It’s all right to laugh. Birders (“Don’t call us birdwatchers!”) expect it. They resent it, and send your name to Alfred Hitchcock, but they expect it.
It is my fortune—evaluate it as you will—to count among my acquaintances several championship-caliber birders. They have on occasion sought to kindle in me a like passion for our feathered friends, and I have as often only barely held back devastating comments laced with irony and satirical wit. Still, they persist. So, though profoundly dedicated to the Great Indoors, I finally decided—condescended is actually more precise—to look into this bizarre activity somewhat more carefully.
My friends the Bird People give several reasons, some of them rather plausible, for what they do with their spare time. Birds are, after all, more colorful and interesting than, say, roaches or flies, and their capacity for flight endows them with a spiritual quality not found in your average pot plant. Further, birding not only offers its enthusiasts an opportunity to get outdoors but encourages them to relate to the environment more intimately than they might if their interests ran to bowling or roller derby. Victor Emanuel, a sometime political scientist at Rice University and one of the leading birders in the state, claims that catching the weather report is one of the most important events of the day for him, because it helps him anticipate what birds he might see the next day. In the same way, he says, “Wherever I am, I notice such things as what kind of bushes or trees are in an area, whether there is water available, and whether it is fresh or brackish. It’s hard for city-dwellers to get involved with nature. Birding offers that opportunity.” Emanuel also extols the drama of birding. “Of course, every birder dreams of finding a bird no one has ever seen before, or a bird that is believed to be extinct, or a bird that has never been sighted before in a given area. But even more common aspects can be thrilling. When I go out on crisp fall day to see the first geese of the year, I am always impressed to realize that these geese have made it all the way here from the tundra and that their ancestors have been coming to this prairie every year since before people lived here.”
Such explanations are plausible and no doubt account for the initial attraction birding holds for many. But for the majority of those who pursue it most actively, ecology and drama run a poor second to sport. To join the agonistic struggle for excellence and, in the process, to defeat the competition is the essence of modern American birding, especially as practiced in Texas, which boasts an extraordinarily large number of bird species. Excellence and success in competition are judged by the size and quality of one’s lists. To bird is to list: to list all the different species one has seen in one’s lifetime—”lifers,” they are called; to list all the species one has seen in America in a single year; to list all the warblers one has seen on Wednesdays. The possibilities are endless, although some birders have made an impressive assault on infinity.
Consider, for example, the case of Noel Pettingell, a Houston postal worker who appears charmingly non-neurotic in all other respects. Noel—he is just not the sort one can call Pettingell—admits he is a compulsive lister and record-keeper. He is interested in records of all sorts and occasionally writes the Guinness people to let them know the flea-jump record has been surpassed or that an astronaut has set a new mark for gravity-free Tang consumption. But his real, indeed his consuming interest is in birding records. Like fanatical baseball fans who can tell you the record for fewest total bases achieved in a single season (89. C. Dallan Maxvill, Saint Louis, 1970), Noel can dig into a brown file pouch and come up with a sheet of paper or a Scotch-taped, hand-made booklet that contains, in his neat penciled script, up-to-the-minute records in such categories as: most species seen in Texas in a single year (428. Ben Feltner, 1973), most species seen in one hour, (112. Victor Emanuel and Ben Feltner, May 3, 1973), most species photographed in North America (650. Don Bleitz), most species seen in the smallest area in a single day (112 in 100-foot square area), species seen from Pettingell’s back yard (92), and much, much more. The man is incredible. One is surprised to learn he does not know who was awarded first base the most times in a single season on catcher’s interference. (Patrick Corrales, Philadelphia. Six times, 1965. All the more, remarkable because achieved in only 63 games.)
Every day is game day in the sport of birding, and enthusiasts spot and list all year, but the World Series or Stanley Cup or Class 4A Championship of this sport is the Christmas Bird Count, an event that has been described by the editors of American Birds as “North America’s premier exercise in mass masochism and cooperative science.”
Though little known to most citizens, this contest has been held for 74 consecutive years, since it was organized in 1900 by Frank M. Chapman, editor of the Audubon Society’s Bird Lore magazine. A gentle naturalist, Chapman deplored a practice known as the Christmas “side hunt,” a tradition that saw hunters meet on Christmas Day, choose sides, and ride out to slaughter Bambi, Pogo, Smokey, and Jonathan Livingston Seagull. When the hunt was ended, the side that had laid waste the largest contingent of big-eyed woodland creatures was declared the winner. Mr. Chapman urged the substitution of a bloodless “hunt” in which participants would spend part of Christmas Day trying to spot as many species of birds as they could in a given area. The first year was not a crashing success, as only 26 people participated, coast to coast. But the idea somehow caught on and survived, to the point that over 15,000 people