In Praise of New Technologies

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A recent Facebook thread (doesn’t everything these days start with some kind of social media post) lamented the apparent reliance on instant gratification and use of technology in the pursuit of birds these days. It’s true that the use of cameras seems to be greater than the use of binoculars for today’s beginners, both young and old. Many of the posts start with “When I started birding….” followed by the usual walking up hill in both directions, three feet of snow kind of sagas about how much more difficult it was back then. Digital apps, endless streams of common birds with ID help requests attached –oh, my! What is this world coming to?

Fellow ABA blogger Greg Neise has written several pieces on the use of photography in birding including 21st Century Audubons. Have a look at Greg’s article, then have a look at the comments, especially those from beginners.

I guess it’s not surprising to hear people comparing how easy it is now to how difficult it was when they started birding. We do it all the time. About everything. I’m not sure why this is, but the resistance to change seems to be something we acquire in early adulthood and it grows and grows until we turn into old codgers. Well, hopefully not all of us. I can only imaging the outrage when the Peterson Guide first came on the scene. It probably went something like this: “In my day, we had to memorize the critical markings and draw our own pictures!” Or when optics became accessible: “What a lazy way to birdwatch! I had to make do with my own eyeballs!”

Many of the people lamenting the changing tools and technology had the great fortune of birding as children, learning field craft at that most absorptive stage of life and becoming expert at an age that is half, or even a quarter, of when a lot of us identified our first new bird. One of my life regrets at 40 was not having learned the names of the birds as a child. I had an old pair of binoculars. I’d even bought a couple of field guides. I think I could identify about 20 species. Big, colorful, obvious species. It wasn’t until a work colleague offered to take a group of us out birding that the lightbulb went on. Not only could he identify the birds by their songs, but he could tell me what features to look for to help identify those yellow-colored birds and little brown jobs. The fleeting looks I could get at them (pre-digital camera era) were rarely sufficient for me to find them in my books, but a walking talking field guide was the best it could get! When you don’t know the difference between a warbler and a sparrow, the books are not as helpful as you might think. Local checklists and bar charts?  Who knew that they even existed?  Thank goodness for eBird for beginners these days!

Preparing to walk into the spruce forest to look for Pacific Wren and Three-toed Woodpecker.

Birding with an expert remains one of the best ways to learn about local birds.

For me, and for many others, the tipping point between being casually interested in birds and becoming an enthusiastic birder was patient and ongoing help from other birders. What a boon social media is for this! Now even the tentative solo beginner has access to experienced birders to help with their identifications. I’m delighted that groups have been set up to let newbies post their photos of juncos and flickers without the derision that I’ve seen in other online forums.

It may come as a surprise to many that the help with identification of common birds drives most of those posters into seeking out more knowledge. “Holy crap, I’ve got a Cedar Waxwing in my yard!” leads to looking up the bird and getting more information. I’ve marveled at the pace people are transitioning from newbie to expert these days, and social media gets a lot of the credit. Sites like Xeno-canto and digital apps are helping people learn birds sounds when the birds aren’t even singing. Back in the dark past of 1996, I spent the winter with a computer program that included a “Song Tutor”.  It moved me ahead in months with what would have otherwise taken years. Yes, modern technology has taken some of the drudgery out of this hobby, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Less time drudging means more time actually studying the birds!  Admittedly, there are a few who will never take the time to learn, but in my experience, they are a tiny minority.

I think the most important point, though, is that any of these approaches – field craft (with or without a mentor), textbook study, and technology-assisted learning – are not mutually exclusive. You can be a photography fiend that spends hours scrutinizing a backyard bird’s behavior just to get that perfect shot. You can spend weeks studying the songs of birds that you hope to find at your upcoming vacation destination. You can ask for help in identifying your first Yellow Warbler, and a year later be helping other newbies posting photos of common birds. And you can make the hobby as difficult as you want by delving into the world of obscure hybrids or identification of birds by chip notes.

With regard to new technology, I say, “Bring it on!” Anything that reduces frustration and keeps people interested in finding and watching birds is a good thing in my book–or tablet!

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