Birding is purported to be the fastest-growing “hobby” in North America. Apparently, one in five Canadians consider themselves birders (http://globalnews.ca/news/1978047/birding-hobby-soars-in-popularity-across-north-america/) and the 2009 US census states: “24 million Americans play basketball, 23 million baseball, and 9 million play American football — at the same time, there are estimated to be nearly 60 million American birdwatchers.” http://www.livescience.com/45514-bird-numbers-plummet-but-birdwatching-popular.html. And that’s just this continent. Add the birders in the rest of the world and you’ve probably got over a billion people watching, feeding, and admiring birds. My question is this: just what is it that makes birds so compelling?
Sometimes the attraction is entertainment, pure and simple. What could be more fun than watching Rufous Hummingbirds battling over or protecting a feeder?
Or watching Wood Ducklings jump, one by one, from a nest in a high tree into the water? (Click to see the video: http://blog.nwf.org/2014/06/wood-ducklings-jump-but-dont-worry-they-bounce/)
Or watching a mother Violet-green Swallow feed her hungry nestlings all day long?
Or the Gabriola turkeys taking turns resting on our hammock?
Or doing their Christmas shopping at our new “mall”?
For entertainment value, Breaking Bad doesn’t even come close.
And then there’s the beauty factor.
But birding must be about more than entertainment and beauty. Skimming the comments under a Facebook post it’s hard not to be struck by our tendency to project human emotion onto birds. “He’s irritated!” “She’s had enough!” “They’re having a ball!” This innocent anthropomorphosis (of which I willingly partake) is at work when we empathize with birds. What’s more heartbreaking than watching a mother Song Sparrow frantically feed a Brown-headed Cowbird baby over twice her size while Dad looks on in amazement?
And what’s lovelier than listening to a House Finch sings its heart out … as if all’s right with the world?
So. Part of the allure of the birds is their entertainment value and their beauty and the fact that we identify with them. But maybe there’s more to it than that.
Maybe it’s envy. On holiday in Mexico, as I watched a Magnificent Frigatebird soar overhead, I couldn’t help but be enchanted. Same thing happens here when the ravens wing their way over the house several times a day. I’d sure like to be able to fly without the hassles of airports and having to consume all that fossil fuel.
Or maybe it’s a different kind of envy, one closer to longing. Longing for the Buddha-like qualities of equanimity and grace that birds embody. Living in the moment, without ego, without pride, motivated only by the need to survive and carry on the species. No moral judgments, no ethical dilemmas.
Amorality, of course, has its price. Just ask any slightly deformed baby robin tossed unceremoniously from a nest by a mother bent on maximizing the chances of survival of a healthy sibling. Mother birds are very pragmatic. Is some of the fascination of observing wild birds related to these seeming contradictions, ones we share?
Or is there more to it? A week ago a Red-breasted Sapsucker spent several hours digging its perfectly round holes on a tree in our yard. When I went outside to take some photos it stopped and looked at me – for ten seconds or more. I wondered what it was thinking. (Is thinking even the right word?) Was I just a 5’6″ potential predator? Did it just want me to back off? Whatever it was “thinking”, it was certainly watching me closely. In The Spell of the Sensuous David Abrams writes, “… any visible, tangible form that meets my gaze may also be an experiencing subject, sensitive and responsive to the beings around it, and to me.” Well, that sapsucker was certainly responsive to my presence. And its responsiveness affected me: I moved away in order not to disturb its feeding. But while it stared at me, and I at it, I felt the connection between us. We were definitely in some kind of relationship, that bird and I, one characterized largely by mystery.
I think that’s what keeps me fascinated, day after day, year after year: the mystery of the connection between them and us, I and Thou. There’s only so much I can know about the birds that peck at our suet and bathe in our birdbaths and squawk for peanuts the moment I show up at the window. I can know their names and where they breed and what they eat; I can recognize their calls and songs and understand some their behaviour. But I can never really know them. And yet I feel connected, as if we’re not that separate after all.
Maybe that’s why more and more people are drawn to birding. Now, when our eyes are too often glued to inanimate screens, maybe there’s something inside us that longs to connect with the wild unknowable natural world. Maybe birds are our emissaries, always ready, willing, and available to lead us there – if we pay attention.
Yes, I’m going with that.
So Happy New Year everyone! As 2016 unfolds may the birds lead you to enchanting new places.