The Difference Between Bird Watching and Bird Breeding
Birding is the opposite of being at the movies—you’re outside, not sitting in a windowless box; you’re stalking wild animals, not looking at pictures of them. You’re dependent on weather, geography, time of day—if you miss the prothonotary warbler, there isn’t a midnight showing. On the other hand, birding, like moviegoing, is at heart voyeuristic, and you can’t do it without technology—to bring birds closer you must interpose binoculars between yourself and the wild world. To find them in the wild, you need planes, trains, automobiles, and motorboats. Birds are natural; birders aren’t.
And some birders are less natural than others, like the three characters at the heart of “The Big Year,” who are driven to see as many North American species as possible. They are genial caricatures of normal people, partly because they’re in a Hollywood movie, but mostly because they are birders. As a birder myself, I recognize the symptoms: I’ve travelled great distances to see birds; I’ve totted up the names of birds on lists and felt weirdly comforted, as if they guarded me against oblivion; I’ve listened, like Jack Black’s character, to birdcalls on my iPod
This may seem like a pedantic distinction in an already marginal world, but it matters—though the two terms bleed into each other. Crudely put, bird-watchers look at birds; birders look for them.
Huge numbers of people are bird-watchers; the United States Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that something like forty-eight million Americans watch birds. Of those, only a tiny fraction have the time and money for birding
Competitive cross-country birding didn’t really take hold until the nineteen-seventies. It’s a paradoxical fusion of countercultural, Earth Day, dropout rebellion merged with the world-conquering zeal of baby boomers. Birding is like competitive meditation.
But our approach to the natural world has never been simple.
Like the hysterical paralytics Freud studied, birders reveal a great deal about universal human psychopathology, especially our tormented relationship to the natural world—the world that produced us and from which we are estranged. We’ve got to control nature, but if we control it too much we only wound ourselves.
Bird watching is really all about the quest for balance—between the curious animal at the near end of the binoculars and the wild animal at the far end; between the classifiable and the ineffably mysterious; between our killing, conquering urges and our impulse toward conservation.
Source: The New Yorker
By Jonathan Rosen