Noah Davis finds connections between birdwatching and another pastime we’re all familiar with.
If there’s anything athletic about bird watching, it belongs to the birds.
I’m not in the habit of calling little girls liars, but Sound of Music‘s Louisa ate too much wienerschnitzel. Humans do not flit. They do not float. They do not fleetly flee. They do not fly.
Birds, in general, are beautiful and elegant in their natural habitat. (Judgment reserved for the turkey vulture. Benjamin Franklin, who argued passionately that the hideous creature be our national bird, was an idiot in that regard.)
Birdwatchers, however, are not.
They are, in general, eccentric, occasionally goofy, middle-aged men wandering through life with binoculars on their neck and their gaze fixed in the distance. They come from all points of the economic sphere—although I suspect a survey would reveal that the average birder is more successful than the average person (binoculars are expensive!)—and are drawn together by their love of attempting to identify the red spot on the back of a grey dot somewhere in those bushes ahead.
I know this because my father is one of their club.
When you grow up with a birder, you prepare yourself for the inevitable: long car rides to remote locations in search of some one-pound object that was blown off-course by a hurricane or other force of nature; the disappointing realization that the term “raptor” refers to birds of prey, not dinosaurs (although the evolutionary theories in Jurassic Park make more sense with this entomological knowledge); the occasional terror the vehicle you’re in may drive off the road as the driver looks skyward. And donuts. Lots of donuts. Which are awesome.
As a kid, I protested being taken along on birding trips. I wanted action, not the patient persistence required by bird watchers and their binoculars. (I was, I’ll admit, spared from many of these outings. But hell, one 100-mile ride goes a long way, even if you’re bribed with one baseball card for every mile.)
But slowly—I imagine inevitably—the occasional trip became less miserable. I started to enjoy them. Once in awhile, I even asked to tag along. Not to bird watch, but to watch my dad watching the birds.
In Without Limits, the underrated movie about Steve Prefontaine, coach Bill Bowerman offers his Oregon charges a lesson: “running, one might say, is basically an absurd past-time upon which to be exhausting ourselves. But if you can find meaning in the kind of running you have to do to stay on this team, chances are you will be able to find meaning in another absurd past-time: life.”
The sheer physical effort of bird watching will never match running for the best track team in the country, but there are similar life lessons embedded within the activity.
Bird watching requires certainty of details. The integrity of the activity rests on this very certainty. Identifying a single grey blur requires the photographic ability to recall any number of physical features about the flying object in question. It requires dedication and telescopically aided eyesight to locate these subtle differences on a winged animal that is oblivious to whether you have the perfect angle to see if there’s a yellow stripe on its small rump.
But it doesn’t stop there. Birders redefine compulsiveness. Even when you admit there’s no stripe, you can’t be entirely sure. What if you just missed it? Or the sun temporarily blinded you at the precise moment the stripe made itself visible to you? Or the winter plumage hadn’t fully developed?
At some point, the rump stripe debate must end, but it’s rarely satisfying. There’s always the possibility you were wrong. Eventually, however, the bird’s identification must be marked on one’s trip list, state life, life list, or any of the other lists birders keep. And these records are sacrosanct. Birders cannot get 95 percent there and stumble upon the answer. It’s an either/or scenario. They deal with only fact. There is something remarkably honorable about this pursuit, especially when I would watch my father, who I’ve known for most of the past 28 years as perfectly, impossibly, and at times painfully, honest. Getting the details right—ensuring the process beyond reproach so the outcome is as well—remains the ultimate goal for him. He’s a great birder. Watching him birdwatch confirmed for me that without doubt he is better at the other absurd past-time Donald Sutherland’s Bowerman mentions.
Pop culture is latching on to the “birdwatching as a metaphor for life” concept. First, it was Jonathan Franzen reflecting about lessons learned through a pair of binoculars in south Texas. This week, Big Year arrives. Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson star in “a sophisticated comedy about three friendly rivals who, tired of being ruled by obligations and responsibilities, dedicate a year of their lives to following their dreams.” Translation: hijinks ensue, Rashida Jones looks perfect, someone puns on a Blue-footed Booby, the trio learns about Living Life as men and humans.
My father is excited. I hope we can watch it together. Then, maybe we can drive around in search of something. I still have plenty to learn.