On Plumas County Road A-24, on a cold November afternoon, I stood scanning a field of hay stubble where a flock of eight to ten thousand Horned Larks were feeding on fallen grain. Among the larks, I spotted a Lapland Longspur, and then a second and third, a single Chestnut-collared Longspur, and just before it got too dark to make out details, the unmistakable image of a McCown’s Longspur appeared in the lens of my spotting scope. On a fence line across the field, perched a lone Prairie Falcon to whom one of the larks would fall prey before the sun sank from sight. Earlier on Heriot Lane, there’d been a scattering of Ferruginous Hawks on the hunt for mice and four Bald Eagles tearing at the carcass of a fallen Hereford cow. In a pocket binder of field notes I noted all these sightings, including the numbers of individuals of each species, ending with an estimation the number of Horned Larks at 9500. All of the afternoon’s sightings were noted along with the date, hour, location, and weather conditions at the time of the sighting. I was involved in what birders call listing.
It’s common for most birders to keep a “life list” of all the species of birds they’ve encountered in their lifetime. In addition a lot of birders, myself included, will list for the purposes of collecting data relevant to assessing the condition and whereabouts of bird populations. For seven years, my wife, Karen, and I lived in eastern Plumas County’s Sierra Valley where for much of that time I served as a sub-regional editor for American Birds magazine, the field journal of the National Audubon Society. In that capacity, I was responsible for reporting on the bird populations of California’s Plumas and Sierra Counties. So I spent a lot of time in the field counting and listing the birds I saw there. It’s a practice that encourages an eye for accuracy.
It’s also a practice that can lead to competitive urges wherein a birder gets obsessed with extending his own personal life list of the birds he’s identified. A birder with really extensive life list can gain considerable esteem and be known as a “World Class Birder” to be differentiated from a mere “local birder.” I escaped getting hooked on the competitive aspect of listing, a consequence that owed less to any modest restraint on my part than to the simple fact that I could never afford the travel required to accumulate a truly competitive life list. However, I do recall with a degree of vanity the winter I counted and reported that Plumas County hosted the largest concentration of Ferruginous Hawks in the whole of North America, a fact that went into the record books.
So you can see that when bird listing is motivated by competition it has the usual elements of a contest, and shares with other forms of contest the potential for winning or losing. And this potential can get all wrapped up with identity wherein the birder measures relative personal worth in terms of the length and completeness of his or her life list. It’s an obsession that results in the inevitable accrual of a birding persona that is at once mistaken for one’s actual being and that forfeits self-worth to the relative public appraisal of others.
For the most competitive birders, the consequences are typically those of “list anxiety,” interspersed with elation and self-satisfaction one moment and followed by envy, dissatisfaction, and rancor the next. The birder obsessed with competing for a reputation based on his life list will certainly suffer if his list is a paltry affair compared to those of his birding companions. This is no different than any other means of establishing self-worth measured in terms of the success or failure of others comparable to your own. How successful am I as a parent, carpenter, wife or husband compared to other parents, carpenters, wives or husbands? How good of a writer am I compared to those writers I most admire? So long as I seek identify and worth in relationship to the identity and worth of others, I will never be who I am and do what I alone can do. My life will be lived in a state of anxious concern, wherein I will be falsely content with myself at times and just as falsely dissatisfied with myself at other times. I’ve been a farmer, college professor, Zen teacher, birder, long distance runner, husband, father, and friend, and in all these roles resides the temptation to forfeit oneself to relative valuation.
Besides competition, bird listing may also be motivated by a seemingly mundane but actually more complex and perhaps more profound force. The motive for listing may lie in the intent to provide so chancy an activity as field birding with some element suggestive of order. A birder can never control what occurs in the field, but on the list all proceeds in proper taxonomical order. I call this aspect of listing “clerical,” as in “clerk”; it is generated by the same motive force that moves one to align the disordered magazines symmetrically on the coffee table. This clerical motive, like the competitive motive, has the potential to run to extremes. We’ve all witnessed the obsessive neatness of individuals who find randomness intolerable and who attempt to control realities by straightening things up.
Bird listing can be just such a futile straightening up, providing the keeper of a list with the illusion of order and control where little actual order or control exists. The birder hard-ridden by this obsession frequently comes to prefer the hours spent at his computer rearranging the configuration of his lists to any hours actually spent in the field. This is a fairly common malady in our times where virtual reality is often confused with the reality of actual life. It’s a way of sustaining an illusion of control by creating an artificial event with limited and thereby controllable elements. It has nothing to do with the life of natural events, and is often characteristic of philosophical and religious pursuits wherein an imagined spiritual and ethical simplicity is substituted for the complexities and contradictions of life itself. It’s a form of denial exercised for the sake of intellectual and emotional comfort. But it never works because even the most carefully contrived order is subject to the second law of thermodynamics wherein all things tend toward disorder. Turn away but for a moment and once again you’ll find the coffee table magazines in disarray. It’s best to get used to the messiness. It’s called letting go.
But the clerical impulse toward bird listing can be generated by more than a mere intolerance of disorder. For example, its motive can be akin to that of an accountant’s who takes satisfaction in seeing the myriad random transactions of a business firm arranged in patterned columns on a balance sheet, where the sum of the transactions (One is tempted to say the “meaning” of the transactions.) is made apparent. In a sphere of broader reference, this is what is meant when we speak of “taking an accounting” or “being held accountable.” Accounting is a call for an accurate assessment of behavior and consequence.
In this quest for underlying pattern, both the accountant and the bird lister share in the central impulse common to philosophy, science, art, and even religion when religion doesn’t shrink from the encounter with fact. The musician finds the harmonious pattern in what is otherwise only noise; the poet connects the discordant images that clarify for us where the connections are to be seen; the philosopher and the scientist extract unifying principles from the apparent chaos of mind and matter; the flower arranger takes the stems and blossoms where they are heaped randomly on the side table and arranges them in a way that is recognized by our sense of the aesthetic; the sage and the mystic reveal the hidden mountain where it rises from the obscuring mist. This perceived synthesis of unity within complexity is not a means of denying the complexities of life in favor of some contrived simplicity, but is rather a matter of exposing the shapes taken by complexity itself, the one within the many.
Bird listing participates in the fundamental necessity of wresting some degree of clarifying order from what is otherwise of an unmanageable scale and complexity of occurrence. The birder who keeps a list brings attention to bear upon the details of an occurrence, and the nature of this attention determines both what’s observed and the qualities of what’s observed. Listing of this sort is one way to keep faith with reality – this particular bird on this particular day in this particular place- a practice in seeing and recording things exactly as they are.