The Ivory Billed Woodpecker

When I think about bird-watching I think first about Jane Hathaway, the gangly, tweed suited secretary to Mr Drysdale on The Beverly Hillbillies.  I picture spinsterish women with bottle thick glasses and bumbling English vicars whose dialogue includes phrases like ‘Jolly good what!’ I picture hats with furry earflaps.

When I think about bird-watching, or birding as it is more often called these days, I think of eccentric old fellows who wax lyrical about species with names such as “Pink Crested Tit” (real) and ‘Spangled Doo-dally” (imagined) without a hint of innuendo.

To the outsider, the birding world is an idiosyncratic one. It is peopled with sociophobic obsessives who care more about the mating rituals of the Himalayan Blue Crane (real) than the welfare of their fellow human beings.  After all, these are people who spend hours sitting in camouflaged “hides”, enduring all types of inclement weather, on the off chance that they might spy a bird slightly less common than a pigeon (real). 

To a birder the list of all the various species they’ve seen—what is called a “life list”—is often viewed as more precious than their own children.  It is not uncommon for these lists, scribbled on shabby weathered notebooks, to be kept in safety deposit boxes along with the family jewels.  I’ve heard of life lists that were the subject of custody battles.

These strange behaviours of birders, as exotic as the nesting habits of the Irritated Dappled Dodo (imaginary), don’t help the perception that bird-watching is an activity for weirdos.  Take for instance the birding group in New York who, in the winter when the majority of bird species head south, arm themselves with notebooks and bird guides and head for the Metropolitan Museum.  The object of the activity is to search that eminent institution’s various exhibits and artworks for mere representations of our feathered friends.  The desperate act of addicts hanging out for a fix.  Stranger still, think of the odd ornithological habit of keeping a separate life list of all the birds one has seen in wallpaper! I ask you, is not that the behaviour of the marginally sane?

Birding is a complex culture.  Listen to any two birders in conversation and you’ll soon feel as I do when listening to the discourse of my teenage nephews and nieces, as if exposed to a whole new language.  Two birders in full swing emit chatter not unlike the song of a Yellow Breasted Robin (real) or a Variegated Thrush (not a nasty yeast infection and also real).

Some common birding terms:  twitching, twitcher, dipping, sitting. Twitching, a term originating in the United States, refers to a particular form of birding in which one actively seeks out rare and scarce birds that have been blown off course – thus appearing far out of their natural range. Distance is no object for fanatical Twitchers.  Many travel hundreds of miles, at a moment’s notice, to see some hapless bird that has unwittingly touched down in an alien continent.  Twitchers often give up regular employment in order to be able to devote more time to scrambling about the country chasing up reports of disoriented birds. Twitchers were recently the subject of a motion picture starring Owen Wilson, Jack Black and Steve Martin (The Big Year 2011). Twitchers have hit the big time.

“Real birders” are sceptical of Twitching.  It is claimed that Twitchers are ‘only in it for the twitch’, only in it for the adrenaline hit.  Twitchers are accused of not caring about preservation.  This is one of a dozen schisms in the bird-watching world.  There is also the widening divide between professional and amateur ornithologists, those whose interest is solely scientific and those whose interest is more aesthetic.  Twitchers are generally younger, more likely to engage in cyber-birding (sighting birds on the internet) and are considered a sect unto themselves, a strange religion rebelling against the orthodoxy of ornithology.

Dipping, which the humorous birder will tell you has nothing to do with baba ghanoush, is the failure to twitch (make a sighting).  This often happens like this: a Twitcher receives a page or text message about a rare bird sighting.  The twitcher leaps lethargically into his/her Morris Minor and hurtles off into the countryside.  The report turns out to be spurious.  The Twitcher should have known something was amiss when the report came in.  How many African Vultures (real) end up in suburban Toowoomba anyway?

Sitting is what it sounds like, sitting, specifically in a concealed location or hide in the hopes of sighting a rare bird, or for that matter any bird.  Sitting generally involves thermoses of tea drunk in damp meadows and more whispered talk than actual bird-watching.  It is in the context of these long stakeouts, or “big sits” (which have nothing to do with constipation), that another aspect of birding culture reveals itself, that of the urban (birding) myth and birding in-jokes.

Birding jokes are generally of a poor standard.  Two vultures are in the desert eating a dead clown. The first vulture asks the second vulture ‘Does this taste funny to you?’  Or how about these ones:

  • How do you catch a unique bird? Unique up on it!
  • How do you catch a tame bird? Tame way - unique up on it!

Then of course the old standard: How does a chicken mail a letter? In a HEN-velope! Some jokes are situational.  If, god (imaginary) forbid, someone happens to pass wind at a particularly silent moment during a long sit then the flatulent birder routinely says ‘Oh goodness, there goes a Flatulent Owl!’  To which one of his companions replies, ‘Or a Brown Warbler!’  Birders find this scenario hilarious no matter how many times it is enacted.

Birding myths are in much the same vein.  Some of these myths have been circulating for decades.  Like many urban myths they tend to change over time, usually becoming more and more outlandish with each retelling.  I first heard the following myth on my virgin birding trip, which I undertook not as a true participant but as a bemused observer.  This myth is widely referred to as ‘Old Boiler’ and is known by all serious birdwatchers.

It goes something like this: In the 1920’s the U.S. Department of the Interior began tagging migratory birds for the Washington Biological Survey. The leg bands bore the abbreviated name of the survey: Wash. Biol. Surv.  One day the agency received a letter from an Alabama share-cropper which read:  ‘Dear Sirs, while hunting I shot one of your birds. I think it was a crow. I followed the cooking instructions on the leg tag and want to tell you it was real awful!’  Apparently a batch of the leg rings was wrongly stamped with the words: Wash. Boil. Surv.

My favourite myth is set in England.  A retired Anglican vicar sets out on a birding trip, carrying binoculars, camera and tripod, field scope, lawn chair and picnic basket.  He ends up in a bramble of thorny bushes while searching for a nearby pond and its ornithological rarities, horn-billed waterbirds (real).  He sets up in what seems to be a good spot and prepares for a pleasant day of watching.  After only a few minutes two policemen come by. ‘What on earth are you doing here?’ they ask.  He answers, ‘I’d hoped to jump on some rare birds, such as the horn billed waterbirds that frequent this pond.’ The constables roar with laughter: ‘If you stay here you will be the one who gets jumped!  You’ve ended up in a meeting place for rare birds indeed, lonely but horny homosexuals!’ Of course, the lonely but horny homosexual is quite real, I can attest to that fact myself having sighted a few at close range. Alarmed by the news that he has stumbled onto the mating grounds of the horny homosexual, the vicar’s face pales.  He seeks a police escort back to his car.

Oddly enough, it was this last tale that convinced me that I was ready to come out of the closet as a birder. I had always thought that I might be the only queer birder on earth but, if legends be true, I’m more likely to encounter a Dapper Homosexual (real) on a birding trip than an Ivory-Billed Woodpecker (also real and rather randily named).

So, when next you overhear two genteel old ladies discussing Little Whimbrel (real), American Widgeons (real), Fandangled Warblers (imaginary), field scopes, big sits and life-lists, don’t report them as suspected Al-Qaeda operatives. Be assured that they’re just birders, one of my own kind.  Though, one does wonder which is more frightening.

The Dapper Homosexual