Several years ago, the editor of a popular sporting journal asked me to write an article about how hunting has improved my birding chops. With apologies I explained that the opposite is true: Studying birds has made me a more successful hunter.
My introduction to birding at the age of seven was natural. I had the necessary tool of interaction (binoculars) and easy access to woodlands behind my parents’ house in New Jersey. Hunting took more doing: lots of lobbying on my part and the intercession of a favorite uncle. It wasn’t until I was 16 that I finally secured permission to engage the natural world in a new way. Well, a new, old way. In many instances the sport felt familiar—if not more visceral—thanks to my background in birding.
Hunters are justifiably proud of their field skills, sure. But like most people, they spend a lot of their life indoors, where their abilities to discern distant motions and sounds go fallow. Typically, they’re in action for about four months, from October to January. Birders, on the other hand, get to hone their outdoor skills year-round. No closed season, no bag limit.
So in a way, my truth is universal: Taking up birding will help any hunter’s skills. After a few weeks of listening for tremors and reading the leaves for feathered forms, hunters will be amazed at how trained their ears and eyes will get. Here are a few examples from my experiences.
Snuggled up in a planted stand of pines, the wind shifts around me. To keep my scent from wafting out and alerting my quarry, I settle into a new stand, trying to decide whether to sit or stay upright. Just as I was about to bend a knee, I caught a motion out of the corner of my eye.
Focusing my full attention on the crossing point of a deer trail about 200 yards away, I remained stock still and waited. A minute passed, then two. Finally, the doe, invisible against the hillside, stepped forward. She was followed by another, then another—nine deer in all, with the last one showing a glint of antlers. I held my breath as the troop filed by. Had I not noticed that first flicker and stilled myself, it’s certain that the deer would have fled over the hill.
As it was, I was the one fully alert when the buck came into view, close enough to offer a confident shot. Sixty yards out, the animal crumbled at the sound of my gun. The other eight while tails disappeared into the trees.
But make no mistake, it was my detection skills, not my marksmanship, that set up the shot and ensuing success. Like most birders (and basketball players), my peripheral vision is off the charts. This is developed through practice, often by skimming dense habitats for tiny targets. And though the effort is slow and time-consuming, it largely pays off in the field. Detecting wildlife requires a 360-degree perspective—and while hunters can’t be owls, they can be birders.
Scanning for Mutton
Back in the day, I used to chase Dall sheep in addition to deer. One of my hunting partners included a sporting-goods dealer from Arizona. On the first morning of our hunt, we stopped to glass the slopes above. Choosing a section of ridge that looked promising, I scanned parallel and spied sheep almost immediately. “Them birdwatchers sure got the eyes,” the Arizona man observed. But my peepers were no better than his; I’d just dedicated hundreds of hours to scanning for migrating hawks.
As an ardent hawk watcher, I’m well-versed in the art of a steady, moving gaze. This is especially handy in stark, flat environments. Open sky is a lot like open alpine tundra, so the experience I got while studying raptors from afar played nicely into my hunts on the mountain. Of course, knowing my way around a pair of binoculars, the defining tool of birding, helped, too.
Reviving Natural Instincts
Not long ago while teaching a beginning birding course, I learned a valuable lesson on the limits of perception. Stopping in front of a wall of leaves, my eyes confirmed what my ears had suggested: There were birds at hand. Just beneath the shroud, two Carolina Chickadees were hopping branch to branch. “Eyes find, binoculars study,” I counseled. The birds fluttered less than eight feet away, but my students still couldn’t locate them.
It confirmed my hunch that humans have lost the knack to spy subtle motions right in front of us. Since our earliest moments in the crib, we’ve been training ourselves to discount what our senses capture yet our brains define as extraneous stimuli. Birding, meanwhile, re-programs the brain to be attuned to all the circumstances.
Which bring me back to that truth—that a birder