Articles

tells about the boom in bird watching

FRED BODSWORTH September 28 1957
Articles

tells about the boom in bird watching

FRED BODSWORTH September 28 1957

tells about the boom in bird watching

FRED BODSWORTH

The fifteen paintings by Fenwick Lansdowne on these and the following pages depict fifteen graphic reasons why bird watching is becoming a booming hobby in Canada. Birds, of course, have always been as beautiful and dynamic as Lansdowne’s brush portrays them, but never before have so many people observed the fact for themselves. And one of the reasons for the growing popularity of bird watching is that the identification of birds is no longer the technical museum science it once was, thanks to the skill of such artists as Lansdowne who have made modern field identification guides possible.

Bird watching, which not many years ago was looked upon as a sedate and namby-pamby pursuit for maiden aunts and retired pastors, is now luring all types. For example, on one of the first warm days last April, work at a Montreal coal dock slowed down almost to a halt for several hours as workers scanned the smoky sky for the spring’s first tree swallows. About the same time, Alf Bunker, a locomotive engineer on a CPR freight between Leaside and Trenton, Ont., was counting mourning doves along the track and putting a chalk mark on the outside of his cab for every hundred sighted. When he pulled into Trenton he had made his third chalk mark. That morning in different parts of Toronto. Dr. Paul Harrington, a dentist, and R. W. Trowern, a bank manager, heard and duly recorded their first singing white-throated sparrows of the spring. And in Calgary, Derek Beacham, a fishing-tackle distributor, was filling his station wagon with bird-watching friends to

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“It’s a game, sport or study — and sometimes all three at once’

rush out and see three hundred swans that had landed on a slough five miles east of the city.

At a time when shorter working hours and increasing leisure are boosting interest in all forms of recreation it is impossible to say what hobby is growing fastest; but bird watchers who have taken time off from their bird watching to bring together a few statistics on their cult are sure that their hobby, if not leading in growth, is certainly among the leaders.

Five years ago there were about thirty mtural-history clubs in Canada, with about three thousand members. Today these figures are double — fifty-eight clubs and about six thousand members. Such clubs include people interested in botany, insects and mammalogy, but the bulk of their members are bird watchers because this is the branch of the natural sciences most attractive to amateurs. One grroup, the Federation of Ontario Naturalists, is growing at the rate of about a thousand members a year. The Toronto Field Naturalists’ Club, with eight hundred members now, is signing up new members at a rate of about one hundred a year.

And no one can guess how many thousands more bird watchers there are who are “lone scouts,” having no affiliation with clubs or societies. One clue to the number is the sale of bird books. Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds so far has sold about fifty thousand copies in Canada — by any standards a thriving best seller—and it continues to sell three to four thousand a year. (U. S. sales to date total three hundred thousand.) Peterson’s is the most popular bird guide, but there arc several others, among them Chester Reed's Land Birds East of the Rockies, which has also sold about fifty thousand copies in Canada over a longer period of years.

Swallows in a coal yard

Even persons linked closely with this growth in the popularity of bird watching frequently find themselves bewildered by it, as was John Livingston, executive director of the Audubon Society of Canada, when he visited the Montreal coal dock mentioned above. During lunch hours for the past couple of years laborers at the dock have been building and putting up birdhouses. Last year the birdhouses attracted their first tenants— several tree swallows, graceful beautiful birds with iridescent blue backs and snow-white breasts. On the day last April that Livingston visited the dock, the first swallow had just returned and was twittering gaily from the top of a birdhouse blackened by the winter’s accumulation of coal dust,

“The bird itself looked strange enough in those bleak grimy surroundings,” Livingston said, “but it was stranger still to see the reactions of the men. There they were, black as the ace of spades, stopping work every few seconds and searching the sky because they didn’t want to miss the arrival of the rest of their swallows.”

And there were no reprimands, because their employer was as excited as they were, which is not surprising either, because he is Brigadier James Hill, a bird watcher and an Audubon director.

The coalmen, locomotive engineer,

dentist, bank manager and fishing-tackle distributor, if you rounded them up, might have several different definitions for bird watching because bird watching has its “schools,” a sort of congenial caste system, and the pursuit has differ-

ent methods and goals for each. It is a game, a rugged sport or a scientific study, depending on your school, although for some individuals it is all three of these at once.

For the majority it is a game, with

the competition element strong. With binoculars, identification guide and notebook or check list you simply go out and identify all the birds you can. You compete with your own previous record and you compete with your friends. You look for rarities, you strive for big lists —a day’s list, a year's list and a lifetime's list. Most birds adhere to a fairly constant annual migration cycle, so you look for birds that are present out of their normal season, early arrival dates in spring and late departures in autumn. Followers of this bird-watching

school have been dubbed the “listers.”

Whether you make it a gentle game or a rugged sport depends on the energy you put into it. Some bird watchers are content to stay in their own back yards. Others roam widely, rising at dawn and spending a couple of hours birding before going to work, hiking or driving miles every week end, and planning vacations for a time and a distant region that will let them see birds they cannot see at home.

A Toronto psychiatrist, Dr. Donald Gunn, rarely misses getting in an hour or two of birding before going to his office each morning. His explanation for being out when most people are still soundly sleeping: “I do it for relaxation.”

A few years ago four Toronto youths drove eleven thousand miles in three weeks on a furious birding expedition that shattered all records and almost shattered them. They traveled nights and spent the days bird watching. The first two-thousand-mile leg—Toronto to Montana—they stopped only for food and gas. Three weeks later, on a Saturday morning, they were in Mexico and due back at work in Toronto the following Monday morning. They drove the more than two thousand miles non-stop and arrived at work one hour late. Their bird score: two hundred and eighty-one species.

There is a minority school of bird watchers who regard the frantic scurrying around of the listers as a purposeless misdirection of effort. These arc the scientifically minded who watch birds to study their way of life and, if possible, to contribute something new to science’s understanding of birds. Instead of quickly identifying a bird, ticking it off the check list and dashing on to find another, they are more likely to spend their time watching one species, conducting a life history study of it. Or they may study such things as the effect of weather and air-pressure patterns on migration, the causes of fluctuation in bird populations, habitat preferences, nesting behavior; or they may trap and mark birds with numbered leg bands to study such things as how long birds live, their mating habits, migration routes and speed of travel. Members of this school argue that one day spent carefully watching a robin in the back yard may produce more valuable information than the discovery and listing of a dozen rarities.

The people who pooh-pooh the bird listers and engage in these more serious forms of bird watching are often the professional biologists of museum and university staffs, but many amateurs too have graduated from the listing school and made important contributions to scientific knowledge. One of the most famous is Mrs. Margaret Nice, an Ohio housewife who began banding and watching song sparrows in her yard while raising four children. When she began publishing results of her study, its scientific calibre won her world-wide recognition as an ornithologist.

A similar example is Mrs. Margaret Mitchell, of Toronto, who, between her bird-watching junkets, collected information on the extinct passenger pigeon by interviewing old-timers who saw it, and by searching old records. Her book, The Passenger Pigeon in Ontario, is recognized as the best life-history study of this vanished bird. And Charles Broley, a retired Winnipeg bank manager and lifelong bird watcher, amassed much hitherto unknown information on the bald eagle by banding them in their nests in Florida. Broley also proved that bird watchers are not all softies, because to catch his eagles he has to climb nest-

ing trees often more than a hundred feet high. Broley, seventy-five now, is still at it.

But in spite of their scoffing, most of the experts yield periodically to the lure of the list and go out on listing sprees like any amateur. As a game or sport and nothing more, listing has a peculiar attraction, hard to analyze or define. It is a healthy, relaxing, outdoor exercise, because leisurely walking is all it requires, although if you wish you can make every bird-watching day a rugged, dawn-to-dark marathon. It has an aesthetic appeal, both visual and auditory, and the spring’s first wood thrush song or the first glimpse of the brilliantly plumaged Blackburnian warbler brings a thrill to the most unresponsive birdwatching veteran. Some have claimed that bird watching satisfies man’s instinctive love of the hunt while catering to his civilized refinement by having eliminated the kill.

Century run for a birder

One of bird watching’s biggest attractions is the mental challenge it poses, for it is a game of skill as demanding as chess, with the exercise of golf thrown in. There are about three hundred species of birds that might appear in most regions of southern Canada, and in many of these the male, female and young have different plumages, so the bird watcher has many hundreds of possibilities to consider every time he sees an unfamiliar bird. Complicate this with the fact that the bird may be viewed fleetingly, and from any angle, and the challenge of bird identification begins to appear. But experienced birders see two hundred to two hundred and fifty species a year in Canada and once or twice each year manage to score a “century run,” the bird watcher’s term for listing a hundred or more in one day. Some U. S. veterans with time and money for extensive traveling have piled up lists of more than five hundred species for a single year within the North American continent.

Roger Tory Peterson, the field-guide author, has suggested that the basic lure of bird watching may be hidden in the mists of symbolism. Birds, he says, are nature’s most spectacular symbol of freedom and escape. To the amateur at least, they appear free to fly when and wherever they wish, and they symbolize

the escape from modern life's regimentation that so many of us yearn.

Whatever its lure, bird watching has grown with an explosive speed in recent years. Only a decade ago bird watchers were looked upon by most people as. at the least, bizarre eccentrics, and when traveling to a birding spot many of us carried our binoculars in lunch pails to avoid attracting attention. Police especially were the bane of bird watchers— they were convinced that anyone wandering around out-of-the-way places with binoculars was a Peeping Tom at least, and maybe a spy.

Dr. R. M. Saunders, a University of Toronto history professor, was picked up during the war by Toronto police while he was studying ducks at the Toronto waterfront. He was grilled for several hours at headquarters before he could convince police he wasn’t a Nazi spy. But today police don’t give bird watchers a second glance. In fact, the following incident, said to have occurred in Montreal, is an indication of modern relations between police and bird watchers. A small group of bird watchers was standing by a marsh. A police cruiser stopped beside them.

“What are you doing?” asked the officer.

“We’re bird watchers,” one of them said with a little embarrassment. “We’re listening to the birds calling in there.”

“Having any trouble?” the policeman asked.

“Yes, one of them we can’t identify.”

“Which one?” And the officer listened carefully while the bird watchers indicated the puzzling call.

“It’s a Virginia rail,” the policeman told them. He was a bird watcher too, and a good one.

The mushrooming interest in birds is illustrated too by the success of Audubon Screen Tours, a program of bird lectures by famous ornithologists illustrated with color movies. They were introduced in Toronto about ten years ago. Their popularity spread rapidly and this winter they will be shown in thirtytwo Canadian communities to a total audience of about a hundred and twenty thousand. Besides going to all major cities, they are also screened in many small towns, from Truro, Wolfville and Digby in Nova Scotia to Nanaimo on Vancouver Island.

Toronto, with five different bird and nature clubs in addition to headquarters

of both the Audubon Society of Canada and the Federation of Ontario Naturalists, is one of the most highly organized bird-watching cities on the continent. But it was proven recently that even this abundance of clubs and societies is reaching only a small part of the Torontonians interested in birds.

The Toronto Field Naturalists’ Club for several years has been sponsoring bird hikes in which expert leaders instruct less-experienced members in bird finding and identification. Attendance varies from fifty to a hundred. John Livingston, Audubon Society executive director, wondered if the TFNC hikes might not be missing many potential bird watchers who had an interest but knew nothing about birds and hadn’t progressed to the club-joining stage. He obtained the co-operation of the Toronto Telegram, and the Audubon Society and Telegram jointly sponsored an instructional hike, advertising it as an outing for the greenest greenhorns, interested in making a start by watching the commonest birds. Veteran birders were warned they wouldn’t find it much fun.

The hike was planned for the Sunnyside section of Toronto’s waterfront and adjacent High Park. But it was January 1956, and when the day came the weather could not have been more unfavorable. The temperature was around zero and there was a biting wind blowing off Lake Ontario. Livingston and Telegram bird columnist Jim Baillie headed for Sunnyside to lead the hike, but each felt that the trip would be a waste of time—only the most ardent bird watcher would venture out on a day like this, they felt, and they expected to find no one waiting for them. But when they reached Sunnyside at 8.30 a.m. there were a hundred and seventy people there, eighty-five percent of whom were novices who had never turned out to an organized bird hike before.

After this response, fourteen more Audubon-Tely bird hikes were held, with attendance increasing each time. The most recent one was held last June near Don Mills, a Toronto suburb. Nearly seven hundred people turned out and the resultant traffic jam made l.ivingston half an hour late.

One of the reasons for this boom in bird watching is that bird identification, in spite of its complexities, is no longer the difficult science it was. Old-time ornithologists depended heavily in their bird identification on features that could be observed only after the bird was shot and in the hand. But by the 1930s binoculars were becoming commoner, making it possible to see birds in life much more dearly. And simultaneously the “field mark” technique for identifying birds began to be developed. When ornithologists began watching birds through binoculars instead of shooting them, it was found that practically every species had a trademark or “field mark” that distinguished it in life from other similarly plumaged species. And the science of field identification, as opposed to hand identification, was born.

Such species as the lesser and greater scaup ducks, once regarded as indistinguishable in the field, are now separated easily by experienced bird watchers by slight differences in head shapes, a distinction the early ornithologists overlooked. Fall-plumaged blackpoll and Blackburnian warblers are now separated accurately by leg colors. In fact few birds remain that cannot be identified in life. Some groups that are identical in appearance can be separated only by their songs.«

How can you get on the bird-watching bandwagon?

Many veteran bird watchers started out with only bird cards from cigarette packages to help them identify their birds, but the modern beginner has access to a wide variety of good books to get him off to a fast easy start, and he can gain in a few years the skill and experience that old-timers spent half a lifetime acquiring. Such books as Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds and Pough’s Audubon Bird Guide (there are eastern and western editions for both of these) and Hickey’s A Guide to Bird Watching—to list them all would fill a page of this magazine.

Binoculars are practically indispensable. Good ones can be obtained now for under fifty dollars. Best for bird watching are the following types: 6 x 30. 7 x 35, 7 x 50 or 8 x 50. The first figure in each case is the power of magnification; the second figure indicates the diameter in millimetres of the outer lens.

With an identification guide and binoculars you are ready to get started. At this stage don’t get the idea that you are too rank an amateur to join your nearest natural-history club. The veterans

will welcome and help you; in fact, they need you. Naturalists throughout Canada are crusading strongly today for more parks, for the preservation of such natural habitats as marshes and woodlands, which are being sacrificed at an alarming rate, and for the correction of weaknesses and inconsistencies in laws dealing with wildlife. Dr. J. R. Dymond, president of the Federation of Ontario Naturalists, said recently, “When enough people appreciate nature and join together to make their voices heard, we shall get more action in nature preservation.”

If you join a club, you will pick up your birding know-how faster and you will be adding your support to the many causes that fellow-naturalists are fighting for. The two major groups representing naturalists in Canada are the Federation of Ontario Naturalists, 187 Highbourne Road, Toronto 7, and the Audubon Society of Canada, 181 Jarvis Street, Toronto 2, the former covering only Ontario, the latter representing affiliated clubs and individual members throughout Canada, mostly outside Ontario.

And if the birding bug bites you. don’t waste time getting started. There arc at least twelve billion birds in North America—seventy birds for every person—and they include some six hundred and fifty species. So you have a lot of bird watching to do. ★