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.

Birding Birds

First Impressions of the First Edition of Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America

I went to the book launch of the Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America yesterday (pictured on the left) and I was struck by a couple of design decisions that I think are a bit peculiar. While my caveat emptor is that I spent about 5 minutes leafing through it, two one deficits jumped out at me immediately:

The first is size. The book has grown and now is more in line with the original Sibley’s guide (the website has the book dimensions listed as 6×9 inches). For me, a book of this size no longer becomes a field guide–a book that can easily slip into a coat pocket and is forgettable as you carry it around–it becomes a desk reference. Yet, right there on the cover is the fact that this is supposed to be a field guide. Sibley’s guide as a desk reference is “worth it” in my opinion, because the extra space is used to describe and illustrate a wider variety of colour morphs seen across North America. In the new Peterson guide, the bigger pages are filled with larger illustrations. I don’t know if this is a demographic decision (Houghton Mifflin: “Birders are getting old. We need to make the bird illustrations bigger so they can see them easily”), but I was somewhat surprised that the new edition is essentially an old Peterson Field Guide “super-sized.”

Second, range maps are in the back of the book. Another bone-headed move on the design front. Having to flip around a book to try and find if what I think I’m seeing should actually be where I’m seeing it is extra effort. This is actually a step backwards for the Peterson guides because in the most recent edition of the Eastern guide (and I have to assume Western, too) there are range maps right on the same page as the plates. All the “current-generation” bird books that I own have range maps right with species descriptions and plates. The only reason why I can think the move was made has to do with the size of the maps: they’re much larger then they would have been if they were to have been included with the text. Personally, a small map never was much of a limiting factor when using a guide.

Update (09-11-08): As per the first comment below, it would seem that I managed to miss the inclusion of range maps beside the species descriptions. So, it would appear that you get flip-free small range maps and the larger range maps in the back.

This guide is supposed to assume the mantle of the new edition of Peterson bird guides. I suspect that Houghton Mifflin will, à la Sibley Guide to Birds, publish more compact regional versions (previous Peterson guides covered Eastern and Western North America) of this guide sometime in the future. It’s an interesting plan because while this worked for the Sibley guides, I’m not so sure it will work again in the case of Peterson. My resoning is this: at some point people don’t need another field guide. There was enough value-added in The Sibley Guide to Birds to warrant having both a desk reference and a field guide. I don’t see any extra value in owning the first edition of the North American Peterson and a field-guide size regional version too. It will be interesting to see what the future holds for this edition.

Academia Birds

Prairie Chickens and bird-watching

I keep an eye out for newspaper articles published on birding as I find they provide an interesting insight into the larger cultural perception of the activity. While I’m not doing a discourse analysis of this stuff, a recent article published in the New York Times (Prairie Birds Flirt, and a Town Livens Up) hits on some interesting themes that I’ve been finding in my research.

Certain birds have agency in attracting humans

The article outlines the fact that the bodily presence of Prairie Chickens attracts humans. Following the normal pattern, it is the fact that these birds are perceived as being rare that attracts birders to come and see them. Rarity isn’t the only reason that birders are interested in these birds, aesthetics plays a large part in attracting humans–the Prairie Chicken’s spring-time display, visually stunning is a key component. This mating display between males is unique to one time of year and so rarity is compounded–an aesthetics that is rare in time in addition to the Chicken’s diminishing numbers.

Birds, then, have positive impacts on local economies

Humans travelling to take in the display has had an positive, significant impact for the local (human) economy. Animal agency becomes bird tourism, where birders travel and spend money in the same area that these birds are being seen. Since the agricultural economy in the region has softened, this is seen as a positive influx of money for the local economy–money spent on lunches, gas and accommodation.

Ironically, the Prairie Chickens are in this sparsely populated region for the reason that humans are not–the birds need undisturbed prairie habitat. No mention is made in the article how the increased attention on the birds with impact the number of birds in the future. Likely, there’s the rosy forecast that more attention paid to the birds will improve their profile and, in turn their numbers. Quite often, however, this conclusion is made without any real interrogation of the potential birder’s impact.


Spring Migration at Rondeau

Blackburnian Warbler, originally uploaded by Gavatron.

Dad and I got back this weekend from a three day trip to Rondeau Provincial Park to take in the spring (warbler) migration. Now that’s not to say that we didn’t see anything else other than warblers—that was hardly the case—but no other family of birds has managed to capture Eastern North American birdwatchers’ attention (and admiration and love) like the Parulidae family.

Why? That’s a good question. I suspect because wood-warblers are small (a.k.a. cute); relatively colourful (you can’t beat the “safety cone” orange of this Blackburnian); have interesting life histories; and species-wise, they provide enough of a challenge to get to know all of them.

The Wood-warblers are (typically speaking) insect-eaters that nest in intact wooded areas (I’m talking your typical forest here—deciduous or coniferous, it depends on the species) and migrate great distances from their Northern summer range to their winter ranges (places where their food is still active & alive). So, in our minds it a geographic thing—they migrate; moving in time and place from point A to point B. I would imagine, however, that in their minds, they’re following the food. For them, they’re riding the top of a climatic crest, if you will, where at the apex they find the most food.

In this sense spring migration isn’t geographic—it’s biotic—the confluence of the earth’s northern hemisphere pointing more and more toward the sun; the emergence from dormancy of ecosystems; the swarming of insects; the movement of birds.