Uh-Oh. Birdwatching Is About to Become Cool. And it’s too bad

I am a birder. I say that with no sense of shame. It’s a weird thing to do, I admit — going into swamps or forests and waiting for hours to catch glimpses of avian life. But every attempt to find beauty in the world is, in the final analysis, weird. I’m not particularly extreme, at least not by the standards of other birders. True, I once traveled 4,000 kilometers to see a single bird, the Resplendent Quetzal, but, in my defense, it was a tremendously beautiful bird and many birders do a lot crazier stuff. This guy has seen 9,000 species, which is nearly all of them. I am somewhere in between the casual hiker who owns a set of binoculars and the absolute maniacs who scour the planet for far-flung endemics. I recognize, also, that every maniac thinks he or she “is somewhere in the middle.”

Which is why it’s troubling to me that birding is finally achieving something like cool. It’s been slowly building. Every year or so brings a film. In 2011, there was The Big Year, starring Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson. HBO has Birders: The Central Park Effect among its general collection of “Can you believe these freaks?” television. This spring saw the release of A Birder’s Guide to Everything, about teens who go on a road trip to make birding history.

Other concerned birders have wondered if a “Top Gun effect” is on the way. When that Tom Cruise vehicle was released, recruitment for U.S. naval aviators shot up 500 percent. I was a PhD student at an English department when the first of the Lord of the Rings movies was released, and I saw the spiking enrollments in Old English and Old Norse courses that followed. (They tended to drop out after two weeks when they realized that Old English is incredibly hard to learn.) Will the same thing happen with birding? It’s doubtful, mainly because the movies and shows haven’t been anywhere near as popular as Top Gun or Lord of the Rings.

Then again, birding doesn’t really need the help. Birding is today what voting for Nixon used to be: Many, many people do it who don’t talk about it. About 50 million Americans go out to observe wild birds every year. That’s more than the number of people who hunt.

About a week ago, The New York Times offered a window onto the newly born world of competitive birding, which is dealing with a sudden influx of younger, brasher participants:

The booming world of competitive birding, once seen as a refuge from the clatter of the modern world, is now debating how much it should embrace technology. It is as close as birding, long proud of its honor system, has ever come to an identity crisis, particularly over the issue of whether photography should be required to prove a spotting. In debates among birders, the encroachment of smartphones and digital cameras has become inseparable from another touchy issue, the matter of questionable sightings, known as stringing.

I have met some of these aggressive, fist-pumping birders — frat boys with binoculars — and my God they piss me off. Last year, while I was birding in Florida, walking down a beach where piping plovers nested, I ran into a quartet of them chugging beer as they birded. They were fantastically knowledgeable about the local ecology, I might add.

Are they the future? I’m more worried about the kind of birder found inA Birder’s Guide to Everything, the emo type. Because it seems to me that birding — which is essentially hunting without killing — has the potential to be super-twee. Just see the movie’s trailer below for evidence:

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