Catbird Seat: Birding in the Garden of Good and Not So Good

by Pete Dunne; Illustration by Jeff Sipple
April 10, 2010
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I am puzzled by birders. They can be the most honest and responsible people on earth and yet some of the most insensitive and thoughtless, too.

Crazy thing is, I’m not talking about a sampling of the population here. I’m talking about individual individuals.

Take honesty. I’ll bet you can’t find a more honest group of people assembled beneath another avocational banner. Birders are incredibly honest—disgustingly honest.

I’m not referring to the pristine nature of their bird lists. I’m talking about dollars- and-cents fair play.

Do you know of any other avocation where a person can walk into a store, be handed a $2,500 binocular, and be invited to take them for a test drive?

“You want a credit card?”

“No.”

“You want my driver’s license?”

“You’re going to bring them back?”

“Well, sure.”

“Then why do I want your driver’s license? I have one of my own.”

Back when optics companies first started attending bird festivals, they used to make borrowers fill out forms. Now they just hand out product.

I’ve actually made trying to lose a binocular a hobby, a crusade. I habitually hand out high-priced optics to strangers I meet in the field, inviting them to just drop them off at the end of the day. The instruments never walk.

Okay, maybe I did lose an instrument once. The suspect was a retired woman of modest means, who walked into the store and fell in love with a binocular that was too big for her budget. It broke her heart that she was going to have to settle.

“Here,” I said, after a moment’s thought. “Borrow these and start saving for the ones you want. Come back when you’ve got the cash.”

She thanked me. Promised she’d be back. For several years, I was treated to postcards telling me where she’d been, and what birds she’d seen, and how she had almost saved all the money she needed. Then the cards stopped. I guess she must have died.

Too bad, actually, because I was looking forward to telling her that the binoculars she was using were sent to me by Roger Tory Peterson. He asked me to evaluate them. Now she’ll never know the instruments were his.

So that’s birders’ good side. The flip side is the discourteous side.

What discourtesy?

There! See what I mean?

You’re not alone. Years ago, I was addressing 400 birders at a seminar on ethics at the ABA Convention in Colorado. I asked the crowd if anyone could name the number one complaint that Cape May residents had about birders.

Several foibles were offered. Trespassing, being noisy at O-Dark-Thirty, pointing their binoculars toward houses.

Shockingly (but not surprisingly) not one person in the crowd guessed right. The answer was (and is) “stopping in the middle of the road to look at birds.” It drives residents crazy.

“Well … can’t people just drive around you?”

Sure they can. But why should they have to?

Related to this is the nonchalance many birders exhibit toward maintaining a normal speed on public roads. I ran into such a one this fall—happily not literally. I got caught behind a guy with a bumper plastered with birding bumper stickers, who was driving at a crawl, looking every way but forward, and so cross-the-center-line erratic that passing was not an option. He finally stopped at a trailhead, and I pulled up to encourage him to be more courteous.

“There wasn’t anybody behind me,” was his reply.

Informed that “I was behind him,” he replied, “Oh, well then it didn’t matter.” Being a birder, he figured I’d understand.

I do understand. There’s just a difference between understanding discourtesy and sanctioning it.

I guess, if I had to choose, I’d rather that the ranks of birders were populated with discourteous saints than polite thieves. But it beats the devil out of me why anyone has to choose.

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