I wish I were better at birds


I wish I were better at birds.

I was sitting the other day having a sociable drink with my neighbor John who’s from England when he pointed to the tree outside my front door with the red feathery flowers – I’m also not very good at trees – and said, “What kind of bird is that?”

It wasn’t an ostrich or a seagull or a peacock or a pelican, so I wasn’t much help. He fetched a bird book but that wasn’t any help either. I looked in the index, but there wasn’t any entry under “Small bird with blue head and red chest with a long thin beak”. The best we could do was just work our way through by a process of painstaking elimination. “Well, it’s not a sooty albatross and it’s not a secretary bird, and it’s not a goose …”

I’ve had plenty of opportunities to learn about birds, but I’ve never taken them, mainly because I’ve always considered bird people to be the most boring individuals on the face of the earth. There is nothing that spoils a lovely day in the wild like someone raising a pair of binoculars to their wizened face and saying, “Look – a grey-necked grebe”. I would rather spend a long car journey with a Maoist-Leninist or a man with chronic hiccups than a birder. But just of late I’ve been changing my tune.

There are some pretty good bird stories, when you start looking for them. Consider The Mysterious Bird of Ulietta. In 1774, during Captain Cook’s second voyage to the south Pacific, the on-board naturalist, one Johann Reinhold Forster, shot and stuffed a specimen of a small brown soft-singing bird, perhaps a starling, perhaps a thrush, on the French Polynesian island of Raiatea. His son Georg made a detailed painting of the bird and it’s a good thing he did, because it turned out to be a species never before seen. On his return to England after five years at sea, Forster the elder presented the stuffed bird to Joseph Hooker, the naturalist on Cook’s first voyage, who proceeded to lose it.

In 1850 the natural historian Andrew Garrett went to Raiatea in search of the bird, but he didn’t find it, and nor has anyone else ever since. It is gone, it has vanished from the earth, and without that painting, science would never know it had ever been here. In his book The Search for the Rarest Bird in the World, local birdwatcher Vernon Head describes a number of birds that we only know about through sheer chance, such as the Red Sea Cliff-Sparrow. A single dead specimen was found lying beside a lighthouse in the Sudan in 1984, and no one has ever knowingly seen another.

But it’s the “knowingly” that bothers me. I’m tweaked and irked by the thought that I might, in my wanderings, have idly run my eye over a Red Sea Cliff-Sparrow and never known it, and that’s partly why I have started to wish I were better at birds.

It’s not that I want to spot the outlier or have the best story to tell, although that would be nice. Rather, it’s the realisation that I’m surrounded by so much world and so much nature and I can barely see it. This is what birdwatchers have: not the nerdy ability to tell one little drab feathered friend from another, but the ability to see what’s around them. As William Fiennes said, when you know the name of something, it starts to be part of what it looks like.

When I was a young man wandering through my first large art museum, knowing nothing about art or artists, all I saw were a sequence of paintings in colours and shapes more recognizable or less recognizable, more pretty or less pretty. I didn’t understand or have a vocabulary for what I was looking it, so I looked unknowingly. I couldn’t exactly tell what I was seeing or why and how it was meaningfully different to the thing beside it. It’s precisely the same when in my tree-blindness I walk through a forest or look at a hillside. I see that there are trees – greenness, trunks and leaves, tall or short – but there’s no legibility or pattern, no stories. It’s like flipping through a newspaper printed in Turkish or Cyrillic: there’s lots of print, but nothing I can read.

Birdwatchers read the world while I am illiterate. They see the words and letters of nature where all I see are blocks of text. I am missing so much – wonder and joy, the pleasures of stillness and comprehension, connections and comparisions, a deeper experience of the planet on which I live. I’d like to be better at birds. I’d like to be better at seeing.

The Times, 26 February 2015