While out with the dogs and Heather this morning, I heard a bird song that was different than the “regular” bird noises I hear while I’m out and about. I had a similar experience of hearing an unusual call last month. Upon hearing that call, off I went traipsing across a park with a dog in tow, scanning bare limbs for movement. I found the bird at the top of a tree and, not surprisingly, it wasn’t some vagrant or rarity, rather it was a European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) obviously trying out a song from its repertoire.
The same kind of experience happened again this morning: out with the dogs, chatting with Heather, paying attention to what Griff was doing at the end of his leash and out of the periphery of my consciousness, my mind flips into action: there is something out of the ordinary calling “out there”. Now, having had the Starling experience in the last month, and having people and dogs to draw my attention, I made a mental note of its auditory presence but then moved on.
Off our mixed Canid and Hominid foraging flock moved to get a cup shade-grown of coffee and a teabiscuit (I say foraging flock because Ollie and Griff managed to convince us that we should offer them some crumbs). We returned home following our same path and in the same spot on our out-bound leg, the song snapped into consciousness. And it was something out of the ordinary. Just like my gut told at the time that the bird I heard last month was a Starling, my gut told me that this wasn’t.
Making the identification
So there I stood, looking. And I saw a little brown shape, with its back to me, just above eye-height in a shrub about twelve feet in front of me. My mind said: Sparrow. Right size and shape. Right place, if you will. Fair enough. What kind of sparrow? Though I’m sure I’ve heard something out of the ordinary, this bodily presence could be what I’m not looking for: one of the resident House Sparrows (Passer domesticus). Of course, I don’t have binoculars with me. To get a better look, and throw away the possibility that this is a House Sparrow, I need to get closer.
So I approach. Moving to my right rather than towards the bird, more of its head and neck come into view and I can quickly discard the possibility that this is a House Sparrow. From this distance, I easily see a small white bib underneath the head, pointing an identification toward White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis). I say to Heather, “I think this is a White-Throated Sparrow”. I’m not ready, however, to say this with certainty.
I start asking myself what else this could be; what other field marks I would need see to decide that it is, in fact, a White-throat. And so I purse my lips and softly warble out the White-Throat’s song; pieces of which had snapped me to attention earlier this morning. It turns out I don’t need to see anything else. I need to hear. In a moment the White-throat returns a version of its song, more staccato than I’m used to hearing and missing portions here and there. But there isn’t any mistaking it: a White-throated Sparrow.
A White-throated Sparrow! At the end of February! In Toronto! If the wet snow underneath my feet and the Skunk Cabbage popping up along the Cedarvale Ravine wasn’t enough, then this is a certain sign of spring. I start wondering just how unusual its presence here at this time is. I don’t know White-throat’s winter range off-hand, but I suspect that while some individuals may spend the winter in Southern Ontario, most over-winter further south.
Watching the White-throat: the chance encounter in birding
As I walked home I began to reflect on the experience. Had I been birding? A strange question perhaps, but in my research about birders, many participants suggested that it was only when they purchased binoculars that they had become “birders”. When I was collecting data, I always could identify a birder by the presence of binoculars around their neck. Backyard birders—those who feed birds in their backyard—often had a pair of binoculars beside the window that faced on to the feeders. Only bird rescuers, who made a point to not call themselves birders, did not use binoculars in their practice. In short, binoculars=birding.
In theorizing the practice of birding, I developed a model of birding practice with three axes1: knowledge, ethical motivation and intent. Finding examples of birding with intent is easy: whenever you pick up your binoculars and head out the door looking birds, you’ve got intent. Finding examples of birding without that intent is more difficult (and is why, in part, in my model there is a dotted line on the intent half of the intent axis). But there is little question, when you read my narrative of what I was doing this morning, I was birding.
So let me propose that the chance encounter in birding are those fleeting glances of Red-Tailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) along the highway while you’re sitting in the passenger seat; the moments as you’re busy doing something else that your eyes are drawn to the sky as a Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) flies overhead in its characteristic up-and-down flight; moments where you’re drawn from your activity, your inner thoughts or your mindlessness and turn your attention outward towards the more-than-human around you.
And there is something significant in that. For one, you have to be open to noticing the shapes and sounds that might lead to a chance encounter. The practice of birding—classically constructed birding—requires a sustained attention to the world. Through experience, you learn to distinguish between the movements of leaves in the wind and a Ruby-Crown Kinglet (Regulus calendula) moving along a branch looking for food. The act of looking, to strain and try and to perceive the the head shape of the Scaup (Aythya sp.) in your spotting scope not only means that you can confirm that what you saw was a Lesser Scaup (Aythya affinis) but, more important than identification, it is an offer to start looking at the world in more detail.
As, or perhaps, if you take up that offer to pay more attention, more of the world unfurls before you. Sight, sound, even smell and touch proctor previously hidden experiences: you begin to notice the song out of place; recognize movement in your peripheral vision as a fleeting bird; the places to expect and the shape to perceive of unexpected birds. True, anyone can experience a chance encounter with birds. What sets birders apart, based on my experience and observation, is that more and more chance encounters open up for birders because of their practice. Birding helps shape the birder to perceive differently and attune to the Aves among us.
Thus, birding is not just strictly an act of identification, but becomes a practice of phenomenology; of being increasingly open and attentive, subconsciously and consciously to the phenomena within our umwelt, or perceived surrounding world.
- Not the woodchopping kind, by the way. Axes as in the plural of axis. [↩]