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Dissertation

Finding, seeing, identifying, recording, sharing

This post is the conclusion to one of my draft PhD dissertation chapters. It doesn’t represent a final thought or particular endpoint: these are ideas in progress. It also explains why the post just sort of starts without any introductory context. I’m always interested in hearing your opinion of my ideas, too.

Birding 5
Creative Commons License photo credit: Explore The Bruce

Knowing individuals is the exception and not the rule for birders’ relationships with birds, largely because the motivations behind these interactions are not mutual enjoyment. Rather, as I have described, because birding is centred on the detection and identification of individual birds to species, collecting these observations is often the underlying motivation. This notion of collection is not as simple as it sounds. Based on the acts practised by the birders I interviewed, birding at its core is an activity of watching. This watching of birds is an emotional experience – leading to all kinds of feelings – but reinforced through the emotional catharsis, I theorize, of getting to see a bird. While watching birds implicitly foregrounds the visual nature of the activity, as you are drawn into watching birds, the activity expands beyond the visual to include the auditory and even the tactile. Knowing (or wanting to know) what you are seeing, hearing or touching still hold the practices together.

If this watching birds can transition into the act of birding, then it is steeped in first-hand experience, with sightings occurring when bird and birder at found in the same place at the same time. Human sensory limitations coupled with a Euclidean understanding of time and space frame what counts as bird sightings, in turn limiting acts of birding to these experiential moments.

With a birder and a bird together, a sighting is made and the process of identification can take place. These acts of identification rely on a birder’s sensory abilities to pick out important aspects of a bird’s identity, but also take into account the larger ecological context – the relationship between the components of the bird and birder’s surroundings – of the bird sighting. In this sense, identification occurs in a larger context and is, in fact, a hybrid act. Identification blends a clinical, reductionist approach to breaking birds into a set of field markings (e.g. “has complete eye ring”) and a more holistic, even phenomenological approach leading to the gestalt of a bird (e.g. “that bird just looked like a great-blue heron”). I have personally experienced and found with some birders that the emergence of a phenomenological approach to birding is coupled to an expanded awareness of bird life around them. This sensory attunement to the presence of birds is developed through the overt act of birding. It, in turn, leads to moments outside planned birding excursions where present birds can unexpectedly enter the consciousness and draw attention. I have described these moment as the chance encounter in birding.

If a species of birds holds one or a combination of perceived characteristics (beauty, rarity or transience) they then are ascribed more power by birders. These birds are subsequently sought out or attracted in more often than birds that do not hold these characteristics. Birders also work to predict when and where these kinds of birds can be seen. This act of prediction expands beyond sought-after species and expands into the whole practice: birders work to improve their ability to predict the highest concentration of birds and species. In order to increase their success birding, and in part a reaction to the unpredictable nature of birds, birders share their sightings with others. Sightings are perishable objects and birders work to share the information before the sightings start to decay. They also work to accrue or reinforce the reputation of a birder – being the first to see a valued bird is something valued in the birding world.