Becoming a Bird Nerd

Getting Geek Speak

I’m not sure when or why I became obsessed with birds, but as far back as I can remember, Big Bird was my favorite Sesame Street character, Lugia was my favorite Pokémon, and Woodstock was my favorite Peanuts character. In kindergarten, I fancied myself a “bird photographer” and ran around taking pictures of robins and cowbirds in our backyard with the family camera. Since our camera was meant for cutesy family portraits rather than high-definition wildlife photography, the birds looked more like little black specks, but I kept on trying, convinced I just hadn’t gotten the hang of it yet. I nearly got in a car wreck once when I swerved into another lane, thinking I had spotted a rare bird species in my rearview mirror. As it turns out, it was just a mockingbird.

Though I grew up studying bird field guides and filling our backyard bird feeder, I never went on a hardcore birding expedition. While I was outdoors, I could identify a majority of the birds I saw and recognize a few birdsongs, but that was about it.

Real birders are not content with simply recognizing a few birds while strolling outside. They wake hours before dawn, arm themselves with binoculars, spotting scopes, field guides, and birdsong recordings, and seek out obscure habitats to hunt—figuratively speaking—the birds they long to see. They know how to differentiate what I had always called “those little brown birds” into a dozen unique species based upon the slightest differences in plumage or beak shape—and they can do so after a half-second’s glance from 100 meters away.

I know this now because that is precisely what I spent spring break doing. When my biology class offered a spring break trip to Panama for birding, I knew this was my chance to try out the real thing.

That’s how I wound up ankle-deep in mud while hiking through a rainy jungle and squinting at lofty treetops in hopes of glimpsing a quetzal. That’s also how I wound up dodging incoming traffic as I hooted like a pygmy owl at a highway roadside in an attempt to draw some songbirds closer and how I ended up watching through a telescope as a pair of bellbirds suddenly got rather intimate with each other. I hadn’t previously known that bird sex looked so wildly uncomfortable for both parties involved.

Such outdoor experiences are typically seen as the antithesis of geekiness: it’s you versus nature, relying purely on your eyes and ears to take in as much as you can. You can’t ask Wikipedia what bird you just saw, and there’s no associated trading card game or comic book. But while I was on the trip, I couldn’t help but think of how all this identifying, classifying, and searching felt like one of my geekier hobbies. When my T.F. excitedly pointed out a rare bird, my first thought was, “My God, this is just like Pokémon!”

Actually, the Pokémon comparison is alarmingly accurate: you spend a lot of your time trawling through tall grass waiting for wild Pokémon (birds) to appear, you get really excited if it’s a rare species as opposed to just another Pidgey (tropical kingbird), and you frantically fill your Pokédex (notebook) with all your sightings. And I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only one who was thinking this: near the end of the trip, when we saw a quetzal in the rainforest, one of my classmates exclaimed, “He looks like Articuno!”

But, unlike Pokémon, which tends to get a bit tiresome after you’ve caught about a hundred of the little critters, it’s hard to imagine ever getting bored of birding. The lows are lower—waking up at 4:30 a.m., which is usually my bedtime, to wander through a tick-infested forest is way rougher than losing a Pokémon gym battle—but the highs are infinitely higher. Spotting the quetzals in the rainforest, perched and shimmering bright green in canopy while rain came trickling down, was far superior to any venture I ever recall involving Pikachu.

—Columnist Julia E. Hansbrough can be reached at jhansbrough@college.harvard.edu.

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