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The Tao of Birding

December 11, 2009

The ancient Masters were profound and subtle.
Their wisdom was unfathomable.
There is no way to describe it;
all we can describe is their appearance.

-Lao Tzu


A couple weeks ago I wrote a post that sought to illustrate, somewhat, the concept of giss birding, the way in which experienced birders conjure bird identifications from what appears to be thin air.  The idea is that less important than concrete field marks is the “whole bird” approach, a combination of behavior, habitat, and plumage that makes the identification more a feeling than a quantitative deduction.  The concept of giss is difficult to explain but something that every birder has some experience with, because even if you are a relatively new birder without the experience to draw upon, some common birds are identifiable without much conscious thought.  That is the essence of birding by giss, that bird identification can become so second nature that it’s difficult to even explain, for better or for worse.

Dude, you should totally get this as a tattooSo in thinking about giss birding over the last couple weeks, I was struck by it’s similarity to the concept of “Tao”, the way.  I’ve always been sort of interested in Tao as a philosophical concept because of its ethos of simplicity and its close connection with nature.  At the point where people start treating it in any sort of dogmatic way it gets a little mystic wooey for my taste, but as a way to think about the natural world, it’s a perspective that has a lot of resonance for nature watchers once you get beyond the fact that a doctrine that readily admits that its principles can never really be explained is kind of a semantic cop-out.  At least, I’ve always thought so (though I’ll fully admit that attempting to explain things that are clearly meant to be somewhat fantastical in nature can ruin them too.  Midichlorians, anyone?).

But this isn’t a philosophy blog except in as much as it relates to birding, and it’s a good thing too because I probably lack the intellectual firepower to keep up anyway.  But Taoism’s philosophy as it pertains to observation of nature, especially the eternal, erosive force of water and anything that is cyclical in nature, are both apparent outside your back door to even the novice naturalist.  And even though the idea of birding by giss, when it’s all said and done, can probably be quantified to the point that we can become consciously aware of what is subconsciously occurring in the minds of good birders, there’s no doubt an element of the fantastic about it.  At the very least, the major constructs of Taoism, the unexplainable “ways” of nature, seem to lend themselves to the concept of giss birding.  Or so this birder will have you believe.

So with apologies to Lao Tzu (who can’t really complain since he’s been dead a few thousand years), I give you the Tao Te Ching, birder’s edition.

Giss is undifferentiated: All distinctions are actually relative comparisons bound together by their mutual reference.  Or so says the Tao Te Ching (chp 2),

“So alive and dead are abstracted from nature,
Difficult and easy abstracted from progress,
Long and short abstracted from contrast,
High and low abstracted from depth,
Song and speech abstracted from melody,
After and before abstracted from sequence.

“Of course,” says the Birder, “What is the Sharpie without the Cooper’s?  What is the Downy without the Hairy?”  They are identified almost exclusively in relation to each other.  Sure we can make careful study of field marks, but such scrutiny is unnecessary for the giss birder. The Coop is bulky and fierce, the Downy petite and stunted.  Lao Tzu would have you believe that this means that there are actually no differences between anything and that everything of earth is one, but the Birder knows that the differences that really matter for species are those that necessitate the other.

Giss is cyclical: Those of use preparing for winter no doubt know, and with the coming of winter comes the promise of spring. Or so says the Tao Te Ching (chp 16),

The world will rise and move;
Watch it return to rest.
All the flourishing things
Will return to their source.

Is there a better example of the cyclical way of life than the great migration of birds?  Though they travel tens of thousands of miles in some cases, they always return to the source, the place from whence they evolved.  For so many of our neotropic migrants it’s easy to think of them as our birds, but they rarely spend more than five months with us.  The balance of the year is in deep tropical rainforests, the cradle of North American avifauna.  You may not feels as though you have a handle on bird identifications this year, but there’s always the next year, and the next, and the next.

Giss is subtle and quiet: Is there a better way to learn about birds, to becomes so in tune with them that their mere shade reveals their identity?  So says the Tao Te Ching (chp 78)

The soft overcomes the hard,
The yielding overcomes the strong;
Every person knows this,
But no one can practice it.

Simply by observing birds where birds exist do we become subconsciously aware of their behavior, their actions, and where we can expect to find them on any given day.  What appears to many to be “giss” is merely the effect of hours upon hours of bird observation and background research.  Nothing comes easy, not even the simple identification of a bird, and often times the best birding is done when there is no bird in front of you.  But in the end, you’ll find yourself falling into a comfortable pattern of relying on your subconscious more and more as you identify birds.  But it’ll happen so subtly and slowly you won’t really even think about identifying the bird, you’ll just recognize it.


So, you know, follow the three-fold path and find enlightenment, by which I mean you’ll identify birds better.  Or not.  It’s ultimately not anything you can set out to do or that you’d want to.  The birding is it’s own reward, getting better at it is just the icing. As Lao Tzu said:

So the birder does not serve himself;
The more he birds, the more he is satisfied;
The more he gives, the more he receives.
Nature flourishes at the expense of no one;
So the birder benefits all nature and contends with none.

Ok, I may have changed some of that.

  1. December 11, 2009 2:08 pm

    Great post. I enjoyed reading about the connections between your birding experience and Taoism—its not something that I imagine most birders give that much thought to. It’s clear that if we do spend some more time reflecting on our practice of birding, it becomes more than simply collecting bird observations.

  2. December 11, 2009 2:10 pm

    This is publish worthy for a birding mag. You should submit it.

    Also, don’t get me started on midichlorians. Or Jar-Jar Binks for that matter. Or the prequels in general. Or George Lucas. And did I mention that Han shot first?

  3. Nate permalink*
    December 11, 2009 3:59 pm

    @Gavan- Thanks! It’s probably not, but ever since reading Ben Hoff’s The Tao of Pooh I’ve found the philosophy to have a few real-world implications and, if nothing else, is a nice thing to think about from time to time.

    @Patrick- Thanks! I found midichlorians to essentially ruin the series for me. I mean, come on Lucas, it’s a sci-fi fantasy series. There’s a planet sized spacecraft and humanoid robots, for chrissakes, no one is expecting a real explanation for the force.

  4. December 11, 2009 3:59 pm

    Kudos for expressing the meditative side of birding so well. And bonus points for expressing the meditative side of bird identification so well. As much as I don’t like mixing philosophies, I will venture to say this is a very Zen-inspired post. And to add to the mix: if you can digest this down to a haiku . . . .

  5. Nate permalink*
    December 11, 2009 4:28 pm


    I know this bird well
    But I cannot tell you how
    Because I just know

  6. December 11, 2009 4:35 pm

    Nicely done. I will now refer to you as a birdysattva.

  7. December 13, 2009 10:56 pm

    In case readers don’t know, I’m N8’s dad.

    This is interesting…… After reading the post, I went to the book shelf to get the Tao Te Ching that N8 gave me for Christmas a few years back. Page 54 was marked with the Annotated Checklist of Missouri Birds. I kid you not. And this is what it says on that page: “What is firmly established cannot by uprooted. What is firmly grasped cannot slip away. It will be honored from generation to generation. ” (then some good stuff about Virtue) and the verse ends with: “How do I know the universe is like this? By looking!”
    Now I taught him a lot about Nature in general. Where did this avian obsession come from? 🙂
    Now who used that checklist as a bookmark? 🙂

    @ Mike,
    I’m in the middle of rereading “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” I guess it’s no surprise that N8 mixes philosophies. His adolescent curiosity was piqued by Hoff and Pirsig; and of course by Peterson, Dunn, and Kaufman, too.

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