[Tweeters] What do birders know?

Rob Sandelin nwnature1 at gmail.com
Fri Jun 14 23:19:38 PDT 2013

What Do the Birders Know?
By BRIAN KIMBERLING, OPINION, The New York Times, April 21,2013

A BIRD-WATCHER is a kind of pious predator. To see a new bird is to capture
it, metaphorically, and a rare bird or an F.O.Y. (First of the Year, for the
uninitiated) is a kind of trophy. A list of birds seen on a given day is
also a form of prayer, a thanksgiving for being alive at a certain time and
place. Posting that list online is a 21st-century form of a votive offering.
It's unclear what deity presides.

There was prestige in knowing birds in ancient Rome, and there is prestige
today. There are also competitive insect enthusiasts and tree connoisseurs
and fungus aficionados, but they lack the cultural stature and sheer numbers
of bird-watchers. There are 5.8 million bird-watchers in the United States,
slightly more than the number of Americans in book clubs
watchers_b62722> or residents of Wisconsin. That's a huge army of primitive
hunter-mystics decked out in sturdy hiking boots and nylon rain gear,
consulting their smartphones to identify or imitate a particular quarry.
There is nothing especially new about them except for their gear. Two
hundred years ago the heartland teemed with second sons of wealthy European
families who could have stayed home dissipating in traditional style, but
chose to go to the New World and find a new animal instead. Reporting your
sightings to the Audubon Society is decidedly less glamorous than
dispatching a new specimen to a museum in Paris or London, but it's a
kindred enterprise.

Today's birders are not exploring new territory geographically, as the early
naturalists did; rather, they are contouring the frontiers of climate change
inline=nyt-classifier> . It's April, and the kitchen-window bird observer is
limbering up, too. Are the birds nesting early, nesting late? (Do they know
something we don't?) The reporting such observers do is crucial.
And what are today's birds telling us? The Audubon Society estimates that
nearly 60 percent of 305 bird species found in North America in winter are
shifting northward <http://birds.audubon.org/state-birds>
<http://birds.audubon.org/state-birds> and to higher elevations in response
to climate change. For comparison, imagine the inhabitants of 30 states -
using state residence as a proxy for species of American human - becoming
disgruntled with forest fires and drought and severe weather events, and
seeking out suitable new habitat.

The Audubon Society's estimates rest largely on data supplied by volunteers
in citizen-science projects like the Christmas Bird Count (first proposed in
1900, nine years after the first known use of the word "bird-watcher," to
set the hobby apart from the more traditional Christmas pastime of shooting
birds). The birds in question have shifted an average of 35 miles north over
a period of about 40 years - seemingly insignificant in human terms, but a
major move ecologically.
Such documentation, drawing on databases and the practices of citizen
science, is descended from folk wisdom, where birds are ascribed a certain
predictive power. Folk wisdom holds that they nest high in anticipation of
warm weather (not true) or fly low when they expect to get wet (true).

Folk wisdom has deep roots. "Auspice" and "augury" share a Latin origin with
"avian." An augur was a priest in ancient Rome who studied birds to
determine the will of the gods (Cicero was one). When an elected official is
inaugurated today, he or she is etymologically promoted to bird-watcher in
chief. Mr. President, your binoculars. There are no accidental hawks or
eagles in the "Iliad" or the "Odyssey," either. This says more about humans
than about birds. They remind us of time, hence the venerable history of the
cuckoo clock. As James Baldwin noted, the whisper beneath the word "time" is
The ancient wisdom of fretting obsessively over bird behavior has obtained
the vindication of modern science. Hawks and eagles do not appear by
accident. When, where and whether they appear is, absolutely, a portent. The
spotted owl is a bioindicator, a species that can be used to monitor the
condition of an ecosystem. In other words, bioindicator is just modern
parlance for omen.
And so the practice of bird-watching, no matter how geared up and teched
out, cannot escape its ancient roots; or, rather, it has come back around.
Birds are not moving north in anticipation of climate change; rather, they
are moving in response to it. Still, they are becoming predictive in a
manner not founded in superstition but well-documented in reported behavior.

We can't escape trying to see the future through birds. Too many canaries
were deployed to detect gas leaks in coal mines, too many ravens launched
from ships to find land - bird anxiety is an essential component of the
human predicament.
There is no telling what kinds of perverse ecological arrangements we will
create for birds in the future, or what new technologies will be introduced
to bird-watching. Google Glass, for example, has implications, and
binoculars that double as digital or online field guides can't be far away.
We have reached an era when our instincts, anxieties and gadgets collide;
our classical relationship with birds is reinforced and our understanding is
enhanced. Unfortunately, we may need to start moving north.
The author <http://briankimberling.com/> of the forthcoming novel

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