How to Be A Bad Bird Watcher

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.

About Rick Robinson

Enjoying life in Portland, OR
This entry was posted in At Home in Portland, Personal Opinion, reading, Review and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to How to Be A Bad Bird Watcher

  1. Jerry House says:

    Far be it from me to be snarky about — or to in any disparage — a lesser blue tit.

    Seems to me a bad bird watcher would be Sylvester the Cat; anyone else…well, as long as they enjoy watching, they’re okay in my book.

  2. Jerry House says:

    “…in any way disparage..”

    Stupid fumble fingers.

  3. Richard says:

    Jerry, you’re right, of course, and that’s the point, innit?

  4. Happy Anniversary, Rick! I’m sure those waffles were delicious!

  5. Jeff Meyerson says:

    I got your blue tit right here.

  6. Carl V. says:

    I can’t believe you would restrain us from nasty comments! Self-control?!!?! What is that?!?! 🙂

    It certainly does sound like his definition of being a “good” bird watcher equates with being a snobbish one. Like any hobby or interest I don’t have a lot of time to waste on those who can’t at least be a little tolerant of others who don’t want to obsess over just one interest but want to experience the greater joy of life by having and engaging in diverse interests. I can understand that the amateurs may need to call themselves such and not adopt the monicker of “bird watcher” if they are not a true devotee, but beyond that it smacks of the kind of elitism that causes various hobbies to rest in a small niche rather than being enjoyed by a wider audience.

    Reading your review instantly brought to mind a fairly recent viewing of one of the Midsomer Murders episodes that had to do with bird watching. There were certainly characters on that episode which fit your description of this author.

  7. Patti Abbott says:

    It does sound frustrating having so many of the birds he mentions unavailable–strange word but apt–here.

  8. Richard says:

    George, thank you very much. Yes, they were delicious, as was the eggs benedict bacon and orange juice. And, of course, I washed all the dishes.

  9. Richard says:

    Jeff, thanks very much.

    Carl, you have the point exactly, and in much the way the author makes it. You just might enjoy this book.

    Patti, yes, but not so much it detracts from the reading experience. Let me know.

  10. My wife might very well like this one.

  11. Frank Denton says:

    Been a birder since I was 10; over 70 years. But I cannot say that I’m a ‘good’ birder. We do occasionally go out of our way to visit wildlife refuges and to see birds that we don’t normally see in the northwest. I enjoy being outdoors and seeing birds and other wildlife but I’m far from an expert. It’s been a joy in my life. I can never understand folks who are so oblivious that they don’t even see birds, much less identify them.

  12. Richard says:

    Frank, I remember hearing about some birding side trips you did, particularly one – where was it? – near the Texas/Mexico border, perhaps? With a lot of water birds… the memory is hazy, I guess.

  13. You would enjoy the book I blogged about today, Rick. AN AVAILABLE MAN’s lead character is a bird-watcher.

  14. Cap'n Bob says:

    Would you believe I have a model kit of a pair of blue tits? I got them from England via an eBay auction.

  15. Richard says:

    George, I’m on my way to read it now.

    Bob, you have quite a variety of models!

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