This collection of random thoughts was meant to not appear here but on Sharon Stiteler's birdchick page, as the winning entry of her Swarovski contest that would earn me the pair of binoculars needed so urgently to turn my non-birding wife into what everyone ought to be:
a bird enthusiast.
Apparently, the post got lost on the internet somehow when I sent it to her and therefore didn't even make the top 10. Yes, these things happen all the time.
The post is all about the role names play in birding, a subject I touched before and might even look at again:
Democracy is the little brother of Evolution. Really, it is. A lot of democracy’s greatness comes from the fact that it is surprisingly darwinistic, and their affectionate relationship is being much appreciated this year, the year we celebrated Darwin’s 200th birthday and witnessed the peaceful shift of power from one hand on to the next. Democracy – like evolution - is all about the survival of the fittest and in this case strength or fitness lies in numbers, or majority of votes. The majority principle also applies to the social aspects of life and the values and criteria we apply to judge our fellow citizens. This is where democracy really hits the homes of birders: the majority of the people around us see us – the birders - as geeks, and as they are many, they must be right. There can be no denying it: the firm association of birding with geekness is rooted so deeply in society it almost got manifested in the United States Declaration of Independence, the product of one of democracy’s finer hours. An early draft version, which read as follows
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all birders are created geeky”
was only changed to what it is today after the influential naturalist and early birder William Bartram convinced Thomas Jefferson over a tea or two that he was only in it for fame and fortunes. Good man, that Bartram, so never mind that King Vulture incident. This close shave with eternal embarrassment clearly demonstrates that we, as birders, may disagree all we want yet the fact remains: in the eyes of the world, birders are not placed right in the centre of the curve that depicts the Gaussian distribution of normality in a given population.
We may indeed hold a position closer to the curve’s periphery.
Heck, we might not even make the curve at all.
It’s not all bad and lost though as some birders have optimistically set out to set the record straight and give birds and birding the place they deserve, at the heart of today’s society. The first step of foremost importance for those intrepid birders thriving to change the geek image is surely to identify the cause for this awkward misconception. And in deep sympathy and support of their quest I offer my fair share of thoughts in the following paragraphs.
This is how I see it:
Some of the reasons why birders cause fellow citizens to raise an eyebrow or two in suspicion may pertain to their maintaining an interest in small brown birds despite being consistently informed by the concerned passer-by that there are Bald Eagles around.
Other factors may vaguely be connected to the preference for Tilley hats, the wearing of multifunctional poly-pocket birder’s vests, and wrapping one’s shoes in neon duct tape during excursions.
However, while all this may be part of the problem the real culprit has nothing to do with the things a birder looks at or uses to dress up with. It’s the birder’s vocabulary or rather their vocalisations that frequently causes distress to those non-birders caught unexpectedly in a conversation on birds.
Seriously, nothing will increase your geek score like throwing in a few decent bird names during a casual conversation on past time activities. Admittedly some bird names aren’t all that bad and reach a certain level of social acceptance. Casually mentioning Ivory Gull, Lucifer Hummingbird or Gyrfalcon during a conversation may even leave a lasting impression on those around you.
Sadly we don’t get to use those names all that often.
Most bird names however are just pathetic. Northern Beardless Tyrannulet springs to mind immediately – the poor creature. Others – like Phainopepla - will likely get you an appointment with your personal rehabber if you try to say them three times in a row real fast, so you had better not come across a small flock of these. Other bird names are even downright dangerous and may get you in serious trouble. Yes, they do! Have you ever tried to have a conversation on the Bridled Titmouse amongst a group of minors when some of their parents were around? This is something I really do not recommend.
Apparently, the frustration amongst birders about frequently having to use lingual lapses of reason as names to describe what they feel passionate about has led to another communication breakdown that may be seen by those outside the birdwatching community as … shall we say peculiar? Birders just try to avoid names to such extend that they never use their own or other birder’s names in direct conversation. They just don’t. It doesn’t happen.
“Hi! Seen anything?” is the phrase commonly used at birding hotspots as an introducing ceremony amongst birders while “Is the [insert name of rare bird] still being seen?” or less politely “Where is the [insert name of rare bird]!?” is all you get at sites where a rarity has been sighted previously and is being “chased”.
Obviously, birders are so much focussed on their target that a simple addendum in the form of “Hi, my name is…” is simply too much distraction and a plain waste of birding time.
Of course there are instances when we as birders have to get conversationally more specific about certain persons birding with us or around us. In this case, the clever approach is to combine the person in question with the birds they have seen. This worked quite fine for me during one memorable day at Ontario’s Point Pelee. I had reported a Clay-coloured Sparrow, not a shabby bird at all for the park and a bird others were trying to relocate. So for the rest of the day and wherever I went, I was “The guy who found the Clay-coloured”.
In order to fully appreciate this effect however, one needs to choose their rarity carefully. “Oh look, there’s the guy who found the Bachman’s Warbler” may be something we’d enjoy hearing for a day or two.
On the other hand, it may not raise our spirits quite as much to overhear others saying “Oh look, there’s the guy who discovered the Phaino… Philo… Philha…, you know that black Arizona bird? White in the wings, with reddish eye? That Philanthro, Piano, Picassothingy, you know? Oh forget it, never mind. It probably wasn’t him anyway. - Hey, what’s that bird over there?“
Actually, birders were shown quite clearly how things are done properly in the world of personal introductions not that long ago by a decent man and friend of the birds who also happened to be an acquainted author. Who knows, maybe it was not only the name that he borrowed from a birder for his most famous fictional character. Maybe it was this particular birder’s manners as well.
This is who I am talking about and how I feel things should be handled amongst birders in the future. So next time we meet out in the field:
The name is Clay-coloured. The-guy-who-found-the Clay-coloured.