Looking Up, Writing Down
This morning, as I sharpened my computer keys in anticipation of composing the very first Weekly Curmudgeon of 2020, I asked myself, “Now, which of the many complaint-worthy behaviors on my lengthy hit list is most overdue for a solid dose of ridicule?” These decisions are critical, as the first Curmudgeon of the year sets the tone for all the others. And since my blog is now read by more than one hundred people (a whopping one hundred and eleven to be exact, as one always should), the responsibility is weightier than ever.
Fortunately, the answer came to me in a flash. Somehow, in the nearly three years since I began writing The Weekly Curmudgeon, I’d yet to discuss birders. For those unfamiliar, I’ll explain. Birding is a hobby. That hobby consists of the following activities: spotting different types of birds . . . and writing down their names.
Birders aren’t bird watchers—people who simply enjoy watching birds for their beauty and behavior, which is a perfectly sensible way to pass the time. Neither are they ornithologists—scientists who study birds; that’s an area of expertise and research with measurable benefits. No, birders aren’t either of those. They practice neither the calm meditation of the former, nor offer the contribution of the latter. They just madly dash around adding to their lists. And yes, you guessed it, they don’t go on a lot of dates.
The rabid enthusiasm with which birders pursue this dud of a hobby is a strange thing to behold. Not satisfied by simply watching and enjoying the birds, they keep little journals to document the exact dates, times, and places of each sighting.* They subscribe to Birder magazine. They belong to clubs, where they can smugly recount to one another the fateful day they almost saw a Spotted Bolivian Facesmacker.
There are even competitions. You probably haven’t heard about these, but they’re a pretty big deal in the birder community. (No one else cares.) The most prominent is what’s known as The Big Year—an entire year of trying to find and document as many species as possible. This involves leaving behind jobs, families, and other obligations to tromp around the globe in hopes that a rare Speckle-toothed Gumrat or an East Andalusian Marzipan—perhaps even a Left-Handed Pleep—will put them over the top, giving them more species than anyone else for their little journals. It also involves buying expensive, top-of-the line equipment like binoculars, cameras, tripods, hiking boots, tents, parachutes, carabiners, and many, many pencils. It’s all very intense.
With each sighting comes a great sense of accomplishment as the nerdiest humans on the planet breathlessly notate the event with the authoritative satisfaction of a detective finding the missing piece of evidence needed to nail a suspect. "Aha! Got him! The Ponytailed Hopscotch!" Then it's back to the search, until . . . “Look,” someone exclaims, pointing to a tree as if reporting a crime, "A Nine-Toed Nebraskan Caterwaul!" And everyone snaps away on their camouflaged cameras to document the thrilling discovery. The Caterwaul, meanwhile, is just living her life.
Don’t misunderstand me; birds are marvelous and captivating creatures. Getting outdoors and enjoying them is good for the body and soul. But making a big, involved project out of just observing something strikes me as beneath the dignity of a grown-up adult person. When I was a child, my family would occasionally take trips that involved considerable amounts of driving time. Like all smart parents, mine were prepared with games we could play in the car. One of these involved calling out whenever we spotted a car of a certain color. Each spotting was worth a point. But the game was limited to road trips and rarely even lasted the entire journey. Not once did we document the car sightings in a journal, nor did we identify their makes and models. There were no national competitions. It was just a way to pass the time. After that, we went back to our lives.
But birders are like those people who know everything that happened in each episode of Star Trek. While there’s something to admire about the passion, it’s a bit hard to understand getting that worked up over a run-of-the-mill Pickleneck Sparkler. I mean, who hasn't seen one of those? *There is passionate disagreement amongst birders as to whether just hearing the call of a sought-after species counts enough to merit a journal entry. This bitter, emotionally charged rift has resulted in feuds, divorces, violence, and no lack of hushed cursing among birders as they hide in the bushes awaiting the appearance of the Throttle-necked Torque or the Blue-faced Wigglewomper.