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March 20, 2014

Birder admits he confuses non-birding world

Cooperstown Crier

---- — I often run into people who ask me what it is about watching and studying birds that birders like me find so appealing. 

I believe that I have come up with plausible answers. I always come away from those conversations convinced that I have been unconvincing. The fact is it is difficult, probably impossible, to convey to someone else the sense of excitement and pleasure that one experiences doing whatever it is that one does more or less obsessively. I admit that if I were a non-birder observing crowds of birders lined up two or three abreast scanning the horizon weighted down with expensive optical gear, I too would question their sanity. I would also assume that some of them must be well heeled or in hock since good spotting scopes and cameras are savings-account breakers. There is no accounting for the lengths people will go to fuel their obsessions. My resources preclude such expenditures. And I am glad of that.

Years ago when I started studying birds and their fascinating behaviors, I spent most of my time relying on my eyes and ears. That has not changed much at all. I still walk about with a pair of binoculars dangling from my neck. They were a Christmas gift from the family several years ago. It was a group effort so they are a much better quality than I most likely would have sprung for on my own. 

Unlike some people a bit more crazed than I am, if I can not see a bird clearly enough either with or without the binoculars then as far as I am concerned, it really is not worth the effort. It is not that I am uninterested. Rather, it seems too distant from my immediate life to be worth worrying about. Some birders will travel long distances just to catch a fleeting glimpse of a particular species. My attitude is less energetic. If our paths cross, fine, but otherwise globetrotter birding does not appeal to me. It would be nice to hang out for a while with some rarely seen species up at the Arctic Circle, but unless I find myself there for some other reason I figure that neither man nor bird will be the worse off for it. Besides, I believe that humans and birds should respect one another’s privacy. If I were a bird nesting high up in the cliffs overlooking some remote Arctic sea, I too would be put out if some scalawag scaled the cliff just to check me and mine out.

I have a genuine respect for science, although there are times when it ignores what I consider to be necessary moral boundaries. When should scientific curiosity decide not to cross a particular boundary? I suspect that we will always be debating this issue given the natural inclinations of the scientific enterprise. Science has produced so much good that checking its momentum will always be problematic. Despite the enormous contributions of ornithologists to our understanding of birds, they remain elusive in so many ways. And that accounts for much of their appeal. For instance, it is enough for me to know that birds migrate and that about the same time every spring tree swallows and blue birds appear up here on the hill to hang out for a while and start some new families.

On the heels of having coffee with a friend this morning, these thoughts kind of took over my mind. Since it is now late afternoon it is obvious that they have carried some weight. It started with my sharing my excitement about having a flock of Purple Finches at our feeders the last several days. Who knows what internal mechanism triggers such feelings of awe and appreciation. Over the years we have had a finch or two visit the feeders, but never a mini-flock. One of the joys of keeping tabs on these things is the sheer mystery of it all. Another of our annoying quirks is this constant attempt to unravel mysteries. I like living in a world where not everything is researched, studied and explained. 

Why this year? Perhaps because it has been abnormally cold. I know that this long cold winter has added some unwelcome garnish to my characteristically curmudgeonly demeanor. As this friend so aptly couched it this morning, I can be a bit “prickly.” I will never have a conversation with a finch, so that is one mystery that will remain unsolved. I am just happy to have them winter a bit with us up here on the hill. Unlike kids who are never happy with adult answers to their why question, we, fiches and I, get along just fine without falling into that trap.

I pay a lot of attention to birds because it arouses something within me impossible to describe. It is akin to the pleasure one derives when looking at a work of art or listening to a penetratingly beautiful piece of music. One writer wrote long ago of being “surprised by joy.” That just about says it all.