IATB #119: The Cult of Birds

“The observation of birds may be a superstition, a tradition, an art, a science, a pleasure, a hobby, or a bore; this depends entirely on the nature of the observer.” –James Fisher

There was no particular motive that spurred me to buy binoculars and a field guide; I simply found myself doing so one day. In this same “why not give it a try” manner, I found myself walking beside long-abandoned railroad tracks a few weeks later on my first organized bird walk. My epiphany about birds occurred that day in the form of an Indigo Bunting. The unfamiliar binoculars were more of a handicap than a useful tool, but once I managed to find a bird with them and achieved focus, my field of vision was entirely occupied by the peculiar blue of an Indigo Bunting. Time seemed to stop and it felt as if the world contained only that bird of otherworldly blue and me. This is the magic that birding holds for us, I think; that loss of self-consciousness and the greater perception of the other in our lives. My instinct that first day was, and still is, to bow down and pay homage to the presence of the wild around me.

I once read an article that suggested, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, that birders, rather than being immersed in a sport, or a simple game of recognition, or some benign form of hunting and collecting, are instead involved in something strange and archaic, something more like a pagan religion than a hobby: a cult of bird worship, a theology inspired by the natural world. While none of us actually worship birds (at least I don’t think any of us do!) an examination of our various rituals, from the casual to the most fanatic among us, might lead to an understanding of our reasons for watching birds. There are many reasons, probably as many reasons as there are people who do it, just as there are countless levels of experience or devotion to the craft of it.

Ornithologists are at the top of this hierarchy for having devoted a lifetime to bird study; their admiration leading, perhaps, to reverence at the exquisite subsong of a grey shrike thrush, a suspenseful discussion of the intricate details of empid flycatcher identification, scholarly presentations on the evolution of flight, frigatebird mating secrets, sparrows with sherpa-like abilities, humorous accounts from the field about recording seabirds as they perform a “kazoo opera” from an island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, reflections on dew bathing among birds under drought conditions or pondering the variety of birds attracted to a fruiting shrub… this form of bird worship causes the more garden-variety among us to stand in awe in the presence of such piety and expertise.

Only slightly less devout are the enthusiasts who keep not only life lists, but year,
world, month, country, trip, state, day, competition, day-after-competition, pond, yard and seen-while-driving lists.

Yes, I’m poking mild fun at listers.


I respect those who keep careful lists and thus help the serious study of birds. I shy away from it myself, however, because I continue to believe that a solitary way of seeing birds is the most enriching. Each of us has a unique way of experiencing the world that reflects the multitude of events that make each person’s life story different from another’s… the almost sacred revelations that come in odd ways and that may seem trivial or meaningless to the non-birder. These experiences of the sacred may be sung, chanted, danced, put into a poem, shared with children or embedded in stories.

Something like a right of passage occurs, though, in this transition from novice to communicant in the keeping of lists, I think. Some of us find ourselves obsessed with a particular species; owls for example, or ravens, maybe the birds that frequent a particular backyard tree; the obsession may also manifest itself in the care of injured eagles on our lunch hour or in the daily routine of a raptor educator.

By necessity, birders become
specialists in categorizing the birds they see and must develop the virtues of careful observation and ruthless honesty by which a species may be legitimately added to one’s list. And while sightings often occur to individuals, birders do form a unique community of shared experience. It is this sense of community that teaches us to see, to feel and to act in a reverential manner and to understand the frustration a birder feels when birds aren’t where we hope to find them.

I imagine the most fanatical among us drifting off to sleep with visions of 700 birds for their ABA year list or traveling to far-flung locations, visiting newly-restored wetland habitats on the other side of the world, rising at dawn to stand in a freezing cold Minnesota bog, visiting malarial swamps, the tropics (only to see familiar birds in an unfamiliar place), or heaven-forbid New Jersey of all places… so long as there are birds to see. This level of devotion to birds may come at a high expense to one’s personal relationships and provoke heartfelt appeals for the conservation of bird species.

I’m not sure where I would place myself among this hierarchy of birders… I’ve never traveled to a tropical rainforest or studied bird skins, but I have held the feathery spirit of an Ovenbird while it was being banded and sat contentedly for hours while a pair of Orioles built a nest in my backyard. I can distinguish the song of a Pine Warbler from that of a Chipping Sparrow, usually. I’ve slept in a cold and damp tent in the Blue Ridge Mountains happily serenaded by Whippoorwills and crawled on my belly in the sand of countless beaches hoping for a masterpiece photograph of a Sanderling, sidelit by a warm September sun. All of which feels very much like the telltale signs of a fully-fledged birder. Most of my experiences with birds are deeply personal and so ineffable and idiosyncratic that I don’t often know how to talk about them, but I try here on this blog to understand the ways I’m changed by these encounters with birds and the natural world.

I think what makes this cult of ours unique is our susceptibility to be awed by the world around us and our inclination to celebrate that awe with others. We know well the joy that is revealed in pursuit of what is beautiful and sacred. Birds can lead us to reverence for all life and the grace of seeing the extraordinary in the everyday.

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Thanks to everyone who sent submissions for this edition! Direct links to their posts are below, in the order in which they’re used in my rambly essay. There are some really fabulous bird blogs out there – please visit a couple new ones today! Deb is hosting the next I and the Bird at Sand Creek Almanac on 3/4/10.
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IowaVoice.Com – Eagle Flying Over River ** Listening Earth Blog – Subsong of a Grey Shrike Thrush ** Living the Scientific Life – Mystery Bird: Least Flycatcher, Empidonax minimus ** Round Robin The Cornell Blog of Ornithology – Live from the 2010 Ornithological Conference in San Diego and Field Report: Birds that Sound like Kazoos ** Birds Etcetera – Drought and Birds: Dew Bathing ** Ben Cruachan – Ripe Fruit ** Photo from The House and Other Arctic Musings ** The Hawk Owl’s Nest – Puerto Rico Day 1 & 2 ** Sycamore Canyon – Big January 2010 Photo Essay ** Count Your Chicken! We’re Taking Over! – Trinidad and Tobago Day 10: Part II: Rufous-tailed Jacamars ** From the Faraway, Nearby – It’s a Nice Day for Some White Birding ** Picus Blog – Bloggerhead Kingbird Wrap-up Post ** A DC Birding Blog – Scoping for Seabirds ** Nature Knitter – FeederWatch Wednesday ** Somewhere in NJ – Sea dog, jetty birds and the distance ** Xenogere – Bad birds of Aransas ** Microecos – Aeronauts ** Search and Serendipity – Purple Martins in Snow and 100,000 blackbirds ** Wanderin’ Weeta – Blue summer, green spring ** Coyote Mercury – Hummingbird Heading Out to Sea ** Behind the Bins – Still in Winter’s Icy Grasp ** The Nutty Birder Blog – Lakefront and Eagle Creek ** The Miss Rumphius Effect – Thematic Book List For the Love of Birds (Poetically Speaking) ** Beginning to Bird – Rio Grande Valley, Birding Day 2 ** Woodsong – Wowed by Owls ** It’s Just Me – Sharing the Air ** Nature Remains – Buckeye Birds ** Bird TLC – How about a transfusion for lunch? ** Susan Gets Native – Some time on the scale, everything you ever wanted to know about raptor poop but were afraid to ask, and Lucy plays a game ** Photo from Vickie Henderson Art ** Vickie Henderson Art – Florida Scrub Jays A Specialist Species ** Recycled Photons – The Obvious, Unseen ** Andy Gibb: Twitching with Transformation – Good News, Bad News ** The House and other Arctic Musings – Best GBBC twitch, ever ** My Life with Birds – Dispatch from Space Coast Day One ** The Greenbelt – Anchorage Corvids ** 10,000 Birds – Riding the Ecoroute ** Peregrine’s Bird Blog – WWT Castle Espie ** Hasty Brook – Sax Zim Bog Winter Birding Festival ** The Drinking Bird – Guatemala: Familiar Birds in Unfamiliar Places ** Ohio Birds and Biodiversity – Return to Joisy ** Birdchick.com – Dear Non Birding Bill ** The Birder’s Report – California Department of Fish and Game Exposed: Burrowing Owl Guidelines Suppressed ** Anybody Seen My Focus? – Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) ** Photo from From the Faraway, Nearby

30 thoughts on “IATB #119: The Cult of Birds”

  1. now see, that wasn’t that hard was it πŸ˜‰ Wonderful narrative and I absolutely love your last image. Well done Laura!

  2. Dear Laura, thank you. Thanks for every personal reflection you put out here for us – not only in this post about birds but for everything you offer here. You are poetry and we get it. Hugs.

  3. “…something strange and archaic, something more like a pagan religion than a hobby: a cult of bird worship, a theology inspired by the natural world…”

    I hear this, spiritual is how a group of strangers once described my birding to me. You’ve hit a zeitgeist there!

  4. I really wish people would stop and read what you’ve written in its entirety – I have read a dozen or more “birding” books but your words here are a gift. I will never ever have to shrug in explanation why I love watching birds so – I will simply give people this link — because you say it all and so brilliantly and succinctly here. I finally found someone that can capture in words what this all is for me. Thank you. This may well be the most important posting of an IATB yet!

  5. Excellent post Laura. I sure do envy your profound and beautiful writing skills. Thanks for allowing me to be a part of your birding experience.

  6. “…this form of bird worship causes the more garden-variety among us to stand in awe in the presence of such piety and expertise…”

    Just one of several quotes in your post, Laura, that touched me and resonated with my experience in this crazy-birder world I live in.

    Thanks for your beautiful and profound words.

  7. What a fantastic essay, Laura. This has to be one of my favorite posts. It gave me a deeper appreciation for birding and birders, and a stronger desire to spend time looking up and out rather than just looking down for the flowers. I’m opening my ears thanks to you. πŸ™‚


  8. I love what you say about birds and why we watch them. It is magical, yes? And your photos are glorious. May I add a link on my to you from my blog?

  9. Wow!-that post really had me hooked! That was an interesting topic that was so well written. The photos were terrific too. Listing is not one of my main interests.It can be just as interesting to study the different species of birders as it is to observe the birds themselves.

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