In one of my favorite scenes from The Big Year, Owen Wilson's character, competitive top birding lister Kenny Bostick explains his birding compulsion to his frustrated wife by declaring that he is "like Mozart".
What might that mean? I find a lot of richness in that claim. For one thing, it speaks of having a driving passion. But for me, it also speaks to birding as a performance art.
Back in 1996, I worked with Texas Parks and Wildlife to start up the Great Texas Birding Classic. I put together the organizing committee and the first proposal for the competition. As part of my research, I looked at golf and bass fishing tournaments. I made the claim to the committee that we needed to have real prize money at stake, in order to generate the media attention we would need to take birding competitions to the next level of fundraising possibility. As part of this way of packaging the competition, we needed to turn birding into a spectator sport to generate a media audience. My proposal was quickly voted down by the leaders of the Texas birding community. They said it would ruin birding. One said that the day he had to bird with a television crew following him around would be the last day he ever birded.
Fast forward 15 years and birding has increasingly become a spectator sport. While we have limited televised birding, the Internet has spawned a host of online birding personalities--bird bloggers and Facebook friends whose birding exploits we follow daily. Used to be you could just head out by yourself with your binoculars and scope for a nice day of birding. Now, unless you take pictures and post them somewhere, you aren't really birding.
In The Big Year, Kenny Bostick regales Attu birders with his birding exploits. Here online, we all do that every day. Birding is a spectator sport. A performance art.
Maybe we don't offer anything as profound or lasting as Mozart. But here we are. Watching birds. Taking pictures. For all the world to see.
Were those Texas birders right back in '96? Has it ruined birding?