Jonathan Franzen Is the World’s Most Annoying Bird-Watcher
He shouldn’t be the public face of this wonderful pastime.
Franzen has somehow managed to swallow his shame long enough to have developed considerable skill as a birder and to experience true joy in nature, at least fleetingly. But even this joy brings Franzen agita: “My response to this happiness, naturally, was to worry that I was in the grip of something diseased and bad and wrong. An addiction. Every morning, driving to an office I'd borrowed in Santa Cruz, I would wrestle with the urge to stop and bird for ‘a few minutes.’ Seeing a good bird made me want to stay out and see more good birds. Not seeing a good bird made me sour and desolate, for which the only cure was, likewise, to keep looking.”
More troubling still, Franzen doesn’t seem to always abide by the good birder’s code of honor. His 2005 essay begins with him thinking he’s spotted an extremely rare bird (well, rare in the United States, which matters for people who keep a list of birds seen in the country) and reporting it to the visitors center at a birding hotspot. Despite a creeping doubt about whether he’d really seen a masked duck and not a more common female ruddy duck, he lets other birders chase after his phantom and never admits that he made a mistaken identification. He could easily have added a line to the log that it was a probable or possible sighting, but he’s determined to bag that bird. He even goes to the trouble of calling the visitors center from a friend’s phone to disguise his identity while he asks if anyone else reported the duck.
It’s pathetic to fake it as a birder. It’s cheating at solitaire—nobody else really cares whether you have a genuine masked duck on your life list. If you don’t get a clear look at the stripes on a bird’s cheek, try again later. Take a look at a different guide book. Ask another birder for help—they’re really very generous people. If a birder schlepped a telescope a mile through a haze of mosquitoes to see a white-faced ibis, and if you come along with a pair of binoculars and can’t quite make out the field marks, the birder with the scope will share. That’s why there are rare-bird alerts and log books at visitors centers—birders are ridiculously cooperative.
They can also be ridiculously misanthropic. There’s nothing like spending years chasing birds to make you notice habitat fragmentation, climate change, and overpopulation. It’s one thing to wish abstractly that more people enjoyed the great outdoors, and another to have your solitude ruined by a troop of Boy Scouts trailing Milky Way wrappers and scaring away all the birds. Franzen shares this misanthropy, and he’s come by it honestly, by noticing humans’ impact on the natural world. Freedom’s bird-loving character—Walter, a former Nature Conservancy lawyer who gets outsmarted by Big Coal—shares it too. But Walter is so absurdly misanthropic and crazed, such a caricature of a conservationist, that he makes birders look not just embarrassing but unhinged.
In a New York Times essay last year, Franzen pitted his love of birds against the disengagement and rush-to-judgment brought on by using sites like Facebook. He wrote that actually doing something (birding, participating in bird conservation efforts) made him more aware of environmental problems. The essay also covered love, and the alienation caused by technology, and ugly arguments with a romantic partner—it was a little over-thought and overwrought. Still, it’s nice that he loves birds and that he’s bringing attention to their plight.
But in birding, as in life in general, don’t be like Jonathan Franzen. Don’t let neurosis, self-involvement, and pride inhibit your enthusiasms. Be like Chuck McAlexander, a machinist in Birders who makes bird feeders out of coconut shells. Be like Starr Saphir, who schedules her chemotherapy appointments around her bird walks in Central Park. Here’s what she says about birding: “Looking at birds takes away sadness. … When you look at the natural world, it puts things in perspective and makes you forget about yourself.”
Laura Helmuth is Slate's science and health editor.