Why good birders are like old elephants
Cover photo: Brian Stoneman was a living proof that some good birders do wear white.
I do not know how roads in your neck of the woods look like, but here in Serbia, many of them are poorly maintained and potholed. If someone would asked me in advance where those potholes are, I would not be able to say. Yet, while driving, it is like one of those old Roman empire scroll-maps is being scrolled down in my mind and, as I get closer, I slow down expecting the individual pothole. Suddenly I know where they are, without knowing that I have that knowledge at all. With birding, the same thing happens.
When I think of my favourite patch, it is the general area that comes to mind, it is the forest, not the trees. But once inside the patch, like on a command I check that particular bush because I once saw a good bird in it, or that wood clearing or that small and unobtrusive puddle. Or that dead tree with dry branches. It is a sort of a local knowledge. I can explain to anyone how to reach the patch and which birds to look for, but unless I am nearing that particular bush or that particular dead willow, I wouldn’t be able to recommend them.
That may be the reason why while birding overseas with a bird-finder book or app in your hands, it still makes a lot of sense to pair up with someone local who will know not just which tree to check, but which part of the tree crown, even which individual branch to check. Asked in advance, there is no way he could remember that branch, yet, once close to it, he just knows.
Potholes and good birds aside, what does this has to do with elephants? Simply, ellies never forget!
Although very poor bird guides – elephants don’t care to memorise birds – they do know where those important things in their world are. Where the grass is green even well into the dry season (or at least, where the last grass hasn’t turned to dust). Or where there should be water, even when other waterholes dry up. And when one ellie asks the other where that good waterhole is, I would put my money that the answer would be a blank stare.
But, it takes an old matriarch to know such things, to remember those horrible years when many calves died of thirst and exhaustion on long walks and when their salvation lied there and there. I bet that in good years, she doesn’t know she knows it and when the times become hard, those hardened just know. And lead.
Over this dried up river, through that dusty plain, through those thorny acacias and copper-leaved mopane and ever deeper into savannah. They remember it the same way we remember those good birds. The same way our hunter-gatherer forefathers knew where deer graze at dawn. Knowing without knowing.
Instead of desperately trying to remember, be like an old elephant. Free your mind and bird on.