I’ve been reading Stephen Moss’s A Bird in the Bush these past days, which as the tagline says is a social history of birdwatching.
This is a highly informative book, rich in anecdote and birding lore. My one grouse is it is predominantly Britain-centric apart from some references to developments in the Americas, mostly North of course. However, once I’d put that disappointment behind me, I was absorbed by the view this book afforded me of birders and birdwatching in times other than this one, in their context, their mileau, with their values and resources.
Starting with the Reverend Gilbert White who made his home patch so memorable with his work The Natural History of Selbourne to the latest advances in bird ringing technology and optics today, Moss traces it all. He also peppers his account with passages by birders and naturalists and it serves to vividly bring their times to light, not merely by what they're saying but with how they're saying it as well. Birders, if these quotes are anything to go by, seem to make charming raconteurs, because these men are articulate, prone to description and frequently poetic. I'm taking the liberty of quoting a few pieces here because they're so telling.
For most of us today, birding is also a social activity. There is an insistent feeling of community flowing along a line of birders with their bins raised to the flighted ones.
The companionship too of those who are prosecuting with zeal and enthusiasm the same path of science, is not the least delightful feature of such excursions... the pleasing incidents that diversified the walk, the jokes that passed, and even the very mishaps or annoyances that occurred – all became objects of interest, and unite the members of the party by ties of no ordinary kind.That doesn’t mean to say that it can’t be enjoyed alone, of course; it is glorious to be on your own, feeling the sun on your shoulders and all the time in the world at your command as you commune with a woodpecker, or even an owl:
JH Balfour, on a similar pursuit, the search for rare flowers.
Before that moment I had, like every young keen birder, compensated for experiences of the real thing with long hours poring over bird books and bird pictures. But on Goldsitch Moss I realised, perhaps for the first time, by how much life can exceed imagination. A Short-eared Owl had entered my life and for those moments, as it swallowed me up with its piercing eyes, I had entered the life of an owl. It was a perfect consummation.
Mark Cocker, Birder: Tales of a Tribe
However, there are times when you must, absolutely must have someone to tell what remarkable birds you saw that morning. And so, it was curious for me to see the loneliness that hung over many early birders. It was oddly brave of those early birders to persist in birding in complete isolation, in making meticulous notes of habitats, markings and observations in a time when it cast you in dubious light to carry field glasses (only race-goers sported them, apparently).
It has long been my misfortune never to have had any neighbours whose studies have led them towards the pursuit of natural knowledge; so that, for want of a companion to quicken my industry and sharpen my attention, I have made but slender progress…
It was a bit shocking to know that even as close as the early 1970s, there were closet birders.
At the time, sex, drugs and rock’n’roll were far more alluring… As such, the last thing I would mention to anyone was that I enjoyed watching birds – it just wasn’t, well, cool!
It was the standard joke when people heard I was interested in birds – ‘oh, the two-legged kind, I hope!’… That kind of constant crass innuendo made me wary about disclosing my bird interests.Moss talks at length also of the shotgun naturalists and the egg-collectors – a period that by the simple expedient of holding the (dead) bird in hand, added much to the collective pool of scientific knowledge – and the social and ecological values that led to their condemnation.
Particularly thrilling for me were accounts of young men in Britain and America who stepped out to explore their worlds with dogged single-mindedness. Specially the story of American birder Kenn Kaufman, who at the age of 17 dropped out of high school and took off with fifty dollars in his pocket to travel his country looking for birds. Then there were Britons Nigel Redman and Chris Murphy who charted a 10-month epic journey of more than five thousand miles from Britain to Nepal via Europe, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan and India.
Moss presents the debates around the more recent day obsession with twitching also. Even as I wondered at listers for not seeing the woods for the trees in their pursuit of another tick, I couldn’t help gasp at Phoebe Snetsinger and her haul of 8500 species when she died in 1999. Diagnosed with cancer and told that she had less than one year to live, she fought back and continued in her quest for ‘lifers’ till she died in a freak bus accident in Madagascar.
The book narrates many such stories, engrossing to anyone who’s interested in how birding came to be what it is today. Fascinating stuff.
A Bird in the Bush: A Social History of Birdwatching
Stephen Moss (2004)
Aurum Press, London