Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Rare Encounters with Ordinary Birds by Lyanda Lynn Haupt


Rare Encounters with Ordinary Birds: Notes from a Northwest Year by Lyanda Lynn Haupt. Seattle, Sasquatch Books. 2001. 189pp. eISBN: 978-1-570-61807-9

Haupt is a naturalist and a writer who thinks like I do. Certainly she is much better at both than I, but we approach our subject matter very similarly. I’ll point out a few examples that are nearly startling, later in this review. However, first things first.

Like her other books, this one was written with mix of science and personality. She incorporates her own experiences with scientific explanations. Each chapter is written about her observations and philosophy about individual birds. She applies ecology and science to bolster her claims. The book is filled with facts that will not be found in newspaper articles about uncommon occurrences.

Readers of her book will learn that the irruption of Snowy Owls in the US a few years ago while making news all over the country is exhilarating to birders, essentially is a death knell for those magnificent birds. They are the low ones on the Snowy Owl caste system and are forced to leave their normal environment to fend for themselves due to low amounts of food at home. As Haupt pointed out, this is a “recipe for starvation”.

She explained the dynamics of the thrush song and how they can layer notes and sing seemingly preternatural songs. Her descriptions of the difficulty that young sparrows have at attaining adulthood due to predation not only by egg eating animals, but also the ectoparasites that invade their bodies. Far more examples are found in the book.

Her approach to bird watching is admirable and I say that because it is much like my own. She has a disdain for what she calls “Twitchers”. Twitchers are those with the intent of seeing every bird in the world so that they can record each “life bird”* in a variety of ways. She describes them as rushing to the spot of a known rarity, examining it briefly to ensure the accuracy of identification, then racing off for the next check mark in their life list. Many books are written often by noted ornithologists that describe their missions to see every bird in the world. These books are amongst the most banal reading as they tell us how relentless, clever and single minded the author is, while informing us of nothing except how proud they is.

She used the exact same metaphor that I use in expressing my rejection of this sort of birding. When I am confronted with another who makes sure to tell me that they have a billion birds on their life list, I tell them how I collected every Topps baseball card in 1959. Haupt describes the event as “Such a practice, it is argued, reduces birds to the two-dimensionality of baseball cards, and utterly neglects matters of true import—behavior, ecology, conservation status, the honing of honest observational skills, respect, love. Still, many holistic naturalists have some of the longest life lists I know.”

Our interest in birding or any part of nature involves what she described above. Behavior and honing observational skills in order to understand ecology and conservation make us love our subjects. Scientific understanding prevents anthropomorphism in its real sense. I do think we often borrow from that misconception in order to metaphorically describe things but I view that as different and harmless.

One of her examples of observation also replicates one of my own experiences in a haunting similar way. She described timing the dives of cormorants and recording her findings. Her results did not match mine to any degree but just doing the same thing suggests like minds. Her data was more exacting than mine as I only spent about 15 minutes on many lunch breaks timing cormorant dives in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. While all of them were around 30 seconds my own data told me only that. Still we more or less did the same thing.

She suggested after describing the words of Ernst Mayr (one of my own go to experts on animal behavior), that we pick a subject matter and observe as much of that as we can. We will come to understand habits, nest building and other general ecological information. Like me, many will also pick up much of the literature on the species in order to understand conservation information such as species status.

In my own case that is the corvid family. I spend as much time as possible viewing crows, jays and other corvids. I’ll keep doing that. If I see a reference to any of them in literature I pursue it. To that end of course I have also read another of Haupt’s books, The Crow Planet .

I’m very glad to have read Rare Encounters. 

  • A person’s first sighting of a bird species

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