Collapsing space and freezing time in birding

The following post includes ruminations and ideas emerging as I analyze the data collected for my PhD dissertation focusing on the act of birding. It doesn’t represent a final thought or particular endpoint: these are ideas in progress. I would be interested in hearing your opinion of my ideas, too.


Many birding technologies appear to serve the function of augmenting the process of  identification of observed birds. These ID technologies seem to serve two broad functions to augment limitations birders face: the first is the the distance between themselves and observed birds and the second is the ability to identify a bird during the (unpredictable) length of time they have watching it. Putting the second another way, it’s the speed with which a birder can make an identification that they think is correct.

Birders attempt to correct the first by using technologies that collapse space  and seem to correct the second by using technologies that change the nature of time. Let me expand a bit because while I think collapsing space is easy to understand if you’ve birded, freezing time might be a bit more oblique.

Collapsing space

Binoculars and spotting scopes are examples of two technologies that fall into this category. So, when I say “collapse space,” I mean that these kinds of technologies work to remove the distance between the birder and the bird. These technologies exist because most birds don’t allow birders to approach close enough on foot to see the detail required to make an identification. Being able to see a bird in such way to be able to identify it is so important to birding that in my own research, birders have marked their beginning moment as birders with the purchase of binoculars or, if they happen to see a bird without binoculars in hand, don’t consider that observation as, well, bird-watching.

Other technologies that work to collapse space used less frequently by birders include blinds. But, in places where bird populations are relatively immobile for a period of time, blinds, often in combination with binoculars, are used to bring the human closer to the bird.

Historically, the rifle or shotgun (shotgun ornithology…ever wonder what “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” really means?) would have been used in place of binoculars when attempting to “get close” to birds.

Freezing time

Arguable, part of the challenge of birding is finding yourself in a moment in time with a well-seen, unidentified bird. Most often, the end-goal here is to turn this opportunity into a known species. In the limited moments that they have, a birder has to engage in a cognitive process of eliminating the possibilities and reducing choices to a best guess. Birders are limited in their ability to know every species–experience helps with this, certainly, but my research shows that even the best birders have a large stack of bird books at home. Even though they can identify most birds with ease, experienced birders still use guides to assist with the process of (difficult) identifications.

Now having a bird book on hand does not guarantee an identification and the physical nature of paper books is often a limitation ((The limitations of the physicality of bird books is being challenged right now by electronic bird books, such as the iBird line of eBird Guides. These limitations move beyond slowing time down, as the technological advances in paper bird books have done, into changing the kind of information that can exist at a birders fingertips. I have some things to say about the implications of eBird Guides, but I’ll save that for another post.)): “Where are the grebes again? Before or after ducks?” Time is spent flipping back and forth. Because time is of the essence, publishers have introduced advances to book design to, again, change the nature of time. For example, the most recent edition of the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, book flaps now have bird types (e.g. ducks, hawks, warblers) listed alphabetically with page references and the most popular bird types have encyclopedia-like “letter tabs” built into the edge of the guide, so you can find the warblers immediately (the tabs are kind of like physical representations of hyperlinks).

So a bird book is one example of a technology that changes the nature of time: by having a durable, external object that has organized representations of expected bird species, a birder is able to speed-up their process of identification while in the field; without the use of a bird book, longer, more sustained looks would be required to connect the observation to a known species. In effect, the use of bird books acts to slow down time when watching an unknown bird by speeding up the process of identification.

Taking a picture of a bird, rather than slowing time down, freezes it. I’ve experienced a birder carrying around a camera, and saying, after taking a photograph of a bird that she didn’t know, that she would wait to go home to make the identification. Now at home, she looks at the photograph and, with the help of her bird books, makes the identification. No longer, in this case, does the fleeting nature of the bird’s presence matter to making an identification–or it matters insomuch as to get the photograph. Perhaps even more importantly, because this photographic record exists, the quality of identification (or at least the confidence that other birders can put into it) is increased.

Interestingly, there is a distinct tension that appears when birders talk about bird photographers. Perhaps I’ll write about that next…

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