How to Be A Bad Birdwatcher by Simon Barnes © 2004, Short Books, 2006 trade paperback - non-fiction, biographical treatise on bird watching
That’s the problem with reviews, isn’t it? You read a review that may say a book is “an emotionally charged page turner, filled with characters you’ll never forget. The greatest mystery ever published!” When you read it you wonder what the reviewer was smoking. That wasn’t exactly the case with this book, but what I read about it led me to believe this was as much a philosophical tract as a book about looking at birds. I guess in a way that’s true, but sometimes you have to glean the philosophy bits from between the lines, or at least the middle of sentences. Not that I didn’t enjoy this book, I did, but let’s face it: if you’re not interested in birds and looking at them, really looking and seeing them, and perhaps learning their names and habits, there may be entirely too much bird stuff here compared to the slight discussions of Life On The Planet and your part of it, in relation to the rest of the beasts, specifically the ones that fly.
First of all, what does Barnes mean by “a bad birdwatcher”? He means someone who is pretty much an amateur, for whom carrying a pair of binoculars is a big step. Someone who can name a few of the local, oft-seen birds that flit and chatter about the garden or local woods, hills, desert dunes or whatever. Since Barnes is English, all the examples and most of the experience in this birding biography take place there, and there is much discussion of hedgerows and natural park settings, meadows and streams in areas I’ve barely heard of. Which is fine, I’m open to learning, or just reading on because it doesn’t matter anyway. When the conversation turns to birds I’m pretty sure don’t inhabit my part of the U.S., it becomes pretty theoretical. I mean, I’ve never seen or heard a lesser blue tit, have you? (no nasty comments, please).
All that said, I do enjoy looking at birds, have a bird feeder I keep filled with desirable, to birds, seeds year ‘round and like watching the regulars and seasonal visitors who come to partake of the offering. I try, often with little success to learn their names. The book talks about the difficulty of telling one small brownish-grey blob of bird from another, and I relate whole-heartedly.
I do have binoculars, an older pair and newer ones I bought before a trip to Alaska, where I used them to spot eagles, arctic terns, owls and many other birds. I have a field guide to the birds of Western Oregon. What I don’t do is go out looking for birds, or at least not very often (there is a nice wildlife sanctuary a few miles away), and that’s the first thing this book encourages the reader to do: get off yer duff and get Out There. Once there, in a good spot at the right time of year, Barnes tells us, we will see birds, many and varied. With experience and patience we’ll learn their names and something about them. That’s “bad bird watching”.
So what is a good bird watcher? He says those are the ones that live and breath it, talk about it to like minded souls, and look down on lesser beings who know less and try less. He uses “good” as a synonym for “obsessive”.
That’s as it may be, not much time is spent on those people except for anecdotal stories, of which there are many and varied in the book, a great part of it’s charm.
I liked this book. I can recommend it to anyone who, like me, is interested enough to read about birds and someone who loves to watch them, whether you do much of it yourself. But that’s another thing about the book: the author suggests, reminds and urges you and I to get out there and that’s not such a bad idea, whether we spend much time looking at and trying to name birds, or whether we just take a nice long walk in a natural place – as natural as is available to us – and get some fresh air. Enthusiasm is infectious, and that’s the case with this book. Oh, and don’t forget those binoculars.