The Trouble with Twitching
The first two months of 2007 have showered one spectacular bird species after another upon a deserving New York Metro region. While this time of year can often seem slow from a birding perspective, twitchers have been racing across the Empire State trying to keep up with each new sighting.Â I’ve intimated recently that I’m losing my taste for twitching. The mad hunt for megararities seems at once adventurous and unseemly. Part of my problem may lie in the often unknown origin of my quarry. Consider the potential profiles of a given extralimital avian:
- An intrepid pioneer exploring exotic, new ecosystems, claiming new territories on behalf of its species
- A storm-tossed wretch condemned never to reach its breeding grounds, lost and alone in a strange land
- A dolt too deficient in the essential skills of avian navigation to follow the routes its innumerable antecedents have established
- A fugitive from captivity, out of the frying pan of involuntary confinement and into the fire of an alien, possibly unsuitable environment
This knowledge can change the complexion of a successful twitch. When enthusiasts stampede from miles around to capture a spectacular vagrant in scope and camera lens, is the convocation a spontaneous celebration of the persistence and adaptability of life or is it more like the birding equivalent of rubbernecking, wherein a crown gathers to gawk at the spaz confronting the consequences of its own deplorable sense of direction? Does such an experience offer insights into the endlessly dynamic interaction of changing habitat and species or the anthropocentric arrogance of one species who would transport others across the globe simply for amusement?
Ultimately, these megararities attain a certain celebrity. The Piermont Snowy Owl, for example, has attracted thousands of birders during its long reign over a storied stretch of the Hudson River. Other Northeastern US rarities of similar magnitude that come to mind are New England’s Western Reef-heron of Summer 2006 and Martha’s Vineyard’s Red-footed Falcon of Summer 2004. These birds are all memorable ticks on countless lists, but their celebrity offers no insight into the quality of their own lives. Do the birders who have seen these birds so far out of their natural environments know them any better than fans know their favorite performers based on roles in films and tabloid photos?Â And can we differentiate the talented from the trainwrecks among birds any better than we can from the throngs of packaged personalities the media purveys?Â Does it even matter? The difference between fame and infamy is probably meaningless to a bird. But then again, twitching isn’t about the bird at all, is it? That, however, is a discussion for another day…