I spend most of my day looking at terrible, gross things on the Internet: the ramblings of clueless teenagers that waver between sad and funny, the bickering back-and-forth of trolls on messageboards, the constant bellowing clamor of Twitter. Even if your job doesn’t require you to do these things, you probably spend plenty of time consumed in the Internet, too.
Birding is a perfect escape from all that. It’s slow. It’s quiet. It’s outdoors. It feels much much more wholesome than refreshing Twitter or skulking through Tumblr, and it provides a sense of accomplishment that surpasses the thrill of a high score in 2048.
To me the best part of birdwatching is that it makes me look at the world in a totally different way. You focus on just one thing—looking at a dumb little bird—for a long time. You flip through a book (paper!) to identify it. Sometimes you can’t. Birding can be like looking for a clip of something from a late-’90s MTV show and realizing that Viacom has this crazy lockdown on all its content and that none of the good old stuff is on YouTube. Plus there’s that weird void where things from about 1996–2004 just simply don’t exist on the Internet anymore, and you’re like, “Dang, I really want to look up the girls from Season 2 of Bret Michaels: Rock of Love, but there’s only these tiny low-res thumbnails on the VH1 site.” (This is an actual example of something I was looking for recently.)
For someone like me, who is not a novice but by no means an expert (I am woefully hopeless at distinguishing sparrows), this messiness is part of the fun. Sometimes you can’t just find the answer. Even for a mediocre birder, it’s a fulfilling mix of art and science. As a writer, I often long for the satisfying completeness of math, even something as simple as totaling up a sum at the bottom of an Excel spreadsheet. Birdwatching has concrete answers (Aha! This green-headed fellow is certainly a Common Merganser) but lingering questions (Ugh! This brown thing is too far away for me to tell if it’s a Black Duck or a female Mallard).
I didn’t grow up birdwatching. I started sometime in my mid-twenties after falling down an Internet rabbit hole on the exotic parrot trade, which led to more sites and blogs on birds. Eventually I figured I’d try out this whole birdwatching thing. At the time I was working a fine but boring office job, and the thrill of identifying a bird all on my own for the first time was intoxicating: Aha! Here’s a thing, and I figured it out all on my own! It was the sense of accomplishment of something concrete and finite that I had been missing.
The feeling that comes with identifying a new bird, when you spot it and know it without even checking the book—that is the feeling I crave in my daily life. Here is an answer! You’ve solved the puzzle!
Birding has the exceptional power to temporarily lift us out of the scrum of our noisy, complicated lives full of problems with thankless, if any, solutions. It gives jaded adults a sense of wonder and joy that you can’t get on the Internet (for free, at least).