The Catbird Seat: The Gift of Binocular Vision

By Pete Dunne; Illustration by Jeff Sipple
From the Autumn 2014 issue of Living Bird magazine.
Illustration by Jeff Sipple
Illustration by Jeff Sipple.

I have a hobby—okay, a sub-hobby. I give binoculars away. Yes, this would be a very expensive form of entertainment if I had to buy the instruments, but generally this is not the case. The binoculars in my gifting stock are usually instruments sent to me by optical manufacturers for evaluation and review. My terms are that following my appraisal I will pass them on to some needy (usually young) birder.

My testing procedure is rigorous. It involves submerging binoculars for an hour and putting them in a freezer. It also involves throwing them across an open field. My record throw, scored with a Steiner Peregrine, is 130 feet. Most manufacturers don’t want instruments abused like this to be returned, hence my pass-along policy.

Yes, I check to be sure they are still in alignment and not waterlogged before the gifting process is consummated. And no, I am not profligate in my gifting. Two instruments a year is my modern average. Binocular supplies have dwindled as the rigors of my testing process became known in the industry.

How do you get to become a binocular recipient? You meet me in the field and impress me with your ardent love of birding and your status as a rat-poor journeyman birder who simply cannot afford a decent binocular. Then you hope I run into you again when I have a giftable instrument in my possession. Requesting a binocular for yourself or another disqualifies you from consideration no matter how genuine the need.

I used to loan binoculars, but I discovered that this arrangement puts an unfair burden on the recipient. They were always worrying about caring for the things and returning them in a timely fashion. In time, I decided it was simply easier to give the instruments away. No muss, no fuss, no issues with the IRS.

I stopped the loaner program after lending a pair of Swarovski 7×42 porro prism binoculars to a new birder who needed to save for the instrument she coveted and didn’t want to settle for less. For the first couple of years, I used to receive postcards updating me about her travels, all the great birds she was seeing and her reaffirmation that she still intended to purchase a premium glass from Cape May Bird Observatory as soon as she was able. Then the cards stopped coming. I fear that she died—which is unfortunate, because I was very much looking forward to telling her that the binoculars in her possession were sent to me by Roger Tory Peterson, who was contacted by Swarovski shortly after they started marketing in the United States.

But if by good fortune you, Ms. Swarovski borrower, are still among the living and you happen to read this article, please know that the binoculars in your possession are not just very good but also very special. Also know that they are now yours. All I ask is that you pass them on to another set of worthy hands after they have served your needs. See good things and send me an update when you get a chance.

The Cornell Lab

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