I am a bad birdwatcher. This is a good thing, according to Simon Barnes, the author of How to Be a Bad Birdwatcher (Short Books 2004), a great book I recently discovered.
Barns says “I don’t go bird watching. I am birdwatching.” It’s simply part of who he is in the world. He notices birds. Anyone can do this. You don’t have to carry around any special equipment or even know the names of all the birds you see. If you can tell a car from a truck, you can tell a swan from a robin. And that’s enough.
Why bother? As Barnes says, “looking at birds is one of life’s greatest pleasures. Looking at birds is a key: it opens doors, and if you choose to go through them you find you enjoy life more and understand life better.”
Barnes tells the story of how he was walking to a London train station one day and paused to watch a bunch of house martins “whizzing round” a church steeple and catching flies in their beaks.
“And then it happened. Bam!”
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw what he at first took to be a kestrel in the sky. It suddenly dropped like a thunderbolt into the crowd of martins, took one out, then vanished. Barnes stood on the street, looking up, “uttering incredulous obscenities and prayerful blasphemies.” It was a falcon (specifically, a hobby, but being able to identify it, says Barnes, was not necessary — only a bonus). Not a rare bird or a sighting that would make any headlines in birdwatching journals — “just a wonderful and wholly unexpected sight of a wonderful and wholly unexpected bird. . . a moment of perfect drama.”
Something similar happened to me several years ago when I was a student at York University in Toronoto. I was walking across campus after an Environemntal Studies class when my eye was caught by a movement above a roof-top crowded with pigeons. Something dropped out of the sky, hit the pigeons like an explosion, then was gone. A peregrine falcon. It was like a piece of a nature documentary playing out right in front of me.
I looked around quickly to see if anyone else had seen what I’d just seen. Out of the large group of students walking between buildings, only one other stood still and was excitedly looking around to see if anyone else had seen what he’d just seen. It was a guy from my class who knew birds. Our eyes connected.
“That was a peregrine falcon!” he called across the crowd (this is the only reason I knew for sure what type of bird it was). At that time the peregrine falcon was still on the endangered species list and had been almost wiped out a decade or so earlier due to the pesticide DDT. So, to see a peregrine falcon in action right here in the middle of the city was not only to witness a marvelous moment of natural drama, but also to experience a sense of wonder and hope.
I haven’t seen a peregrine falcon since then (though I may have without knowing it), and most of my bird sightings are quite calm and ordinary ones (bush tits outside my kitchen window, crows, etc.), but somehow when I catch sight of a bird (especially one I’m not expecting), it’s like glimpsing magic in the world. “Enhanced enjoyment of the ordinary” is what Simon Barnes calls it.
Who needs drugs when you have birds?
[Note: below is a hummingbird at my sister’s feeder on southern Vancouver Island (during our December snowfall), juncos at a pine cone feeder in my backyard, and Sandhill cranes at the Riefel Bird sanctuary near where I live]