One thing’s for sure: It has nothing to do with “the magic of flight.” A lot of people ask me how I became a birder—what it is about these creatures that drives my obsession to study them and think about them and search all over for them. Then they speculate on the answer themselves. “They’re so magical,” they’ll say, blowing the steam off a mug of chai tea clutched between two hands, “the freedom of the sky!” No. It has nothing to do with magic or freedom. It has nothing to do with the miracle of flight. I don’t hang-glide or fly planes. It has nothing to do with birds being beautiful, or cute, or impressive or fierce. I wasn’t attacked by a bird as a kid.
It has nothing to do with birds at all, really. It has everything to do with the natural world being too damn big.
Growing up in Maine, nature was everywhere. We lived near the coast, and I spent summer days searching for crabs on the beach and cracking open mussels to find pearls. My dad and grandfather are lifelong sportsmen—they still publish this newspaper—and they took me to woods and mountains and streams and lakes all over the state. This was back when nature channels actually showed nature programs, and my living room was filled with Marty Stouffer showing me the wilds of America, or David Attenborough teaching me about life everywhere else.
It was an interest that, as I matured, became unsustainable. I found I had less time to scour the beach for hermit crabs once watching The Simpsons, listening to Weezer, and talking to girls also became priorities. Nature seemed monolithic and impatient—there was so much to learn and see and find that maintaining an interest felt like an all-or-nothing proposition. For years, I chose “nothing.”
Discovering birding changed all that. I found myself one day during my senior year of college in a used-book store looking at an old edition of the Peterson Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America. Next to each illustrated species, the book’s previous owner (an old lady in Florida, I later surmised) had written the date she had first seen that species and where. That’s all it took. I had found a way back in.
I love birds because they provide the perfect point of entry to the natural world. They’re ambassadors to places and concepts that I would otherwise be too daunted to tackle or too busy to get into. Since I’ve started following birds, I’ve been to just about every type of habitat this country offers: from Southern bayous to the California desert; from the Illinois prairie into the rolling waves of the Atlantic, Pacific, and the Gulf of Mexico. I’ve learned that “nature” doesn’t begin and end at national park boundaries—the rarest bird I’ve ever discovered came into my view after I took a wrong turn in a housing development—but rather it’s a much more integral part of our lives. Instead of trying to block time to enjoy the natural world, birders learn to tune in to the natural world that’s always around them. I’m birding whenever I am outside or, failing that, wherever there’s a window.