Introduction: Synecdoche and the Bird

Mourning Warbler, Geothlypis philadelphia; LSLBO Banding Station, Alberta

When asked why he chose to live in the remote, wilds of Montana, nature writer David Quammen would traditionally reply, “the trout.” And when pressed, “the trout is a synecdoche” – a discrete, phenomenal, biological entity, but immeasurably more than that (“Synecdoche and the Trout”, Wild Thoughts from Wild Places).

In a similar manner, to birders, birds are intrinsically beautiful, compelling and valuable but they represent more than that. Birds are also “…the indicator species for a place and a life [we are] seeking” (Quammen).

Eastern Hemlock Ravine, Welsford, Nova Scotia



Birding is Barred Owl duets reverberating within dark, old-growth Hemlock canopies.

Birding is being ensconced in marsh mist during blue-hour dawn choruses.

Birding is intensely tracking, stalking and watching – furtively enough to witness a bird on its own turf on its own terms.

Birding is a tech-geek sandbox full of portable detectors, global satellites and powerful digital maps.

Birding is constant, vicarious global itinerancy – a modern ‘Age of Discovery’- via radio-telemetry, geolocators, stable isotopes, genetics, eBird and the legends of Big Years.

Nestling Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Campephilus principalis; Courtesy of Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Birding is liberation to shamelessly speculate and brainstorm (with a community large enough to provide both encouragement and crap-detection).

Birding is sacrifice of time, money, physical comfort and brain space without the intent or awareness of sacrifice.

Birding is standing on the shoulders of giants of yesterday and today – pioneers who have uncovered much of the avian story for us despite much worse optics.

At its best, birding is participation in a community with a term project to allow all these things to prosper and not be extinguished– the birds and all that they represent.


Looking forward to my first blogging season with Bird Canada.
Thanks for reading.


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4 Responses to Introduction: Synecdoche and the Bird

  1. James Churchill says:

    @ Susan Ellis – thanks for the comment, and I agree, it can be very transcending and restorative to be out birding. And also to be part of a community with a passionate focus on something beyond ourselves. I resonante with your descriptions in your “I’d rather be birding” post as well 🙂 cheers

  2. James Churchill says:

    @ Boom & Gary: Thanks for your comment! Quammen’s writing has done a lot to validate my experiences and feelings in nature, but also to reframe the way I perceive it. There are so many reasons why birding grips us. As Quammen puts it, we are drawn to not only the “trout” (birds) but all the special places they “cause us to be” and interesting things they “cause us to do” – I think, at our best, this draws us closer to putting ourselves in the shoes of the other organisms and ecosystems we encounter at the same time. Hopefully 🙂 cheers

  3. Susan Ellis says:

    Beautifully put. Birding brings out the poet in many…and it is when I am out birding that I am most a peace.

  4. Boom & Gary says:

    I think the Quammen quote is much closer to my feelings. I think birders tend to ignore the eco-system, and the other critters. That fact tends to led people to thinking Walt Disney zoo compounds, or any nature theme park including many of the state or federal parks in the US represent nature reality. When in fact they are a crime.