Ornithologist Scott Weidensaul’s book Of a Feather: A Brief History of American Birding, is a loving portrait of American birding, including the fathers AND mothers of birding. Weidensaul also describes two types of people who chase birds: listers and birders. Listers chase birds, spending money and time to find the most unusual and exotic to add to their life lists. They are encouraged by annual competitions to see who can get the most birds in their Big Year. Weidensaul describes their enthusiasm when they see a new bird, but they quickly lose interest in the birds the moment they have made the check mark on the list. They are immediately on to the next bird.
Weidensaul suggests that the second type of people who chase birds are really the birders: those who care less about the list and more about the birds themselves. They are excited by the unusual but also intrigued with the familiar. The author seems to come down on the side of this second type, those who genuinely enjoy birds rather than aggressively pursuing the list. The blurb from The Washington Post on the cover calls the book gossipy and scholarly and that’s just about right as the author has hung out with the contemporary folks and likes telling tales about the characters from the past.
I think this brief history–there is just enough detail–will be interest to anyone who has paged through a field guide. And, if you a bird nerd, I can highly recommend Kingbird Highway by Kenn Kaufman. As a teenager, he embarked on his big year–the year when serious birders try to see more birds than anyone else–with little more than a backpack and a map. Even an extreme lister like Kaufman, who almost won the annual competition, has since lost interest in the list. Weidensaul quotes him, “As for me, my own passion for list-chasing was dwindling fast, while my interests in the birds themselves was becoming ever stronger. So the contest was coming to matter least of all to the contestants.”
Challenges can be positive ways to change habits and push limits. But, when the challenge itself becomes the focus, it can lead to superficial successes.