Tuesday, November 01, 2011

The Impulse to Chase

A second report of Wisconsin’s first Inca Dove spotted yesterday in Ozaukee County prompted a birder I know to make the comment, "Dammit... I guess I'm heading over on Wed." There it is. The emotional reaction that underlies the impulse and compulsion to chase immediately following a rare bird report. It almost renders a feeling of obligation for the chaser to chase, not unlike a veritable psychological addiction. But unlike problematic behavioral addiction, the question remains open whether or not there are harmful consequences to health, mental state, or social life. Anecdotally, chasing birds can and does put strains on relationships. I know this from personal experience, stories I’ve heard from other birders, as well as books and articles about chasing birds. However, I’m unaware of any studies on the subject.

When I stopped chasing rare birds several years ago, I continued to feel the impulse to chase whenever a rare bird was reported to the listserv, quite similar to a legitimate withdrawal syndrome. This lasted for a migration season or two, but waned over time and eventually disappeared. In the process of overcoming the chasing impulse, each time I ran through what became a predictable series of emotions, chief among them was envy and a sense of entitlement; everyone will get to see the bird but me and I didn’t want to feel left out! Whether out of subtle bragging (sharing?) or keeping birders informed, we want others to know we got to see the bird and that it’s still present. When I didn’t chase a particular rarity, reading follow-up reports by other birders who did see it was initially frustrating because the impulse maintained a strong hold on my psyche. Denying this impulse was initially difficult, but the more determined I was to resist it the easier it got.

Quitting the chase wasn’t something I did out of personal necessity, but for birding ethics and general stewardship I felt toward Nature. As I’ve written in the past, until I started road bicycling, I didn’t know the number of birds that are killed along our roads and highways every year. So I looked it up. According to at least one source, as many as 80 million birds are killed annually by automobiles. As a bicycling birder, I noticed the living birds as well as the dead ones, and there were lots of the latter. It was heartbreaking to see freshly killed Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Eastern Kingbirds, Northern Flickers, Indigo Buntings, Savannah Sparrows, Common yellowthroats, Soras, Yellow Warblers - a dead bird every 20 to 40 yards.

Mile after mile, roads are songbird graveyards, but they aren’t the only critters that perish on them. When speeding along at 60MPH, you’ll see dead raccoons, porcupines, foxes, deer, skunks, woodchucks, etc., but you won’t notice the tiny songbirds. However, when biking past a feathered corpse, you'll see all the blood and grizzly bits of feather and bone; the squashed skull, its broken beak, the bent wings, the splayed out feathers and entrails protruding out of its flattened body. Being sickened by what I observed during my bike rides, I knew I had to change: stop chasing birds and drive less. This, along with the carbon footprint argument, compels me to suggest that any pursuit of birds, which as its core premise encourages people to get into their cars and drive for several hours at a time, can't be viewed as environmentally and conservationally compatible with the interests of birds.

Everyone has a right to chase birds if they want to. But when I suggest that other birders might want to consider decreasing the amount of chasing they do, you might suppose from their defensive reactions that I’ve asked them to throw their binoculars in the garbage. One hears a variety of justifications:

"What about food delivery jobs? Trucking jobs? Couriers? These all require driving. How about people who don't want to live in the city but work in the city? They have to drive on a daily basis. Besides, out here, away from the big city, if you want to go anywhere, you have to drive. I went birding this morning. Drove 50 miles. Why? Because trying to bird along the same stretch of road with no flocks gets extremely boring. Birding itself away from cities is about driving. Covering ground."

Here’s another:

"I respect your opinion, but I think it's rather Utopian. In the world in which we all currently live, I think people being willing to burn up fossil fuels going out to look at birds (as opposed to the millions of other more environmentally negative ways they might release carbon) and other people seeing that they are willing to do so (I'm talking about all manifestations of ecotourism, not just weekend chasing) is actually one of the BEST hopes for the interests of birds being looked out for at all."

Chasing birds via automobile is thus justified because everyone else drives and an single individual‘s CO2 contribution makes virtually no difference in the long run, therefore chase. I realize many things we as a society need out of practical necessity requires us to use various forms of transportation that burn fossil fuels, but this is not my argument; an element of necessity is absent in the case of chasing birds. Chasing birds is unnecessary. Perhaps even worse, given its cost, it's a luxury that isn't affordable to everyone, which can seem somewhat classist. Truly, no type of hobbyist birding is necessary. That's why when I go birding today it it's my aim to leave as small of an ecological footprint as I possibly can.

My point is that constantly driving around the state to chase rare birds may do more harm to creatures we admire than benefits them. And then there's the public impression we give as birders. Chasing, to my way of thinking, sends a potentially non-green message to non-birders that to chase you must drive an automobile, but to do it well you must drive more, and to be the best you must be on the road most every day. Birding doesn't necessarily have to be green, but I feel strongly that the premise of chasing is philosophically anti-environmental and psychologically narcissistic.

Sure, chasing is fun, sporty, and exciting. It's what gets a lot of people interested in birding in the first place. I know I should step off my soapbox and allow individual birders evolve their interests at their own pace, just as I did. That's our right. I chased and it was fun and exciting, but I really do find it somewhat shallow when it seems to be done almost out of habit and addiction, hence the above birder’s reaction to the Inca Dove being seen again. It’s practically a lament. It's as if a birder has to drop everything and go get the “good” bird out of mere obligation. Well, you really don't. You can just let it go. You can give your $40.00 in gas money to Marge Gibson at REGI so she can rehabilitate injured birds that are in her care on account of things we've done to them.

Drive less, bird locally. Let the rarity come to you.

"I myself have never made a dead set at studying Nature with a notebook and fieldglass in hand. I have rather visited with her. We have walked together or sat down together, and our intimacy grows with the seasons. What I have learned about her ways I have learned easily, almost unconsciously, while fishing or camping or idling about. My desultory habits have their disadvantages, no doubt, but they have their advantages also. A too-strenuous pursuit defeats itself. In the fields and woods more than anywhere else all things come to those who wait, because all things are on the move, and are sure sooner or later to come your way."

- John Burroughs

Link: Mapping Traffic’s Toll on Wildlife

All images © 2011 Mike McDowell


  1. What a thoughtful post! As a relatively new birder, I feel the pressure to chase birds and did do that on occasion. I soon realized that it's expensive to see new birds that way, so I try to get enjoyment out of reading what others are seeing out there. You may not believe this, but it's true...just after reading your post earlier, I got up and saw a new bird, for me at least, and not a rare one at all, but my first sighting of a Northern Shrike on my property. Or, was it a Loggerhead? My glimpse was way too short, but either way, it's new to me and my excitement continues!

  2. Good post. And I guess you speak from experience as far as this addiction can be ruinous to relationships.

    Maybe birders can make a limit on the distance they drive. Or go by bike (sure). Drive 20 miles to see a sand hill crane that stopped by a farmers field. Sure. Beats flying 600+ miles to see one. What's the cost of that trip?


  3. Very well written Mike! I came across your blog because I'm researching digiscoping for birds and was quite happy to read this post. I have many of the same thoughts and concerns as you do.
    I also appreciate that you provided counter-arguments for the typical reason people say they do drive around!

    I've been thinking of investing more money in to a better bike rather than into trips (whether it be driving or flying) and your blog post will only fuel that desire even more!

    The main reason I do like to travel around to see birds is not to chase but to see a larger diversity of birds and be able to learn how to ID them more quickly and efficiently. Then it will be easier to find those species on my patch! So I think a better balance needs to be reached between traveling and birding ones own patch.

    A quick question about your digiscoping:
    Are all your photos on your blog taken by digiscoping? Or do you also use a DSLR with a proper lens for some of them?

  4. Hi Alvan,

    Thanks for your comment!

    All the bird images are digiscoped. I do not own a DSLR. I use the Swarovski 80mm scope plus a Nikon Coolpix 8400 p&s camera.


    Mike M.