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Birder Jargon Project: Falling out

September 21, 2011
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There’s no word among North American birders that gets the heart pumping like “Fallout“.  The possibility of birds, lots and lots of migratory birds, caught up in a meteorological maelstrom that forces them down to earth where they walk among us like mere mortals, is one deeply ingrained in birder culture.  A good fallout is the sort of thing that birders will talk about for years with hushed voices and appropriate reverence.  Any birding memoir worth its salt needs to have at least one mention of an epic falling out of birds on some foggy spring morning.  It is required, and its the sort of thing that birders live vicariously through in the hopes that one day they’ll be in the right place at the right time to experience a storm of birds.

Additionally, it’s a word of nearly complete and total incomprehensibility to the general public, limited to post-apocalyptic novels and weird doomer message boards where bizarre people take an disturbing amount of glee at the possibility of the civilized world collapsing.  It is not a word tossed around in general conversation but in the birding community, and even we too seem to have a little trouble getting it right.

I’m willing to generally cut excited birders a little slack here, but in the interests preventing the awe-inspiring nature of the true fallout from being watered down by days that are not at all worthy of that moniker, I’ll be clear and harsh.  That great day at your local patch where it seemed like there were warblers everywhere?  Not a fallout.  A 20 species morning on a beautiful fall morning?  Not a fallout. Those may well be very good days in the field, but if it’s anything short of suffocating amounts of migrants piling up on the ground too exhausted to even forage normally – basically anything short of this – it is not a fallout.

Northern Parula, September 2011 –  15, even 35, of these guys is not a fallout

The reason for this pedantry is twofold.  One, as mentioned earlier, the epicness of a real fallout shouldn’t be watered down by what simply would rightly be considered a good day.  We should all be happy with good days, even great days.  They’re fantastic.  They keep us inspired by birds.  They’re enough by themselves without going overboard. Don’t guild the lily or the warbler here, dear reader(s).

Second, fallouts are usually dependent on the absolute perfect combination of meteorological, geographical and phenological circumstances.  They don’t just happen.  They don’t even happen every year, even in places where massive numbers of migrants pass annually.  Things have to line up absolutely perfectly and sometimes, even when they do, there’s no fallout.  In fact, it’s partly because of the mysterious and unpredictable nature of the fallout that makes them so exciting.  So stop worrying about it. 

As I said earlier though, I’m perhaps more willing than most to cut birders some slack here.  Maybe it’s just that fallouts are, in fact, less impressive than they used to be.  They certainly happen less often than they used to. Maybe we need to re-evaluate our definitions to incorporate these lesser events.  It’s a near certainty that, unless things change, those fallouts of the past, the ones every birder has heard about and salivated over, are done.  At which point, “fallout” becomes a completely meaningless distinction.  And no one wants that.

So use it judiciously, or not at all.  As with most things, you’ll know it when you see it.

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3 Comments
  1. September 21, 2011 10:02 am

    My recent birding experience at the Midwest Birding Symposium, having wave after wave of warblers landing all around us had me tempted to call it a “fallout”. But the local birders advised me that this was nothing compared to Magee Marsh in May…and even that may not technically be a “fallout”. The birds aren’t landing exhausted and dazed as I hear they do at High Island, TX and the Dry Tortugas after a storm. There just are some amazing natural bird funnels where lots of birds pass through…so the birding is just really great there during migration. Some days are better than others. I do like Tim Avery’s newly coined term “smallout”.

  2. September 21, 2011 10:31 am

    There’s also “mini-fallout” for those 20-warbler days. Or perhaps that should be “nano-fallout” in contemporary terminology.

  3. September 22, 2011 4:37 pm

    As Robert implies above, the term ‘wave’ is also useful to describe situations where there’s a good number of warblers in the trees around you. It also nicely hints at the fact that generally they’ll all have disappeared into thin air after a few minutes of watching them 😉

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