Down & Dirty Birding

256 pages,
ISBN: 1550137387

Post Your Opinion
Birders Defended
by Richard Wilson Roberts

This book is presented with a claim in the Woody Allen tradition, that it contains "all the outrageous but true stuff you ever wanted to know about North American birds." Well, it does outrageous stuff, but I'm not sure the other adjective applies, and it seemed to me less funny than Woody Allen. A quick skim through the list of contents gives the impression of an encyclopaedia of birding: Binoculars and telescopes, Books you need, Bird behaviour, Where to find birds etc., but the real purpose of the book can be divined by the author's answer, in his introduction, to the question "What Does Everybody Want to Know? Everybody wants to know how birds, you know, do it." And later in the same paragraph: "for those of you who don't need your heads examined, it tells you how to keep from getting started in bird-watching."
Hardly an auspicious start. I think it's fair to say that birding is a great leveller and that birders are a pretty average cross-section of humanity: cabinet ministers, business tycoons, and Amazonian natives, as well as more mundane types like myself (I'm a birder-mathematician) are all represented, and I have met many from different social classes on my travels, but the only ones I have ever come across who were interested in "how birds do it" were biologists studying behaviour (and only a minority of these).
Birding has been an important part of my life for nearly forty years. It has taken me to obscure parts of four continents from the Sonora Desert to Lake Scutari by way of the Amazon, Japan, and that part of the Iron Curtain that defaced the landscape for many years between Austria and Hungary; I have enjoyed every minute of it, even the highly uncomfortable ones.
I know that it's very easy to take the hobby too seriously. Birding is probably ninety percent pastime and ten percent science and it's certainly ripe for a satirical treatment; I hoped, on being asked to review this book, that I had found it. I had just finished reading George Levine's Life Birds, a light-hearted, but moving autobiography of a birder who manages to show on almost every page how important a role birds have played in his life. A satirical look at birding would have been an interesting contrast, but what I found was mostly heavy-footed lavatory humour sprinkled with anti-intellectualism (for example, his footnote definition of "altricial" is "a scientific term that likely means something") and derision for people who are better birders than the author. His comments on distinguishing Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, waders, breeding in the Arctic, but common migrants throughout the hemisphere, are typical: "you don't know which unless you are a genius or a liar." (Admittedly, the two species are quite alike, but with a little experience and patience most individuals can be identified.)
I was hoping for a book that would provide a laugh for serious birders and at the same time tempt non-birders to give birding a try, but it seems to fail on both counts. Many of the stories don't ring true and one gets the impression early on that the author prefers schoolboy humour to satire. Certainly there are birders who take themselves and birding too seriously; there are birders in the south of England who will drive overnight to the north of Scotland for a ten-second glimpse of an Arctic gull, and birders in the northeastern U.S. who will fly to south Texas for an equally short view of a warbler from Mexico. This is pretty serious birding; on a more modest scale I have been guilty of it myself, and it's a good candidate for satire. Humour and satire, however, should be carefully distinguished from sarcasm and derision, and even the most perceptive anecdotes in the book tend to overstep the bounds between them. A story about the birder who "sees too much" reminds me of a number of birders I have known whose list is inflated with what I would consider dubious sightings (maybe others would be reminded of me), but I don't know any birder who would actually voice such remarks; most have a pretty laid-back attitude to others' failings, and would opine that, if one wants to cheat oneself, then go ahead.
Mr. Slinger makes the bird-watching community seem to consist of supercilious snobs who take every opportunity they can to put one another down, and voyeurs, fascinated by the excretory and copulatory habits of birds. If I were not a birder, then after reading his book, I would have no wish whatsoever to become one. This seems to me to be his biggest disservice to birding, for in my opinion and experience it is the opposite of the truth. Birders are social animals who love to meet others of their species in out-of-the-way places and pass the time harmlessly talking about birds they've seen as well as the ones that got away. Amateurs, over the past century, have amassed much of the knowledge of bird species' distributions on every continent, and birding associations are responsible for a great deal of much-needed conservation of the world's wild places- topics that receive no mention whatsoever in this book.
Finally, I suppose I should try and comment on the literary merit of this work, and for me-a mathematician, who would hardly recognize such merit if it hit me in the face-this is the most difficult part of the review. Suffice to say that Mr. Slinger has vied with the most prolific mathematicians in trying to invent new words for the English language. Among others whose meaning I could only guess at, I noted "boinking", "dork", "dorky", "dibs", "doozy", "wazoo", "kazoo", "firkle", "gazonga", "yingyang", and "yutz", as well as many others not to be found in the O.E.D. (I confess that I am not well-versed in North American slang.) The book also boasts 171 footnotes (in a total of 217 pages of text), some of the more striking examples being (and I quote them in full): "Michelle Pfeiffer is six foot six"; "To a House Sparrow we all look alike"; and "e pluribus unum and all that jazz." Need I say more?

Richard Wilson Roberts is a professor of mathematics at the Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana, in Mexico City, and he is the author of The Birds of Mexico (second edition, 1994).


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