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The myth of birding’s golden age

August 21, 2009
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A free verse I and the Bird #107 is up at Liza Lee Miller’s blog, man. Can you dig it?

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It can be strange to think that modern “birding”, the combination of sport and science that so many of us enjoy, is at most only about 50 years old. Many might try to pull it back a bit further to the publication of Roger Tory Petersen’s seminal field guide in 1934, but I’d argue that the travel intensive, twitcher heavy birding (and that’s not at all meant to be pejorative) that we often associate with birders these days didn’t really get going until the post-war years arrived with the simultaneous expansion of the interstate highway system and the publication of RTP’s Wild America, the story of his journey across North America with British naturalist James Fisher, in 1956.

For the next ten years or so, bird minded people discovered each other, competed with each other, and joined together in groups like the American Birding Association to celebrate both the sport and science of active birdwatching. It was, for many birders, a time when to found out exactly how many of them were out there, a real awakening of the birding consciousness across the country, the realization for many that they could make a living, albeit in many cases a modest one, watching birds. It was the beginning of a national birding culture.

For many birders of my generation, the next generation of birders, the path to understanding our place in the pantheon of this birding culture comes largely through two books, both written by hugely influential birders and skilled writers who themselves were squarely in the middle of this consciousness raising, Kenn Kaufman’s Kingbird Highway and Pete Dunne’s The Feather Quest. I assume the vast majority of my readers, especially if you’re between 25 and 40, have read these two books and if you’re like me (one squarely in that demographic, if towards the young end) have cast your thoughts back to that wild and woolly age with no small bit of envy. Part of it is because of the way Dunne and Kaufman write, part of it is the thrill of discovery, part of it, though, is no more than nostalgia. The time is referred to with no small but of wistfulness as birding’s “golden age”.

I hadn’t given the phrase much thought until recently, on a lazy, rainy Sunday, I pulled Dunne’s Feather Quest off of my bookshelf and re-read it for the first time in several years, and was struck by his perspective of that “golden” time, tempered as it was by melancholy wrought by the knowledge now of years of decreasing bird populations and increasing habitat degradation. He seems awfully soured on the idea of chasing birds in new and exotic locales and writes of an innocence of the time, which frankly to my mind reads more as naiveté. Reading it again, the envy I may have felt many years ago was replaced by something more off-putting; the idea that this “golden age” was defined more than anything by the ability of birders in the 70s and 80s to chase birds completely guilt free.

These days twitching has something of a negative connotation among some birders. The thought of belching greenhouse gasses to seek out birds is frowned upon in light of declining bird populations, and the looming specter of climate change threatens to eclipse all other environmental issues, including those far more pressing from a biodiversity standpoint. That birders generally tend to otherwise be exemplary stewards and activists on behalf of the earth, or that bird populations tend to rebound quickly when given an opportunity to do so never seems to matter so much. Anymore, for birders who now seek the thrill of the twitch, or the adventure of seeking out birds at the ends of the earth, there’s only the tsk tsk of the concerned while glorifying a past seen through roseate colored glasses.

And that’s the key, really. That it’s the past. More than a guilt free romp cross country in a gas guzzler, it was the discovery that that birders were not alone that made it a “golden age”. And from that perspective, it’s something every single one of us gets to share when we make that leap from birding by ourselves to birding as part of a community of like-minded people. In a way, birding’s “golden age” isn’t so much of a time in history as much as it is a time in the development of a birder. And if that’s the case, then it’s going on right now across the country every time a kid picks up with a friend and heads out to Pelee or Arizona or Texas. No small part of what makes Dunne nostalgic about birding’s golden age was that it corresponded with his golden age.

Sure, boundaries were pushed in the 70s, but if it’s pushing the boundaries of birding you want, we’re knocking down the doors on specific understanding of molt, we’re combining regular birding with long term academic population studies, we’re devouring family specific guides that tackle ID challenges head-on and most importantly, birders now show an incredible desire to work for bird conservation in real quantitative ways. If you’re looking for a golden age of birding, I think you’d be hard-pressed not to look at the birding community right now.

Of course, all this is taken solely in the context of my experiences in said birding community, in my golden age. I retain the right to condescend to the next generation of birders when they come along. And, of course, they will.

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10 Comments
  1. Mike permalink
    August 21, 2009 7:26 am

    Deep, Nate. As usual, I share your sentiment. Considering how much smaller the world seems to get every year, we may be entering a new Gilded Age, maybe even Platinum! Seriously, the extensive interconnectedness and information-rich environment of the web seems to make serious birding easier for the masses, not just the savants.

  2. Nate permalink
    August 21, 2009 8:07 am

    @Mike- Thanks! You know me, I'll take offense at any perceived slight if it implies that there was some "better time long past" that everyone who missed is worse off for. Even if it comes from a book written nearly 20 years ago itself. 🙂

  3. Jochen permalink
    August 21, 2009 9:07 am

    I agree with you, Nate but would like to add that it probably depends on the individual definition of the factors that make up a "Golden Age".

    Surely birding has come a long, long way since the early days of Kaufman, Dunne and certainly since RTP, and factors like citizen science projects, today's commitment to conservation, our means of communicating with each other (hail to the blogs), the advances in technology, most notably scopes and digiscoping, the ABA's work etc. are a brilliant testimony to this age being Golden.

    However, I suppose a few things that made birding great in the old days of Old were also lost at least in part:

    The difficulties!

    The difficulties of travelling, of documenting or even identifying rarities (I remember a story about Californias's first Skylark being identified by multiple experts as the state's first Smith's Longspur), of gaining experience and becoming an identification expert.

    Today's field guides are so advanced that you can start out as a newbie and separate winter-plumaged Chippies and Clay-coloured Sparrows on your first day out – well, almost. Look at the amount of work Sibley has put into the compilation of his guide: basically all his life, travelling all of North America over decades etc. And by carefully and frequently reading his book and learning from it what he had to find out himself (I know not all of it is new and can be credited to him, but stick with along my way of making this point), you can almost catch up with his expertize within less than a handful of years.
    I am sure there are a lot of young birders who simply outshine him in the field, but they were only able to get this far this fast through his work.
    How did people manage 20 or 30 years ago without such detailed guides? They managed the hard way: By gaining field experience out in the field and not online, by really studying birds by looking at them repeatedly (even after the initial tick), by making up their own identification criteria and putting them down in field notes, etc.
    Yes, I'd say birding has become much more easy, something I (at age 38 who's been birding since the early 1980ies) can even retrace when looking back at my early days.
    And I can see how someone who had to tackle all these difficulties to become the expert birder they are today would look back at the early days of adventure and discovery and refer to them as the Golden Age.
    Just for the record: apart from our current extinction crisis and strictly focussing on birding, I am not blinded by a golden light when I look back at my early birding days in the 1980ies. I like today the way it is.

  4. Nate permalink
    August 21, 2009 9:22 am

    @Jochen- Great points, almost a blog post in itself!

    I won't deny that we stand on the shoulders of those who came before, and without the hard work of people like Sibley, Dunne, Kaufman (who are only the most famous of an entire generation of phenomenal field birders) we wouldn't be able to push forward like we have. I do, however, have a problem with the unilateral declaration of a "golden age" simply because it was their time. It simply strikes me as unfair to the people who are doing equally hard work today to break down the boundaries of our understanding of birds.

    Molt is hard! Vagrant Calidris pipers are confusing. Pelagics are in many ways a mystery. The neotropics now are like North America was 40 years ago. I'd even go so far as to say that they might be just as difficult as the stuff Dunne, Sibley et al were doing back in the 70s. And who knows, maybe someday when we these things are self-evident, we'll look back fondly at this time in birding culture as ground-breaking too. In fact, I'd say we'll absolutely have that right.

    I certainly don't mean to disparage the early ABA crowd, because obviously we wouldn't be here without them. But difficulty is in the eye of the beholder, and it seems to me there's always a horizon to be shooting for.

  5. Jochen permalink
    August 21, 2009 9:43 am

    Exactly Nate, spot on.

    Any form of science is like a large balloon with the scientis community placed at its centre and its walls being the limits of our knowledge and thus being the frontier of unresolved questions and matters. The more the scientific community pushes back the frontiers, the larger the total area of the balloon gets and therefore the amount of unresolved questions and matters increases. And as this is a continuing process it is impossible to define outstanding achievements that could be used to define a Golden Age or to say which expansion phase of the balloon was harder or easier.
    Senior scientists who were inside the balloon from the start always had a hard time walking away from the centre against the rubber walls. Junior scientists will have it easier to walk from the centre to the far away frontier through the empty air until they reach the frontier, but once they are ther the pushing is as hard as it always was.
    So there you have it: birding is a balloon.

  6. Nate permalink
    August 21, 2009 10:22 am

    @Jochen- Excellent visualization! You win the metaphor prize for today!

  7. John permalink
    August 21, 2009 11:25 am

    Birding's barriers to entry are definitely lower than they were 30 or 40 years ago. We have better field guides, better (and cheaper) optics, and online resources to help with both identification and finding birds. But that doesn't make the experience worse. If anything, it should be encouraging for beginning and intermediate birders. If you just spend time in the field and go to the right places, you can see and identify many of the birds in your books, and maybe even a rarity or two.

    I think some of the notion of a past golden age of birding has something to do with generational change – much like the praise of Woodstock.

  8. Nate permalink
    August 21, 2009 3:57 pm

    @John- I think you're right about the generational thing. We, of course, have a tendency to be nostalgic about our past and consider it more authentic or pure than the present, somewhat unfairly.

    I'm sure I'll join in when I get older too!

  9. Grant McCreary permalink
    August 22, 2009 10:09 pm

    Nate, fatherhood must really agree with you; this is another in a string of excellent posts you've written lately.

    When I read Kingbird Highway or Feather Quest I get jealous of Kaufman and Dunne. But it was never really because of the era that they were birding in, it was all the time they had to devote to it and all the experience that they had (or in Kaufman's case, was getting). As a relatively late-comer to birding (at age 25), I feel like I missed out on those experiences. And now I'm very envious of those who have more time to go birding all over the place.

    But until your post I hadn't really thought about how lucky I am. The aforementioned Sibley guide, and many other books, have made it possible for me to become a relatively good birder (at least, I think so) in a very short amount of time. And bird-finding guides and especially internet sites and reports have made it possible to efficiently use what little time I do have.

    So I'm not at all disappointed to be birding today as opposed to some previous golden age.

  10. Nate permalink
    August 24, 2009 9:38 am

    @Grant- Thanks! I'm in a very similar boat. My own birding career has a hole in it through most of high school and college where I sort of gave up birding and came back to it later. In the time I was not paying attention, the Sibley guide was published along with a spate of additional identification guides. I was able to get my legs beneath me again fairly quickly, which was great for me just as it is for people just now getting into it.

    And like you, I regret the time I missed when I wasn't birding, especially so since I'd been so avid in my early teens. Oh well, there's time to make it up I suppose.

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