Monday, April 24, 2006

The Seven Pleasures of Birding

Early Birders [Chris Cooper among them]at the Point, 4/12/06
Photo: M. Winn

On our early morning walk the other day we enjoyed the company of one of the park's best birders, Chris Cooper, At some point Chris referred to a list he had written that summed up the joys of birdwatching. Intrigued, I asked if he'd forward it and he obliged. I think you'll agree that he is, [to use his own words--see below,] "a language-gifted primate" par excellence.

Hi, Marie,

As promised, here are the Seven Pleasures of Birding, at least as I've determined them:

1. The beauty of the birds
2. The beauty of being in a natural setting
3. The joys of hunting, without the bloodshed
4. The joy of collecting (in that the practice of keeping lists -- life lists, day lists, etc.-- appeals to the same impulse as, say, stamp collecting)
5. The joy of puzzle-solving (in making those tough identifications)
6. The pleasure of scientific discovery (new observations about behavior, etc.)

and saving the best for last,

7. The Unicorn Effect--After you've been birding for even a little while, there are birds you've heard of or seen in books that capture your imagination, but you've never seen for yourself...and then one day, there it is in front of you, as if some mythical creature has stepped out of a storybook and come to life. There's no thrill quite like it.

If you get tired of people asking you, "Why do you go birdwatching?" as I eventually did, these are handy to whip out.

Note that what's NOT on my list as one of the pleasures of birding is the social factor, simply because some folks get a kick out of socializing while birding, some folks get juiced by the solitary experience, and some of us enjoy either.

Also note that the Seven Pleasures of Birding--what makes the activity *enjoyable*--should not be confused with what makes the activity *accessible*, though obviously the two are related. Why birding, and not "mammaling" or somesuch? Why do we language-gifted primates so easily become obsessed with chasing after feathered dinosaurs? Put like that, it hardly seems like a natural fit, but there are several factors involved of which we're both well aware--

--Most birds are diurnal, like us, while many of our closer mammalian kin are nocturnal; so birds are more readily observable. Yet unlike other diurnal creatures that are also observable--the many diurnal insects, for example--birds are warm-blooded vertebrates like us, who defend territories and care for young much as we do; so we can empathize with them.

--Partly because of this diurnal/nocturnal difference, birds communicate through the same primary senses, sight and sound, as we do, so we can easily appreciate their stunning visuals and beautiful songs. (Compare that to other mammals, whose primary sense is often scent, which can be much more useful in the dark.)

--Birds can fly! That mobility, unparalleled by any other group of living things, gives them access to the entire planet and virtually all of its varied habitats--so you can go birding anywhere, and you're likely to find a wide variety of species (compared to mammals) to delight you wherever you do. But I think more significant is that birds' ability to fly captures our imagination; it's the ultimate expression of freedom, and it touches some deep chord in the human spirit.

Obviously, I've spent WAY too much time thinking about this. And I'm rambling.


After reading this I wrote Chris and asked: What about bats? He answered:

As for bats: they're second-rate flyers, in my humble opinion. Flight has evolved a number of times on our planet, but never as near perfectly as in the birds--which is no doubt why they fill the vast majority of ecological niches available to flying megafauna, and goes a long way to explaining why they're the only dinosaurs that survived the mass extinction at the end of the Cretaceous. (That matchless mobility again: In a time of environmental upheaval, they could travel to safe havens, and then when conditions improved, these travelers would be among the first to re-colonize depopulated habitats. This is all supposition, of course.)

And besides, bats are nocturnal, so all the reasons I listed why nocturnal animals are unlikely to grab human attention still apply. Instead of capturing our imagination and inspiring our spirit, their nocturnal flying (and their unusual appearance, a consequence of their nocturnal adaptations) has the opposite effect: It freaks us out.

Give bats their due, though; if I remember correctly, they're one of the most diverse groups of mammals (in terms of number of different species), so they must be doing something right. Why birds haven't completely displaced them from all niches is something of a mystery to me; bats must have some advantage (echolocation? a superior sense of smell?) that compensates for their inferior flight characteristics.