When people ask, “Why do you watch birds?” we Auduboners all offer our own personal explanations: they’re interesting, beautiful, inspiring, fascinating, and so on. But perhaps one of the most delightful lists ever produced is the following essay by Jack Conner, published by Bird Watcher’s Digest, July/August 1984, reprinted here by permission.
Eight Reasons Why We Bird
1) It sharpens your sight. Before you know it, you learn to see the ruby-crowned kinglet, to identify the ever-so-slight upswing in the bill of the greater yellowlegs, and to spot the half-inch wide band on the breast of the bank swallow as he twirls past you at 40 miles per hour.
2) It encourages you to explore the world. You ride out on chartered fishing boats with fishermen who are wondering why anyone would spend 30 bucks not to fish but to look for something called “shearwaters,” which, when finally found after nine solid hours of looking, turn out to be only some long-winged dark birds that skim across the waves and disappear in a minute.
3) It gives you something to write about. “Dear Mom, How are you? It snowed here the other day, but we still have two kingfishers down on the pond. Against the white they seem especially beautiful…”
4) It makes you an authority in the neighborhood. People you have never met will bring you robins and orioles their cat has caught, and ask, “What’s the wingspan of an eagle?”
5) It helps you to treasure a moment – that June evening, for example, when you find on the branch of a fallen tree, his plumage dark and golden, one eye closed and one eye watching you back, your first Chuck-will’s-widow.
6) It provides you with opportunities to meet someone like my friend John Henry Hintermister, who keeps his life list locked in a steel box in case of fire; who every spring in the second week of March, hikes the route Frank M. Chapman hiked in 1890 in search of the now-possibly extinct Bachman’s warbler. John comes home exhausted, tick, in his hair, and says, “I’m only going to chase that !@#$% bird for 15 more years. If I don’t see one by then, I’ll give up.”
7) It makes you politically active. You will write intricately argued, adrenalin-fueled letters to your congressman demanding that something be done so people will stop littering, throwing rocks at gulls, building condominiums, driving airboats in the Everglades, spraying insecticides, and sawing down trees.
8) Finally, it can save your life. One day you will be walking home from work, depressed. Your kid has the flu, the car’s clutch needs to be fixed, and tomorrow is your birthday. Another year has passed and once again you have not triumphed at anything, really.
Then you glance at the sky in despair and right there, right over your head, blessing that particular air space on your street forever, is the world’s most beautiful bird! With pearly white head, black-and-white wings, long forked tail, it circles slowly, a hundred feet up, eating dragonflies, tearing off the wings and letting them flutter down.
You toss your briefcase in a bush, grab the first person to come along, and shout, “A swallow-tailed kite! A swallow-tailed kite!” until he, too, looks up and blinks at the sight, and knows suddenly that he must buy some binoculars and become a bird watcher himself.