long . lines and ripples

The Birder and the Naturalist: On Identification

I started looking at the birds more during the pandemic. So did a lot of other people. Most field guides about birds are written for one purpose: to identify them. Birding is easy to distill to its basics: you look at a bird, you figure out the name that somebody else gave it, and you keep lists of what you've seen.

But it would be deflationary to leave it there, that birding is about mere bird identification. It doesn't account for why there are so many people who are very serious about identifying birds in particular. Sure, almost every branch of nature has people who take an interest in it.1 But I know of no other outdoor nature activity centered on identification that generates anywhere near the same excitement as birding.

One of the most thoughtful teachers of birding I've found in print is Ken Kaufman. His Field Guide to Advanced Birding is a good place to start figuring out what birding is really about.2 The "advanced" part of the title is somewhat misleading. The book is not really trying to define a bar for experts so much as give a more systematic account of the practices of modern birding, organized by case studies on, say, a specific feature (e.g., "Plumages, Molt and Wear"), a habitat type (e.g., "Learning to Identify Seabirds"), or a genus ("The Empidonax Flycatchers"). Kaufman writes in the introduction about his experience in the field teaching beginners to bird:

One revelation was the importance of understanding. It was clear that birders could memorize dozens of field marks and song descriptions and still misidentify birds, simply because they didn't really understand what they were seeing and hearing. (5, original emphasis)

Kaufman's description of the beginner's pattern-matching approach shows the problem with the birding-as-identification idea. One issue is that the beginner trying to select matches against an example is often wrong, because the appearance of any bird makes for an unreliable guide to species.3 "Look closely at the members of the flock," Kaufman writes, "and you'll find that no two are exactly alike."4 But the beginner is also focused on making the ID, to exclusion, or detriment, of what Kaufman calls "understanding." I imagine someone learning about new birds who becomes so focused on the minute details of a bird's features that they remove the bird, imaginatively, from its surroundings, bringing it into a sterile laboratory of the mind.

What the beginner lacks is all of the birder's background knowledge that contributes to making the ID. It's knowledge that can come in handy for the purposes of the birding, even if it was gathered from relaxed and general observation, from the naturalist's wider experience with the landscape and seasons, or from intuition without a clear source. Consider what Kaufman says later on, about habitat:

When an experienced birder glimpses a bird and names it instantly, it's probable that the bird's habitat (and its location within the habitat) contributed to the speedy identification. Often this happens at a completely subconscious level, and if asked, the birder might have to think about it for a minute to be able to describe what he or she noticed about habitat clues. But especially when we're in familiar territory, clues of this type provide a major part of our initial impressions of birds.

It can be hard to tease out the habitat aspect because it is so intertwined with other clues. For example, if we're out in midwinter in the midwest, going past a hedgerow through open weedy fields, and a little flock of small slim birds flushes from low in the bushes and flies low along the hedgerow, we might quickly call them American Tree Sparrows. In this case, the time of year, the size and shape of the birds, and the fact that they're in a small flock are all contributing to our impression of what they are.5

Understanding is the knowledge of a bird's world that goes beyond what you need to make the ID. Yes, it can help you make the ID faster, with less visual information, in sub-optimal conditions, or even without witnessing a specimen firsthand. Yet the strict definition of birding, which takes identification as its calling card and payoff for the activity, is always in exchange with the naturalist's more open-ended prerogative to understand. The traditional birder makes lists, while the naturalist appreciates, filing away knowledge that might be systematic, but is without any immediate plans for application. One does not get better at being a naturalist in the same way that one does a birder. Naturalists used to take physical specimens, but even if they are more likely to take pictures and make drawings today and leave the specimens in nature, they still collect for its own sake.

Think of it this way. On the average winter day in temperate North America, even a beginning birder can quickly come to identify everything they see--so what do they do then? You can go out and keep making more IDs, counting numbers of birds by day and month, visiting different sites, and generally practicing different variations on the activity of identifying birds. Or you can work a little less hard, and just think about the birds that are already in front of you at a given point in time. What is a bird foraging for? How long does it spend in one spot? Where does it go next? What do its movements mean, and what are its patterns? All of these questions arise if for no other reason than as an effect of the productive boredom caused by disinterested curiosity. Many of these questions have been studied and, in some cases, answered by ornithologists and adjacent scientists. These problems, in total, make up a body of knowledge that both precedes the ID--because it creates the intuition that makes the ID possible--and follows it, deepening it. Understanding is what happens after you know what a bird is, but still keep looking.

Understanding is really another word for an interest in nature that surrounds the structured, formalized rituals of birding. The birder who seeks to understand what she is seeing has, whether by accident or love of birds, gone beyond the boundaries of the activity. You can make lists of what you have identified, but the same cannot be said of everything you have seen. Everyone has seen more than they realize. Another contrast with the naturalist: the naturalist always accumulates more detail than he or she is able to synthesize in a given moment. She is full of latent knowledge, which is waiting to be made active when she is, say, called upon to give a name to a bird.

The birder and the naturalist are useful complements to one another. But those who take part in an activity with well-established codes, like birding, will always have an easier time finding companions, forming associations, and creating recognition for themselves. The naturalist is probably more likely to be a loner, because of the poorly-defined edges of the activity. He also stands in a more-or-less subordinate relationship to modern science: what is appreciation of nature, next to the scientist's capacity to direct and control it?

But where do the activities of naturalists tend to lead, other than to accumulating a store of potential knowledge for other pursuits? One distinctive realization's of the naturalist's calling might be the nature writer, who organizes his response to nature into an interpretive flow: personal, aspiring to a temporary significance, without the permanence of a cooperative, ongoing endeavor like birders who swap lists and go out in the field together.

One example: I enjoyed Helen McDonald's recent essay collection, Vesper Flights. In the title essay she writes about swifts, which have been known to drift for hours on thermal currents that carry them thousands of feet high, into the clouds, where they have been observed by airplanes. These are called "vesper flights," because swifts make the ascent at both dawn and dusk, timing them like the prayer services held in the Catholic tradition. McDonald eventually comes to understand the activity analogically, like moving outside the boundary of ordinary life:

Swifts aren't always crossing the atmospheric boundary layer at dizzying heights; most of the time they are living below it in thick and complicated air. That's where they feed and mate and bathe and drink and are. But to find out about the important things that will affect their lives, they must go higher to survey the wider scene, and there to communicate with others about the larger forces impinging on their realm. So I'm starting to think of swifts differently now, not as angels or aliens, but as perfectly instructive creatures. Not all of us need to make that climb, just as many swifts eschew their vesper flights because they are occupied with eggs and young--but as a community, surely, some of us are required, by dint of flourishing life and the well-being of us all, to look clearly at the things that are so easily obscured by the everyday.6

Where the naturalist excels is in the ability to repurpose her experience, to understand it in unlimited new contexts. McDonald arrives at her own conclusions. She can only describe her reasoning and ask us to agree with her. But because she did not undertake her activity for any particular reason in the first place, there is no necessary end to her observations. She has no list to keep, only an ongoing response to allow. Long before this essay, McDonald learned to identify the swift in flight, but I am convinced that she continues to watch them, gathering impressions, for reasons she does not yet know.

  1. See, for examples, societies built on the appreciation of ferns and moss. ↩︎
  2. In addition to the Field Guide to Advanced Birding, I can also recommend Kaufman's A Season on the Wind: Inside the World of Spring Migration, which tells the story of his decision to make a home on the southern boundary of Lake Erie, which he helped put on the map as a world-class point for observing bird migration, and now (thanks in substantial part to Kaufman) the site of one of the world's great birding festivals. ↩︎
  3. A related criticism worth exploring: as computers have gained great skill at pattern-matching over the last two decades (e.g., so-called "machine vision," used in some of the most popular birding apps), the reduction of birding to the recognition of visual patterns becomes even less appealing. ↩︎
  4. Kaufman, Advanced Birding, 132 ↩︎
  5. Kaufman, Advanced Birding, 93 ↩︎
  6. McDonald, Vesper Flights, 144 ↩︎


Ken Kaufman, Kaufman Field Guide to Advanced Birding. Houghton Mifflin, 2011.

Helen MacDonald, Vesper Flights. Grove Press, 2020.