By Sandi Hoover
As one of many birders in the United States, I can attest to what a weird bunch we are. Behavior can be extreme in pursuit of our avocation. Some are occasional, casual birders, content to see birds in their backyard or nearby. Others are fanatics to the point of obsession. Here are some things to know if you take up birding. Today, birders add an unbelievable $85 billion to the U.S. economy every year! These dollars are spent on equipment and clothing, travel, food, lodging, plus professional guides to help locate birds. According to estimates, nearly one in four Americans considers him or herself a bird watcher.
In appearance, you can expect to be dressed in specialized attire never shown on designers’ runways. It’s amazing how many dollars can be spent to look dorky. Starting at ground level, shoes range from tennis shoes to expensive hiking boots built to repel water and muck collected from trekking through marshes and swamps. Footwear is like a field vehicle —choose carefully because it will get dirty or ruined. The truism about the perfect car for a field trip —take someone else’s— works when thinking about shoes as well. Wear those you would toss.
Moving upward, another essential item is a pair of pants with pockets to carry the necessities of life to ward off the wilderness —even if venturing into the backwoods only 50 feet. The pants should be made of lightweight, quick-drying material with pockets upon pockets to hold sunscreen, bug repellent, lip balm, car keys, a birding guide, identification, tissues, water bottle (hydrate, hydrate, hydrate!), lens cleaner for binoculars, and possibly an iPad. Those pants usually have a zipper to convert them into unflattering shorts. However, in parts of the world where chiggers and ticks exist, one never removes the bottom, no matter how hot it might be. People have a valid concern about ticks, but they are far more visible than chiggers, and it’s relatively easy to eliminate them with a thorough check at home after a day pursuing birds. The real fear is the pain of chiggers.
So the pant legs stay on, tucked into white cotton socks (a look not imitated on fashion pages) to minimize the opportunity to provide a meal for those microscopic mites. Known as red bugs or %@!!*# chiggers, these tiny arachnids worm their way into garments, and onto skin, where they travel until they find a constricted spot —underwear edges preferred. There they bury their proboscis in tasty flesh and inject their digestive mix. If this sounds awful, it is! After dissolving part of a person, they suck up the juices —another lovely image.
The aftermath is worse, leaving you itching for several days with a reaction to mite saliva. If you have never met a chigger, you cannot understand the lengths one will go to avoid being lunch for those almost invisible creatures. Bug sprays on socks, sulfur powder, clothes soaked in DEET (rather death by poisons than the misery of itching and scratching for days on end), all are fair game for chigger avoidance. The wilderness demands toughness —or chemicals. Moving upward. You will want a long-sleeved shirt. Best if sun-and-bug-repellent coated, as well as water-resistant, and anti-microbial, so fellow birders are not offended by odors. Color? Beige or green, and the least flattering shades. Birds won’t smell you coming soaked in bug repellent. Most —excepting vultures have no sense of smell.
Next, a vest replete with pockets, homes for whatever didn’t fit in the pants. Pencil and notebook and at least one zippered pocket for money or keys. Who knows what you can tuck in one of the innumerable inner pockets —a several-course meal at the very least. A hat, again beige, or dull green; camo is mostly taboo, since it has been taken over by gun-toting non-birders. Large picture brim hats are verboten. Now you are properly attired and can proceed to hunt the feathered creatures. No longer do you hunt them as John James Audubon did, with shotgun or rifle. You go afield with ‘bins’ (binoculars) and spotting scopes.
Behavior is the way to identify fanatics. They are beyond the “committed” birders, defined as those who can identify forty different birds. They are unstoppable in pursuit of birds, perhaps obsessive-compulsive. They are the tickers. The movie, The Big Year, poignantly funny, was based on real people who were well-known in the birding community. Tickers need to count the different birds they see and tally them on their score card. The yearlong record was broken in 2016 when one person saw 783 species, dramatically surpassing the previous record of 749.
Scoring these rarities on the owner’s life list counts more than other sightings. Is it the thrill of the chase…perhaps the difficulty involved in spotting? Many people collect coins, stamps, porcelain, antiques, or tractors, if they live in Corrales. These are things occupying space, requiring dusting or maintaining in some way. Birders also collect —experiences and an assemblage that, while it grows, takes no dusting and no space other than bytes on a computer or words on paper. The goal is not just a number; this collection reminds us of our connection to the natural world, and the fragility of its ecosystems.
Birding is a way to observe creatures as they go about their lives. It is voyeurism of a sort, as we peer through binoculars to have a magnified look at their activities. We grab a snapshot of their world; a brief time when we glimpse their abilities. There is irony in that the number of birders is increasing while the number of birds is declining rapidly. The populations of many bird species have dropped by seventy percent or more based on data gathered for a century. This decrease is felt in ways people are not aware of. Birds play important roles in pest control, in pollination, and some are intimately entwined with the creation or propagation of forests. All will be missed if they disappear.
Do we only value things as they become rarer?