This past Sunday I had the privilege of going birding with my stepfather for the first time in months. We went to a fish hatchery and a state park in search of the ducks, grebes, and shorebirds that winter here in Tennessee (bad joke: how is a birder like a rich person? They both use winter as a verb!)
We saw nothing rare or spectacular, just flocks of ring-necked ducks, gadwalls, and coots. Coots are considered a nuisance in the northern states and provinces, but they are among my favorite waterfowl, with their fat bobbing bodies and absurd feet. I have a weakness for ridiculous birds like coots, woodcocks, and night-herons; they show one a jolly side of nature that seems so soothing and necessary after a night spent watching Carl Sagan videos.
I’ve encountered some academic speculation that birding represents a “safe” eruption of the hunting instinct within the mind of the bourgeois – in other words, that birders are hunters without guns, people who stalk wildlife as their ancient ancestors and country grandfathers once did, but take only symbolic trophies because modern living has neutered them. Of course this is a tad derogatory, and fails to take things like scientific curiosity and birding as a subculture into account, but when I am out looking for ducks in the winter I do get a sense of being a frustrated hunter. I stand in the rushes in my muted-brown jacket, holding binoculars and listening to the sound of my own breathing, staying as still as possible because the most sought-after species are also the most skittish. Then, if I see an unusual duck or shorebird and identify it with confidence, a sense of triumph. I know people who hunt, and they would consider this a sort of dry orgasm – “Then you just walk away?” Yes, because I am gentle, respectful, civilized, intellectual, delicate, guilt-ridden, anemic, sentimental, and ridiculous. Also, I don’t own a shotgun, and nobody ever taught me to shoot. No Artemis am I. I’m sure the ducks, somewhere deep in their little duck-brains, appreciate this.