by Barry Kent MacKay,
Senior Program Associate
Born Free USA's Canadian Representative
Barry is an artist, both with words and with paint. He has been associated with our organization for nearly three decades and is our go-to guy for any wildlife question. He knows his animals — especially birds — and the issues that affect them. His blogs will give you just the tip of his wildlife-knowledge iceberg, so be sure to stay and delve deeper into his Canadian Project articles. If you like wildlife and reading, Barry's your man. (And we're happy to have him as part of our team, too!)
Millions Enjoy Animals Without Hurting Them?
(Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-month series of blogs written by Barry from Canada and, from her perch at our Sacramento headquarters in Northern California, Senior Program Associate Monica Engebretson. Their “blog-off” is part of Born Free USA’s celebration of National Bird Day, which every year falls on Jan. 5.)
It used to be called “bird watching,” which was misleading. Now it is called “birding,” a bit better, perhaps, but also not a term that conveys much. “It” is an activity (that part is certain) that may or may not be considered a sport or a hobby, may or may not be competitive, and is usually but not necessarily harmless. It can become, for some people, an obsession bordering on, and maybe crossing into, the realm of the absurd.
Whatever it is, it defies easy definition, but as one who has done it, passionately, since earliest childhood, let me make the attempt. “Birding” is, at a basic level, simple nature appreciation — the act of actually noticing birds and other wildlife and plants as objects of beauty and interest that are manifestations of the non-human, “natural” world. But there are birders, and I am sympathetic to their concern, who would argue that such folks are not really birders, unless and until they take the next and most fundamental step of learning what the birds really are, of at least being able to name the species they are observing.
Ah, that’s the trick. In any given part of North America, for example, there are several hundred species of birds who could be seen, each having a specific designation — an English name that is universally agreed upon (and maintained on a list by a scientific body, the American Ornithologists’ Union, or AOU) and a scientific name that is also universal, and based on Latin or Greek, and also determined by the AOU, at least for the Western Hemisphere.
And each species may have anywhere from one to four or more different plumage patterns and color, along with different songs, call notes, habitat preferences and so on. Thus, for example, a male northern cardinal is a different color than a female, while a young bird is a bit different from either. There is no other species in North America who looks like the adult male, true, but if you are in, say, southern Texas or Arizona, you may see the related pyrrhuloxia, which is fairly similar in size, shape and color to the female northern cardinal, although there are enough differences (beak shape and color, for example) to tell them apart with relative ease.
But then there are species such as the willow flycatcher, which is virtually identical to the alder flycatcher, and found in many of the same regions. The two species tend to favor somewhat different habitats, and have different voices, the latter only useful when they sing.
Many bird species are small and predominately brown in color, and are affectionately known as “LBJs,” which stands for “little brown jobs.” To a layperson, an LBJ may be dismissed as a “sparrow,” but a birder wants to know if it is a song sparrow, a Lincoln’s, a swamp, a Savannah, a vesper or any of a number of other distinct but somewhat similar species, all called sparrows.
Once awakened to the sheer diversity of birds to be seen and the beauty inherent to them, some people do become obsessive “listers,” keeping track of the number of species seen in a lifetime, a year, a season, a day, or in a given location. In Britain listers are sometimes drolly called “twitchers,” because at the prospect of finding a new species of bird (always harder as one’s “life list” grows), they became so excited that they actually do twitch. I’ve seen a hard-core lister literally shove elderly birders out of the way in order to clap binoculars on some extremely rare bird!
There is much more to birding than all that. Most importantly birding is a fun, healthy and positive activity, and in the weeks ahead, leading up to National Bird Day on Jan. 5, Monica and I will be writing more blogs about birders (good and bad), birding and birds.