Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Why birders bird and listers list

Between work, errands and a drizzly Sunday (although I did see a year bird vesper sparrow between bouts of drizzle!), I have been thinking about birding more than actually going out to see the birds.

More specifically, I have been dwelling on the perennial question -- what is it about birding that is so addictive? And why, for so many of us, myself included, does birding become so list-driven and competitive (though, in my case, I mostly compete against myself, as I lack the time, resources and possibly the peculiar drive to launch myself into Big League Birding. Maybe someday, I think wistfully to myself...although then I'd probably have to start caring about gulls.)

I have broached this topic a couple of times in the past, such as my previous post about big lister Phoebe Snetsinger and my response to my birding buddy Sunwiggy's question about how we can get so carried away by our lists that we forget to enjoy the birds. Perhaps the question keeps coming back to my mind because if I could unlock the reasons for the obsessive, addictive nature of birding, I'd probably be on to something really deep about human nature. Or at least be a little closer to the philosopher's maxim to "know thyself." Or maybe it's just because I like to think about things; it's a sort of personal weakness. (How many times have people chastised me for analyzing a book or movie or trip to the county fair by saying, "It's just for fun, you're not supposed to think about it!"?)

As with many issues, the answers people find to the Obsessive Birding question might very well show more about their personal foibles than the birds or birders in question. For example, the Wikipedia entry on birding states that "ethnologist Nikolaas Tinbergen considers birdwatching to be an expression of the male hunting instinct while Simon Baron-Cohen links it with the male tendency for 'systemizing.'"

As a definitely female mad birder (at least last time I took a shower, ha ha), my reaction to this statement is: huh? To be honest, I have never heard of either of the men mentioned above, and perhaps a thoughtful reading of their work would lend a more favorable opinion. But on the surface of it, I don't find either concept very useful in my quest to understand my lister's impulses, and not only because I'm not a man; I don't feel like I'm "hunting" the birds at all (although Jonathan Rosen, author of The Life of the Skies: Birding at the End of Nature admits to feeling that way at times, as I mention in my post about the different roles I take on as a birder) and I am not really sure what the "male tendency for 'systemizing' really means -- does it have anything to do with my inner meltdown if I can't figure out which warbler is which?

Closer to the answer, in my opinion, is a discussion of the drive to understand that Thelma Lavine mentions in a discussion of Hegel's philosophy:

"We are beings...who take mastery as our goal...such mastering actions (are) the examples of the principle of negation, at work in all human thought.... [T]he principle of negation and death is at work in the self's characteristic relation to objects, in its desire to negate them, to overcome them in some way, to destroy them, to incorporate them, to cancel them out of existence."

(Full disclosure: I encountered this quote while reading a collection of essays entitled Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy. I wasn't actually just sitting around and reading about Hegel.)

To be honest, I'm still pondering that one. Is birding -- at least birding of the obsessive, list-driven kind -- part of a quest for mastery? Absolutely. And about the rest of it...obviously I don't want to cancel birds out of existence; in fact, I frequently get bummed out and weepy thinking about how precarious the survival of so many species is -- but to incorporate them? Into what, myself? The sum of my understanding of things? If so, yes. Perhaps to negate or cancel the division between "myself" and "other" (birds?) If so, maybe.

An essay or two later in the Buffy anthology, I got even closer to what I'm trying to put my finger on. In a discussion of the character of Willow, James B. South mentions the concept of "enigmatic signifiers," quoting Jonathan Lear: "We are, by our natures, susceptible to enigmatic signifiers--oracular utterances, if you will--which we can recognize as having a meaning--indeed, as having a special meaning for us--but whose content we do not understand." The desires represented by the enigmatic signifier cannot ever be truly fulfilled, because, despite the power that they have over us, we will never really be able to understand them. It's a hint, a glimpse of a greater longing, a tantalizing riddle to which we'll never have the key.

When I see a bird, especially a "good bird," such as a lifer or one I don't see very often, there is a lot going on in my range of reactions. Partly it's triumph, the sheer joy of having one more for the lists. Partly it is a sort of mastery, a moment of knowing and naming and just enjoying that space. And partly it is, no doubt, enigmatic, an intersection of Self and Bird that means all sorts of things that I'll never really express because I will never totally grasp it. And it might even be considered a sort of hunt...as long as you put the word "scavenger" in front of it. Even symbolically, I could never hurt the birds.

But really, in the very best birding moments, I am not a scientist or philosopher or scavenger, or even really a birder. It's the opposite of the "male" (or, more likely, human) desire to "systemize." It's something mystical. It's the part of me that understands a quote like this, from Zen Birding by David White and Susan Guyette:

"An American Indian man, a Ute, offered his perspective about birding. Birding is an okay thing to do, he said, because it can help you get in touch with this great creation of which we are a small part. Using binoculars is okay, too, if it helps you find out who you are looking at. But once you've identified the bird, once you know who it is, put the binoculars away. 'Birds don't like it when you stare at them,' he said. 'They think you're being rude.'"


  1. I really must read "Zen Birding"! I feel that part of birding comes from a loneliness, a longing to be closer to these feathered beings and nature. Of course, we're always IN nature, but do we notice ourselves there? Konrad Lorenz spoke of his joy when "his" wild geese would see him and fly towards him, instead of, as most birds and other wild things do, fly (or run) away from him. Mom

  2. I think it's not too hard to figure out why birders enjoy seeing birds -- I mean, who wouldn't? More complex is trying to understand why the pleasure of seeing the birds can lead many of us to listing and obsessive-type behaviors. It's an interesting point to ponder, but I'm not sure I'll ever hit on an answer I like!