Are Birders More Perceptive Than Non-Birders?
It has been said many times that birders are always birding. Once you are turned on to birds it is virtually impossible to be turned off of birds and if you are truly a birder your location and current (alleged) activity matter not a whit – you are birding. And once you really get into birding you can’t help but notice insects and other bugs, plants, mammals, reptiles, and the entire gamut of life with which we share the world. Beyond that, you become aware in general of your place in the universe, and this revelation might lead you to a greater understanding of your surroundings. Not convinced? Let’s look at this issue a little more in depth.
When birding (which is always) have you ever noticed a shadow racing along the ground because some fast moving object has moved between the sun and the ground near you? Do you look up to see what made the shadow? I do every single time and I have noticed other birders doing the same thing (and they almost always look in the correct direction because they already are aware of the sun’s position). I have NEVER seen a non-birder look up in similar circumstances, whether because they do not notice the shadow or because it does not make them interested enough to look up into the sky. This means that when I am with non-birding friends I often get to point out interesting things in the sky like blimps, odd planes, helicopters, hot air balloons, and, yes, sometimes birds, like the female American Kestrel to the left. When I am asked how I knew to look up and I explain how I saw a shadow moving along the ground people tend to be impressed but I wouldn’t expect any birders reading this to be impressed because, after all, this is just what birders do.
To some degree birders are more perceptive because we think like wild animals. After all, if you want to really understand another creature you have to be able to perceive its motivations, its needs, its habits. To do that you have to put yourself in the animal’s skin (no, I am not advocating for you to get a new fur coat). This explains why birders take note of what plants produce seeds or fruit and when. Birders not only check the weather in order to see if it is going to be raining but also to see what way the wind is blowing, if a front is coming, and the times that these things are happening. After all, if it is spring and there are south winds in the evening and a front moves through with heavy rain at four in the morning then birders are going to be out looking in the morning for migrants forced down by the rain.
When a birder is actually out birding and hears an alarm call from a jay or a squirrel the birder will look for what caused the alarm. Wanting to know how different birds react to different situations forces birders to be more aware of what situations change behavior. Being more aware of what the baseline is makes birders more sensitive to changes and more likely to notice them. I can’t even begin to count the number of falcons I have spotted because I scanned the skies after other birds took off for no apparent reason. Ditto for hawks or other predators spotted because the forest went silent or because some creature gave an alarm call.
To some degree these enhanced perceptions apply to anyone who spends a lot of time in the outdoors but birders (and hunters) are even more focused because our activity depends so much on being aware of sound and sight. It is no wonder, then, that this awareness of the surroundings might translate outside of the birding realm to the “real world.” Everyone knows the moment in the movie when the really bad guy steps into the room and everyone notices and goes quiet except for the poor sap with his back to the door who has no idea of the world of hurt he is about to enter. That poor sap will never be a birder worth his salt. After all, a birder would have correctly interpreted the sudden silence as a signal of a nearby menace, looked around for a predator, and avoided being pummeled.
Learning the field marks of a host of birds forces birders to notice detail more than most people and most people have heard of how Roger Tory Peterson’s identification system for birds was adapted to planes for World War II so plane spotters would know if a Zero or a Messerschmidt was approaching on a bombing or strafing run. If you have ever birded in a group and spotted a fellow birder in the distance you have probably had the discussion of how people have field marks too. Because birders train their minds to notice slight differences in the bird world they are more able to notice slight differences in the non-birding world as well.
Though I have stated my position here unequivocally I should perhaps be more cautious. After all, everyone has at least one story of a clueless birder. The exceptions that prove the rule? Or do birders put all of their energy into identifying birds to the detriment of other skills, like learning the social graces? See you in the comments…