I’ve always felt a bit different from most younger birders because I have absolutely no science background. I didn’t even know birding existed until my senior year of college, when I should have been hanging mist nets or wrapping up lab work or whatever research assistants do. No, I was instead an English major and, consequently, still have a hard time telling my tarsi from my tertials. (I did, however, learn how to properly use a semicolon; look, I’m doing it right now!)
I was driven to birding not because of an appreciation for nature but by something much more sinister: my instinct to collect. We birders don’t like to think of ourselves as collectors—the broader culture shares a slight disdain for the act of collecting, which is seen at best as a harmless diversion and at worst as a selfish waste of time and money. Collectors can be seen as addicts, or as narcissists, or as obsessives; they’re the ones stealing treasure while Indiana Jones screams, “That should be in a museum!”
Birders are no different. We use the term “lister” as an insult, conjuring up a mythical breed of obsessive racing from species to species, spending only enough time with each bird to tick it off the list. We prefer to think of ourselves as more refined than that, as more appreciative. Sure eBird keeps meticulous track of all my lists, we say, but I’m in it for the citizen-science. . . . Well I think citizen science is great, and I appreciate birds and care about their protection and all that, but I’m a birder because I’m a collector.
My first collection was stickers, and they took up almost a whole wall in my childhood room. After a brief dalliance with Lego sets, I fell hard into baseball cards. I had boxes and boxes full of cards, the rare ones sorted out into hard plastic cases and the common ones jumbled haphazardly together. During high school I was regularly going to card shows and spending what little money I had searching through packs for new cards. There was excitement in the chase, but it felt increasingly silly. I was a pawn of the card companies, spending money to play a game where they set all the rules. I weaned myself off cards, but I still craved the enjoyment of collecting.
Thank goodness I found birding. It happened unexpectedly. I was in a used-book store in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and by chance pulled an old Peterson off the shelf. In it, the previous owner (an older woman in Florida, I guessed) had written next to each species the date and location of where she had first seen it. The recognition was immediate. Here was a way to fulfill my urge to collect, but to do so while also incorporating nature, travel, and other things I enjoyed. I could collect these birds—or rather the experiences of finding these birds—and do it on my own terms and through my own means. From that moment on I wasn’t just a collector. I was a birder.