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!)
You Don't Have to be a Genius to be a Birder, But It Helps
(Editor’s note: This is the third 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.)
While I won’t embarrass him by naming him (he’s well-known in certain animal protection and environmental circles) I have a friend who, at about the age I am (we won’t go into details, but let’s just say we both qualify as boomers) has discovered the joys of birding.
Mind you, he doesn’t think of it that way. What hooked him was digital photography. To him, “birding” is focused (sorry ... puns are not intended) on photography. Both the quality of his photography and the level of his birding skill are on a steep growth curve that for me is a delight to observe.
He sends me lots of photos for comment, or for help with identification. He sometimes apologizes for “burdening” me but I truthfully assure him it’s no burden. The real irony is that this friend has, in the past, often gently poked fun at me for being a birder.
Not only do I look forward to his photos, I look forward to his enthusiasm. I think a huge part of what makes people do what others can’t imagine can be any fun is the thrill of discovery — of suddenly seeing what was always there, but unnoticed.
There is also the uncertainly, the luck factor, that goes with birding. For example, last spring my friend got some stunning close-up photos of an American Woodcock.
Hey, that’s no mean feat. Those birds are so cryptically colored as to be nearly invisible in the wooded swamps they inhabit; they are masters of camouflage. They are usually spotted as they spring to the air in a mad, zig-zag flight.
Beginner’s luck, perhaps, but the point is that when birding you never know just when you are going to see something unusual, or different.
Another aspect of the activity that I know appeals to my friend is that it demands development of skills at finding, and then identifying, the rarer species. My friend, formerly a university professor, is one of the brightest guys I know. He displays amazing skill at explaining complex ecological principles in precise, easily understood language, but he needs some help indentifying what we birders call “the confusing fall warblers,” or those small, nondescript brownish birds known as LBJs, or Little Brown Jobs.
What I am about to say will sound terribly elitist, but here goes: While birders are a demographically mixed bag, they tend to me middle to upper class and they are not dumb. They aren’t all Mensa candidates, and some can be just as downright dull or unlikeable or even nasty as anyone else. But if we divide humanity into two camps, those who think analytically, and those who are more inclined to believe what they wish to believe, birders tend to fit into the first group.
Birding is a skill, and not a particularly easy one to learn. For example, my friend sent me photos of a species called the Palm Warbler, in winter plumage. I’ve been birding all my life so am not conscious of the process by which the visual data in the image is instantly analyzed. Thin bill, small size means probably warbler; brownish plumage but with suggestions of wing bars and stripes on the back and breast eliminates many species. Yellow under the tail means that it could be any of a group of warblers, none of which have that body pattern.
All of this, in a fraction of a second, identifies it as a Palm Warbler. But all of that has to be learned, and much else.
There are often several different colors and patterns for a single species, depending on age and sex or time of year. Most birds, especially in late spring and early summer, are identified by calls or songs, and they have to be learned. It takes time and effort, but is part of the challenge, part of birding.
But only part. There’s so much more to it, but that will have to await another blog.