Birding is worth the 'fashion hit'

Kyle Schlabach is assistant professor of English at Goshen College

Certain persons in our household have been known to second guess the sartorial decision to appear in public wearing a pair of binoculars supported by “grandpa suspenders.”  Nonetheless, as the grandpa in question, I must say that I find the whole apparatus supremely useful for its intended purpose—discovering more details about the comings and goings of the local bird population.

Taking a moderate fashion hit is an acceptable price to pay for an activity that is not only good exercise for the body, but also for the mind.  For birding requires, above all, that you pay attention; that you look and listen like you mean it.  As a discipline, it blends watchfulness, intuition, knowledge, insight and serendipity.  You need to notice things, and noticing is a spiritual practice.  You learn to approach the world with a posture that is equal parts readiness and delight.

What a thrill to discover a bird you’ve never seen before, to think about what it is that you are looking at, this wonderful, small thing right in front of you.  Where has it come from?  Where is it going?  What business is it about? How does it fly?  How does it build?  How does it raise its young?  What does that bird know about the secret places of the world, high up or deep underwater, far away from human eyes?

It’s easy enough to start being a birder:  just start noticing the birds that cross your path every day.  Look for them, and at them.  Do you see the same ones?  In the same places?  Get the cheapest, funkiest old used pair of binoculars you can find, and summon up the courage to actually carry them in public.  Get a bird identification book out of the library.  Find out more about something you don’t know.  Read about one bird at time.  Get to know them.

This fall, there are songbirds in the woods, ducks on the ponds and cranes in the fields.  Those migrating warblers you spy on your way to class or work may only weigh a few ounces, but they’ve travelled five thousand miles this year, just to show up on your doorstep.  That’s something to think about.

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