ago for the local Audubon chapter of which I’m vice-president, and am taking the liberty of appending it below.

    Many thanks again for your sentiments!


    John C. Rumm
    Cody, Wyoming

    Slow Birding: Shifting Your Approach from “What Is It?” to “What Is It?”

    It’s been getting blustery of late, with trees swaying, leaves swirling and temperatures dropping. Days like these, when autumn seems ready to give way to winter, are tailor-made for settling down in a comfortable chair, putting your feet up, and watching the birds outside your window. Lately I’ve been doing just that, and I find myself paying special attention to House Sparrows. They’ve been flocking to our yard in large groups and foraging on the ground, picking up grass and hay seeds, bits of dirt or gravel, or whatever else suits their fancy. And, on several occasions, I’ve noticed some engaging in peculiar behavior. These sparrows—males, all of them—light on the top rail of the fence surrounding our horse corral, sit for a moment, and then suddenly “corkscrew” themselves into the air, rising about four feet and then spiraling back down to the rail. It’s like nothing I’ve ever noticed them do before. I’m eager to learn more about their behavior. Is it some sort of display? Are they marking their territory? Are they alerting other sparrows to the presence of something tasty? What is it they’re doing? I don’t know—but I’m curious enough that I want to spend more time observing them.

    Exploring the forests and fields of Trail Wood, their farm in Hampton, Connecticut, the naturalist-writer Edwin Way Teale and his wife Nellie delighted in finding species they’d never encountered before. “Whenever we discover a new [one],” Teale wrote, “our first question is: ‘WHAT is it?’ But always there is a second question, or rather the same question with a different emphasis: ‘What IS it?’ And that is a more difficult question to answer. It encompasses the abilities, the habits, the life story of the individual. That answer usually entails patient and prolonged study in the field” (A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm [1974], pp. 18-19).

    As Teale noted, that second question requires a shift in emphasis, from “what” to “is.” But more than that, it also entails a shift in approach—from identification to observation, from recognition to understanding. Adopting this different approach can transform how we experience the world around us.

    Here is how a day-long birding outing typically happens: You get up before the crack of dawn, wolf down a quick breakfast, grab your binoculars or spotting scope, a field guide or two, perhaps a notebook and/or a camera, lunch or some snacks, a thermos of coffee or some water, and rush out the door. Reaching your destination, you start looking and listening, hoping to find birds you’ve never seen before so that you can check them off your life-list. If everything works out well and you have a really great day, adding lots of species to your list, it’s liable to be one of those experiences you’ll treasure. On the other hand, if all you wind up seeing are the same old birds you’ve seen countless times before, your experience may seem tedious, even boring—one of those dreaded “slow” birding days.

    No one, it seems, wants “slow” birding days, the days when you see only the commonplace or the familiar. If birding is a game, a spectator sport, the worst that can happen is to invest in the effort to see new birds, yet come up empty.

    In The Feather Quest, his account of the year he and his wife Linda spent birding across North America, Pete Dunne describes how, as birders hone their skills through experience, they find it “unnecessary to puzzle over common, everyday birds,” preferring instead to tackle increasingly difficult identification challenges. “There is a price, of course,” he writes, explaining that “as skills grow, the sense of wonder that supports beginning birders diminishes. What replaces it is discovery. Wonder is something a child can hold in its hand, a feather or a bird fallen from the nest. Discovery is a prize garnered by ambition and skill. It is not as great as wonder. But it is very close, and it is also very addictive. Once a birder has a taste for it, there is only one thing that can satisfy the craving, and that is more ” (p. 41).

    “Slow” birding days fail to satisfy that itch, that craving, which drives hardcore birders farther afield in search of new birds for their lists.

    Yet with all due respect to Mr. Dunne, whose writings I otherwise admire, I’d argue that we birders can’t, and shouldn’t, be so cavalier about losing that childlike sense of wonder. Keeping it alive requires that shift in emphasis of which Teale wrote—from “WHAT is it” to “what IS it.” Whereas birding involves disaggregating birds—quickly differentiating or identifying species through their distinctive, diagnostic field-marks—this alternate approach is holistic, based on observing the whole bird in relation to its environment over an extended period of time. And, instead of seeking new birds to check off on your life-list, this approach is aimed at seeking to better understand those “common, everyday birds” you encounter all the time—like House Sparrows, for instance.

    Think of it, in short, as “slow birding.”

    A philosophical approach, slow birding is to observing birds what the “slow food movement” is to eating. As defined by the movement’s founder, the Italian gastronomist Carlo Petrini, “slow food means giving the act of nourishing oneself the importance it deserves, learning to take pleasure in the diversity of recipes and flavors, recognizing the variety of places where food is produced and the people who produce it, and respecting the rhythm of the seasons and of human gatherings” (Petrini, Slow Food: The Case for Taste [2004], p. xvii). Similarly, slow birding means deriving pleasure from the act—and art—of watching birds, delighting in the diversity of their forms, colors, sounds and behaviors, recognizing the variety of habitats they occupy, and respecting how they interact with the changing rhythms of the seasons, and with other birds.

    Like slow food, slow birding focuses on the local—the birds in your backyard, neighborhood, or nearby wild area. You can even engage in it, as I have been doing, from inside your own home. It is leisurely and unhurried, with time in the act of observing birds being passed rather than spent. Simply put, as unobtrusively as possible, and with a minimal investment of effort, the “slow birder” observes the life of a single species of bird—its comings and goings, its behavior patterns, its foraging and feeding, its changes in plumage, its courtship and mating, its nest-building and egg-laying, its parenting, its marking of territory, its defense against predators. And, in observing, the “slow birder” not only sees and listens, but also asks questions—looking at the birds around him or her with the wide eyes, and wondering curiosity, of a child. Where is it right now? What is it doing? How and why is it doing that? How long has it been doing it? What was it doing before it started doing what it is doing now? Is it alone? What is it doing in relation to other birds, either of its own kind or other species? What is the weather like now, and how might it be affecting what the bird is doing?

    “I think the value of the game of identification,” Rachel Carson eloquently wrote in The Sense of Wonder, “depends on how you play it. If it becomes an end in itself, I count it of little use. It is possible to compile extensive lists of creatures seen and identified without ever once having caught a breath-taking glimpse of the wonder of life. If a child asked me a question that suggested even a faint awareness of the mystery behind the arrival of a migrant sandpiper on the beach of an August morning, I would be far more pleased than by the mere fact that he knew it was a sandpiper and not a plover” (p. 83).

    Deliberate, purposeful and patient, slow birding is a way to recapture that sense of wonder.

    Peter Dunne may well be right that once a birder has acquired the taste for field identification, only “more” will satisfy it. More than a taste, however, slow birding offers the observer something to be savored and fully appreciated—a feast for the mind.

    So, on one of those bracing fall or winter days, find yourself a comfortable chair, kick back, look out your window, and spend some quality time slow birding.

    But watch out—you may find yourself getting hooked on it!

    • John,
      Thank you so much for writing and sharing your Slow Birding article. Indeed, the fast, cut-throat pace of an intense weekend of birding in new habitat is thrilling, but can leave one rich in bird sightings but short on fulfillment. It’s good to stop and let the setting, sounds, and bird behaviors sink in and become as much a part of the experience as the list.

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