A Field Guide to the Birders

On August 12, 1970, FBI agents landed on Block Island, a speck of glacial deposit off Rhode Island, looking for Daniel Berrigan, SJ, one of the “Catonsville Nine” Vietnam War protesters who had burned draft records in Maryland. Hoping to pass unobserved, the G-men disguised themselves as bird-watchers. Block Island, known for its rare birds, was one of the few places in the United States in 1970 where binoculars and a copy of Roger Tory Peterson’s A Field Guide to the Birds made one inconspicuous.

In most places an interest in birds marked one flagrantly as odd. One common thread in these rather dissimilar books is their authors’ resigned expectation of gentle derision, at the very least, often instilled in childhood. Now, however, birding has become, Scott Weidensaul says, “almost cool.”

The US Fish and Wildlife Service estimated in 2001 that 46 million Americans were birders. That number needs a few grains of salt on its tail. Most of those people enjoyed birds around their homes, and 87 percent of them could identify only one to twenty of the nearly eight hundred species that regularly occur in North America.1 Nevertheless, serious bird-watching (or birding, to use today’s preferred term) has grown geometrically. In the Virginia town where I grew up, three of us looked for birds in the 1950s. Now thirty-five people there have formed an e-mail network where they regularly recount their birding adventures.

Tenfold growth in a half-century is probably a fair measure of the explosion of birding in the United States. The United States, moreover, is not unique. Birding is now expanding beyond its old base in northern Europe and the English-speaking world into Mediterranean and eastern Europe, and beyond. Japan and India (with its venerable Bombay Natural History Society, by no means limited to Englishmen) had gentleman ornithologists three generations ago. Today one encounters ordinary people out to see, photograph, or tape-record wild birds in much of Asia and Latin America. Even China suddenly has birders amid the bulldozers and concrete mixers.2

To serve all these enthusiasts an army of professional guides, book publishers, innkeepers, and manufacturers of specialized equipment has arisen. The US Fish and Wildlife Service found that birders in the United States spent about $32 billion a year on their hobby in 2001, $7 billion of it on travel and $24 billion on equipment. A ripple effect generates about $85 billion in economic impact, according to the same study.

The growth and democratization of birding might seem peculiar when many species of wild birds, and undisturbed spots in which to enjoy them, are declining in number.3 Rarity, however, is part of the appeal. Enjoyment of nature, from the time of Pliny to our own day, seems to have gone hand in hand with some estrangement from it. It requires an urban middle class with leisure and a thirst for restored contact with a distanced natural world.

People have noticed birds since at least the time of the Neolithic cave…

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