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Thursday, November 01, 2007

Bird Lovers, or just Bird Users?

Roger Tory Peterson is perhaps justly considered the patron saint of bird education, but he also stated that he was not a bird lover.
I don’t love birds. I am obsessed with birds. I have always been obsessed with birds. But I don’t love them. Loving demands reciprocation, or at least the promise of reciprocation. Birds simply do not reciprocate. We might enjoy them, watch them, and study them, but to “love” them--that is being too anthropomorphic.

--Devlin, John C. and Naismith, Grace, The World of Roger Tory Peterson. (New York, Times Books, 1977), p.152.

While we can perhaps just chalk this one up to Roger being an unsentimental man of his times, maybe there is something more at play here. While I don't agree that "loving demands reciprocation" I might more closely subscribe to a definition of love by the late psychologist M. Scott Peck in his book The Road Less Traveled:
Love is the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.

Perhaps this is still a bit anthropomorphic. I'm not sure you have to be concerned about the "spiritual growth" of a bird to care for it enough to give of yourself in order to ensure that individual birds or bird populations are able to thrive. But I do think if you do put yourself out to help birds that way, that you can consider that a form of loving birds.

But here's the real question. For the millions of birders or birdwatchers, those of us who are "obsessed with birds" and who enjoy watching or studying them, do we really love birds, or are we just a bird users?

In environmental education, it is common to believe that if we can just get people to enjoy watching birds, they will love them and want to help them--we can turn people into bird lovers by getting them to be bird watchers.

But I'm not so sure. For many birders and birdwatchers, birds are just a means to an end--something to chase during our free time, something to dream about, something to enjoy with our friends. Just because millions of people enjoy birds enough to take time off to enjoy them, does not mean that they love birds--that they are willing to "extend oneself" for the purpose of helping those birds.

Sometimes I have the sneaking suspicion that birdwatchers and birders are really mere users of birds, rather than real bird lovers. How many birders will drive overnight to see a rare bird, but won't take the time to become involved in the political process that can determine if bird habitats and populations are protected or destroyed? While I'm not here to oppose anyone's hobby--be it stamp collecting, rock climbing, or birding--I am wondering about the moral implications of using birds for our own enjoyment without "extending ourselves" to make sure that those birds are able to persist and enjoy whatever measure of pleasure they merit within their own sphere of creation.

Perhaps if we want people to really love birds, to be willing to "extend" themselves to help them, we should focus our efforts on teaching people how to actually help birds--rather than how to just enjoy them. While everyone who helps birds probably enjoys them as well, the arrow doesn't always (or even often) go in the other direction.

But enough from me. What do you think? Are we bird lovers or mere bird users, and if so, is that a problem?

13 comments:

Kat said...

I've always wondered the same, although not quite so eloquently as you've put things.

In spite of my respect for Peterson, I don't agree with his description of love. I truly love chocolate, yet fully understand it doesn't love me back! All kidding aside, I do love birds. I love watching them and studying them and just being around them (my blood pressure drops just hearing their calls and chirps). And with that goes protecting them (decals, for example so they don't hit our windows, ensuring there are no cats near our feeders, etc.).

I've never been the kind of birder, obsessed with my life list, chasing bird after bird across the world, yet I know others that do. And this is fine. I respect that. But for me, the real joy of birds is not adding yet another species to a list, but rather watching birds do what they do. Learning about those that I see every day, how they behave not only as a species, but how they behave as a unique individual bird. They bring me joy, pleaseure and much relaxation.

I think your question is a good one to ask, because when you consider how much environmental damage can occur with the art of birding (spending all day driving and burning up a tank of gas to add yet another bird to a life list), is one worth the sacrifice of the other?

Given the opportunity to travel to add a new bird to my list, or sit on my deck and enjoy the flocks that I have in my woods, I'd choose my flock of chickadees any day of the week. I can say I've learned much about their behavior and their, often, short-lived lives through nothing more than observation. But I suspect I'm probably in the minority.

Good post!

PA-Birder said...

Rob,
When I'm not Birding, I'm living life as a Pastor of a church. In the church we have folks who could be viewed as "using their faith" only as a means to improve their own lives. It seems that for them, faith is just one more consumer item. On the other end of the spectrum are those who out of grattitude of the blessings they have received are committed to spreading the good news they have found to others. Between the two poles are all the other folks of the congregation. In the faith biz we talk about being on a spiritual journey, everyone is on it, they are just at different places, different levels of maturity. My job is to help everyone down the road just a little further. Birding is the same in some ways.(Besides the fact that some of us approach birding with a "Religous Fervor") Some Birders are at the "User" end of the spectrum, they use birds for their enjoyment (just another consumer item) and not much else. Others are at the responsible end, they not only enjoy birds but they work hard on environmental issues to care for the birds that give them so much enjoyment. All the rest of us are somewhere between the two. Its good that some folks are at the responsible end (I think like yourself) who help others journey a bit further down that road. Is it good that some are "users." Well, it's a first step, with the possibility existing that tommorrow or maybe even today they will take the next step down the path.
Vern

birdchaser said...

Kat, as you'll read here on my blog, I'm not above burning a tank of gas to see a new bird. Maybe that's part of what makes me work even harder to have a more positive impact on birds.

Vern, I hear you. Thanks for the comment. I guess I'm just concerned that too many birders never take many steps away from merely using birds--just as many people never step beyond themselves to help others on their spiritual journey (closer to what M. Scott Peck was talking about in his definition of love I quoted).

Carolyn H said...

Your question is an important one. From my perception, I think many birders are bird users. The size of their list becomes more important than the birds they see. Spending lots of money on plane tickets, hotels and/or gas to rush and see birds isn't good for our ever-warming environment. Pishing strikes me as just another way of saying: *I* want to see this bird, and what I want is more important than letting this little bird do whatever it wants to do.

But some level of "use" is inherent in everything we do. Some uses are more invasive than others. I think it's important to ask ourselves periodically how much use is too much and then to match our actions to our choices.

If no one looked at or cared about birds, there's no doubt in my mind that we would have already lost many more species than have already. There's always a chance that a bird user will grow into someone who's less of a user, who gets politicaly involved, who learns to let the list go, who learns to enjoy a bird for its own sake.

Carolyn H.
http://roundtoprumings.blogspot.com

John said...

Very thought provoking post...

I guess I'm a bird user, more the love em' and leave em' type...but then aren't we all? And by that I mean that I think Peterson was right. When we say we love birds it's not the same as saying we love a person. Birds are completely ambivalent when it comes to our love for them.

I eat chicken, and I don't cry at the fall of every sparrow. That doesn't mean that I don't admire birds and obsess on them. Birding is a big part of my life and I care about the future of our birds. I think that's enough.

I don't accept the arguement that birders are detrimental to birds. We may not spend all our time building bluebird boxes and laying in the path of bulldozers, but at the very least we are out there spending dollars and giving some economic incentive to the idea of bird conservation. Our growing numbers are making an impact on the politics of land use. And a lot of us birders are involved in making the world safe for birds as well as democracy - to the extent that we can. You have to choose your battles, and right now there are a lot to choose from...

So let's not beat up on birders too much. They may not LOVE the birds, but they like them well enough. By the way, I use fossil fuel and I do a lot of pishing while I'm birding - and I'm not sorry!!! :)

kat said...

Rob, my comments about birders burning a tank of gas were not directed at you, but at some birders I know who are always off chasing a new bird. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that folks should not want to add birds to their list. But as with all things, there should be a balance and our love of birds should come before our love of adding a notch to our belts.

Larry said...

By your definition I think most birders are bird users.I do think that the more people who take up birding as a hobby the more there is a chance that some of those people will become involved with helping birds.-Right now, I'm more of a user.-Given a little more time or money, I'll be more of a Bird Lover/helper.

Mike said...

I'll tell you, Rob, I've been thinking about this post for days, trying to summarize lots of thoughts on this issue. If I can be cynical for a moment, I'll say that love is usually based on self-interest, that we always use the ones we love. That's fair, though, because we're also inclined to protect what we love. Call it bird love or bird lust, millions of people in the U.S. alone prioritize avifauna to one degree or another and that attention serves to check those that urge unrestricted development and resource extraction. Birders may not win every battle but without this interest, there wouldn't be a war at all.

Fantastic post!

David said...

Love is something else. This is nothing but collecting, a version of hunting and as old as the human psyche.

I read recently that people, not just birders, are much more likely to notice other animals in their environment than non-animate objects, such as moving vehicles. Thus, you will see the crow over the road before you will notice the veering automobile. Or, you will see the driver of the car, before you notice it has a flat tire.

Besides that, I second the point of the commentator before me, who noted that in the right circumstances a bird is food to us and vice versa.

Laura Erickson said...

I think that getting people to enjoy watching birds is necessary but not sufficient to getting them to love birds.

Peterson, who had three wives, was perhaps not as great an authority about love as he was about birds. I do love birds. I know that I love birds. I am an eager lister, but also have as powerful a maternal instinct to protect my backyard birds, and populations of birds in peril, as I did to protect my children when they needed protection. And I think that some of my backyard chickadees, my education Screech-Owl, some of the nighthawks I rehabbed, notice/d me and even love/d me back, at least as much as my newborn babies did, as someone who provided food and a certain consistent reaction to them.

Love is complex. We can see adults who are more or less capable of giving it, we can see babies grow in their ability to love rather than simply to use people and suck them dry, and I think it's anthropocentric to believe that birds aren't capable of love.

But I don't think reciprocity is a necessary condition for love. Some of the great love stories of our time are of unrequited love. Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities certainly loved Lucie--indeed, gave up his life so she could be happy with the man she loved, who was NOT Sydney Carton. So even if you firmly believe birds incapable of love, or incapable of loving human beings, that doesn't mean we can't love them. Peterson was indeed obsessed with birds, and according to that biography spent way more of his life protecting birds as well as paying attention to them than he did to protecting and paying attention to his own children. Perhaps that is why he was reluctant to say he loved birds--it might be too hurtful to the children he so ignored. But based on his actions he DID love birds. If love is an inchoate feeling that doesn't require action, many of us love birds, including many users who are not strong conservationists. If love requires action to ensure that the object of our love is protected from harm, only those of us who are active conservationists can boast that we love birds.

But I think we each know, in our hearts, whether we love them or not. The trick is that question Sean Connery posed to Kevin Costner in The Untouchables. What are you prepared to DO???

birdchaser said...

Laura, can we add the Laura E. and Stephen Colbert story to our list of great unrequited loves ;)

Laura Erickson said...

Sure. ::sniff sniff::

Patrick Belardo said...

Great post and you make some great points. I am consider myself a bit of both. In my initial birding years I was a bird user - a chaser, a lister, etc. Now, I still love the chase but I find myself wanting to be more involved with the conservation aspects. So, I've volunteered my time where I can for breeding surveys, clean-ups, activism activities, etc. Early in my birding life I met a well-known NJ birder who told me that for every dollar he spends birding, he donates a dollar to conservation. Realistically, we all can't do that, but there are many ways to give back.

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