Birding (or: Can one deliberately recover a lost passion?)

Last night I watched The Big Year, a comedy/drama about three men (played by Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson) who are competing to see how many species of birds they can identify in North America in one calendar year.

The movie was a major flop at the box office, which doesn’t surprise me — the target audience was pretty small and the subset of that audience which also happens to attend movies regularly is even smaller. There’s me, for example. I’ve been an avid birder and a regular movie-goer and I didn’t see it until last night at home on DVD.

And the movie wasn’t great, somehow. The birding was just a MacGuffin. It was really about the different ways three men deal with their obsession.

But it did get me thinking about birding.

Birding is birdwatching as a sport (although it certainly overlaps with more serious activities like science and conservation). The objective is to identify (correctly) as many birds as possible within a given location or time period or both. The American Birding Association (ABA) has a list of rules that members are expected to adhere to while building any “official” list. I am not a member and I don’t submit my lists to them (or anywhere else), but I do follow their rules. They are:

  1. The bird must have been within the prescribed area and time-period when encountered.
  2. The bird must have been a species currently accepted by the ABA Checklist Committee for lists within its area, or by the A.O.U. Checklist for lists outside the ABA area and within the A.O.U. area, or by Clements for all other areas.
  3. The bird must have been alive, wild, and unrestrained when encountered.
  4. Diagnostic field-marks for the bird, sufficient to identify to species, must have been seen and/or heard and/or documented by the recorder at the time of the encounter.
  5. The bird must have been encountered under conditions that conform to the ABA Code of Birding Ethics.

And I did list.

My primary objective was my “Life List” — a list of all the species of birds I’ve seen since I began counting in May, 1979. My current total is 449. There are 969 species that the ABA considers countable in North America (north of Mexico), but this includes species that are extinct or that have only appeared in North America once. The current leader has seen 864, and that represents a great deal of travel and a great deal of money. Anything over 700 is respectable in the birding community. My goal is 500, but even that takes a lot of time and travel.

I also kept year lists. I could total 200 or more any year that I put forth significant effort. My personal best was 1999 when I saw 262.

I kept state lists. I’ve seen one bird in Virginia (Turkey Vulture). I’ve seen 287 in Illinois which would probably put me on the list of top state birders if I submitted my list (and also shows how much of my birding I’ve done close to home).  I’ve also seen 217 in Wisconsin and 193 in Arkansas (pretty good in a state that doesn’t attract a lot of birders).

I kept daily lists. My record for one day was 106.

I kept lists for specific forest preserves and parks. I know at one point I’d seen more species at Moraine Hills State Park than anybody who had turned in a list. I may still hold the record.

I kept lists for birds seen out specific windows, lists for birds seen on specific vacations, lists for pretty much anything you can make bird lists for.

If I was visiting a new area where I hadn’t birded before, I’d look at web sites and checklists to see what birds might be there. Then I would spend a couple hours the night before studying my field guides to memorize the markings of any birds I hadn’t seen before or had seen but wasn’t very familiar with. That way I could spend my time outdoors looking at the birds and not the books. But I could i.d. the vast majority of birds I saw instantly without any help from a book. Much of the time, I left my field guides in the car.

I don’t have a good ear and no memory whatsoever for pitch or tone, but over time, with the help of my own mnemonics and hundreds of hours outdoors, I got to where I could identify by ear almost all the birds I encountered in the locations where I birded regularly.

I wasn’t the best in the world, but I could hold my own with the best in northern Illinois and wouldn’t embarrass myself too much anywhere in the eastern United States.

And then one day I decided I didn’t want to do it anymore.


  • Diminishing returns — I was at a spot where I couldn’t afford to invest the time and money to travel and I’d pretty much exhausted the possibilities locally.
  • Eyesight — I quit wearing contacts and began wearing bifocals, which makes it more difficult to use binoculars.
  • Exhaustion — With all the lists I kept, it felt like I was spending more time maintaining my lists than I was birding, and it quit being enjoyable.
  • Photography — When I bought a digital camera, I discovered, to my surprise, that I wasn’t awful at taking pictures. That and my blog became my primary leisure-time activity. I tried to combine this hobby with birding, but I didn’t have the sort of camera that made bird photography very satisfying.
  • Life — In short, I went through a stretch of two or three years when I wasn’t much interested in anything.

But after all the time and energy I invested in the hobby, I occasionally feel guilty that I’m not still pursuing it. I long to bird, not in the local spots that I’ve hit over and over again, but in new places. I’d like to get my life list to 500.

Does it make sense to want to “want to” do something and yet not feel like doing it? Is there a way to rekindle the passion, but in a more controlled manner, concentrating on just one or two lists and forgetting all the others? Is a hobby a choice you make or a feeling you have?

I guess I’ll find out.

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2 Responses to Birding (or: Can one deliberately recover a lost passion?)

  1. jeff weddle says:

    go for 500! I think you should start drawing each bird. Cartoon it and make your own bird book with your birding wit as commentary. I would buy a copy.

  2. jeff weddle says:

    by the way, the book was better than the movie. Did you read the book?

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