My siblings often joke that our mother brainwashed me. This is because I bird.
Yes, I bird. I wander around outside with a pair of binoculars searching for clumps of feathers rain or shine, and I love it.
Through birding, I have traveled the country, witnessing some of nature’s rarest moments in the most awe-inspiring settings. Birding has provided my mother and me a common interest through which we have experienced the world, developed a deep bond and created countless memories. My senior year of high school, I chose to spend my spring break birding the Rio Grande Valley with her rather than going somewhere with my friends.
So maybe there is a little something to that whole brainwashed theory, but I'm OK with it.
Seven years later, we still laugh when we reminisce about getting lost in the Texas brush, trapped between a sounder of peccaries and a band of coyotes. The sun was in its final act, and getting stuck in the wild for the night was becoming a legitimate concern. We both will never forget the joy that overcame us when we finally made it back to the trailhead and gratefully collapsed on the simmering hood of our rental car.
When I tell people I am a birder, mention my life list or uncontrollably identify the call coming from a nearby bush, chuckling usually ensues. Besides assuming it is boring, for many, I don't fit the bill. The absence of a fanny pack, camera vest and 30 extra years confuses people. (By the way, I do have the vest.)
Of course, none of these notions could be further from the truth. Birding can be quite adventurous, and it is a great hobby for all ages and types of people. Not to mention, birding is relatively cheap — until you become obsessed, that is — and can be done at your leisure. It is a great way to spend time with your loved one and can be deeply cathartic when you go by yourself. With fall migration upon us, I encourage people to get outside and give it a try.
To bird, all you really need is a pair of decent binoculars and a field guide. Choosing one’s binoculars is an extremely personal decision, but I recommend getting a Kaufman field guide to start out. If you catch the fever, numerous pairs of binoculars and copious amounts of avian literature are in your future, but for now, this is all you need. After these purchases, birding is as simple as walking along the Katy Trail.
Unless I’m with my mom, I typically go on my own, but I always encourage a new birder to try and find a group such as the Columbia Audubon Society or some semi-knowledgeable locals. The experience is much more enjoyable with people who know what they are doing; take it from me, trying to figure out the difference between an alder flycatcher and a willow flycatcher on your own is its own circle of hell.
Once you begin identifying birds, there's no turning back. While it is important to not become the nefarious “lister” (one who only birds for listing purposes and not enjoyment), keeping track of what you have seen and where you have seen it is great fun and highly addictive. My mom has gone a little far with her lists of state birds, county birds, property birds and national birds, but then again, she also takes her binoculars into restaurants.
As disturbing as this behavior might be, this is also the reason why people end up loving birding and are willing to get lost in the middle of Texas. The passion can make make you act a fool, but the moments you feel like you have stolen and the people you meet are all well worth the odd looks and "warbler neck."
Before we all went our separate ways for the summer, some of my friends held a party. The daylight was dwindling, but I still managed to spot a large form alight upon a branch across the yard. As I instinctively darted off, a couple others followed, and before long, the entire group was gathered around the tree watching a husky barred owl as it tore apart its dinner. As any birder knows, this was an extremely rare moment.
Some were more taken than others, but everybody remained somewhat hushed for a few minutes. There was something inherently magical about what we were witnessing, and to experience such a moment, and then be able to share the experience with others is what birding is all about.
No, I don't mind being brainwashed at all.
Andrew Del-Colle is the arts editor for Vox Magazine and a graduate student at the Missouri School of Journalism