Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Crap I Get from Nonbirders

If you’re a birder, and if you’ve spent any amount of time out in the field (read: parking lots, sewage lagoons, and dumps) birding, you’ve surely received incredulous stares and dumb questions (i.e., crap) from nonbirders. They mean well, but it becomes wearisome after the fiftieth time. Nonbirders seem to delight in pestering me with trite questions.

Others simply gawk as they hurry by, clutching their small children closer…


I don’t know his name—all I know is that he lives over on the next street. I’ll call him Bob. Average height, pudgy, balding, an overweight black lab waddling at his side—Bob is an entirely forgettable character. I, however, find Bob entirely unforgettable, since he’s given me the exact same question at least four times.

Bob had it coming. The final straw came one day while I was innocently studying a male Western Bluebird in my neighborhood. The scuffing of heavy footsteps on the sidewalk behind me caught my attention. “Hey—how’s it going?” Not recognizing Bob’s booming voice, I turned, finding him squinting at my binoculars slung across my chest. Without waiting for an answer, he immediately continued, “I see you birdwatching all the time! Is it for a school project or something?”

The following day, thousands of people cracked open the morning paper and marveled over a mysterious murder case: an apparently innocent man had been strangled to death with binocular straps.

Call it an overreaction, but my nerves fray after hearing the same query hundreds of times. People ask me this question nearly every time I’m out birding. “School project…school…project…” rings in my ears. Nope, not a school project…I do it just for fun. I sigh a breath of relief as yet another nonbirder walks off.

Until the next one comes along, asking whether…


It was a good day for seawatching—early on a cool summer morning, the sky clear, the smog minimal. Jamming my eye socket into the waiting eyepiece of my scope, I probed the distant swells for seabirds. A Sooty Shearwater glided by, followed by another…and then a Pink-footed. A good day for seawatching, indeed. Then, I heard those dreaded muffled footsteps. I kept my eye in my scope, ignoring them, hoping to avoid another awkward encounter with nonbirders. Soft voices approached.

“Good morning,” intoned a clear tenor voice. Turning, and returning the greeting, I quickly sized up my opponents. A young couple. The girl was a stereotypical Californian: blonde, slim, and good-looking. The guy was garbed in casual clothes, which, by the looks of them, probably had been purchased at Abercrombie and Fitch the previous day. Yuppies, I couldn't help but sneer silently. As they passed, the girl asked, “Getting any good pictures?”

“Sure,” I lied at their retreating backs.

This is a spotting scope. It doesn’t take pictures. Got it?

Occasionally, my scope is mistaken for a gun, or even a missile launcher. I can’t help but enjoy acting the part of a terrorist in such situations. It makes for a nice break from the scope vs. camera misidentifications.


Marcel Such said...

When I first started birding, I thought that super telephoto lenses were spotting scopes... of course, I was about seven then...

Bosque Bill said...

The winter resident Bald Eagle near here thinks my spotting scope is a gun. Or so I believe, as it takes flight from its perch as soon as it sees the scope, whereas it is totally tolerant of cameras, bicycles, binoculars, hikers, joggers, etc.

doug said...

It's so funny; I just had a similar situation arise today. I was in a forested area, taking macro-photographs of some mushrooms. The woman who walked by mumbled something under her breath, like, "what the hell". I was so bold as to turn to her and say, "Excuse me?". She said, "I just don't understand what you're doing." She really was clueless. Fortunately for me I have the easiest way out of all of these situations: I said, "Oh, I'm a science teacher." At that, she let out a sigh, almost a sigh of relief, and said, "Ooooooh! I see."

doug said...

By the way, this reminds me of an allegedly true story that went around on astronomy usenet groups early last decade: this guy unloads his telescope in a field, and is setting up at dusk. Meanwhile a nearby farmer notices this, gets paranoid, and calls the cops. Five minutes later, four squad cars come screeching onto the scene and burst out of their cars with their guns in the air: "Step away from the cannon and put your hands in the air!"

James Fox said...

Yeah, I've even had people who thought my binoculars were a camera. For whatever reason most non-birders seem to think that anyone with optical equipment must be taking pictures.

Jeff Schultz said...

I feel your pain!

At the hawkwatch, we always get the "what are ya taking pictures of?" I usually come back with some smart answer...some not really worth repeating in print. I get testy when I am being bothered. Especially when I am counting large streams of BWHA's.

The other big question, obvioulsy is, "what ya looking at" Usually I say, "we are waiting for the mothership. Tom Cruise is driving and gonna pick us up and wisk us away to paradise"

Cathy Carroll said...

Ah, don't be so prickly. People are just nosey and curious. This will never change. Nor should it, really.

Anonymous said...

para larga vista

Alf said...

Oh please. You all squander a perfectly good opportunity to educate people, instead we all look like a bunch of idiots in the public view--more so than we already were.

Birding isn't exactly a publicly accessible activity and you can't roll your eyes at people who don't get it.

That means you Neil.

Neil Gilbert said...

Hehe, I see this post has aroused a bit of controversy--good!

Of course, this post was tongue-in-cheek. I nearly always politely explain to people about birding. The exceptions? When people start getting rude ("Are you SURE you're not looking at girls on the beach?" or "What?! You waste all your time looking at BIRDS?!") In these situations, I give them a bit of their own medicine ("You bet! Wanna look?" or "For sure! What do you waste your time doing--video games?")


doug said...

I don't think it's prickly if Neil is irritated at the wider fact that our culture has degraded to such a point that a boy interested passionately in nature is by default assumed to be pursuing a "school project". It's not to say that those who ask him are bad people. On the contrary, they are probably very nice people. Let me put it a different way: I would say it's not even fair to call it "noseyness", rather it's inquisitiveness, a virtue! The thing worth being irritated about is that even virtuous people these days are just simple-minded: they don't even conceive of another possibility! I took Neil to mean that that's the source of his frustration, and not any "noseyness" or inquisitiveness on their part.

Donna said...

Thanks for the laughs Neil. So far I don't usually get any kind of remarks---all my neighbors know I am crazy and are used to it! I do agree with some though, it is a good opportunity to educate. My big problem is when I see someone with binos or a camera, I have to bite my tongue hard not to disturb them. I got a very nasty look from someone this winter, when I asked him what bird he was photographing. He said, I am a wildlife photographer, not a birder and I am taking pictures of the BoHo's in the trees! I made sure I didn't disturb them, but I got out my scope and watched too!
These were the first good looks I had ever had of Bohemian Waxwings!

Larry said...

Being a new visitor to your blog Neil, I was happy to hear that this post was tongue in cheek.

If I am intent on watching or photographing a bird, I will usually keep my eye glued to the eyepiece of the scope or camera and answer the intruder's question. If the bird is easily kept in the scope, I offer them a look. This is the best way to encourage others to learn about birds and the environment in general.

I'm sure, being a younger person you get ridiculous comments that, after awhile become hard to tolerate. I think we all need to have some patience with the less fortunate folks that don't know what a joy birding can be and help them understand our passion.

We need to be the ambassadors of our birding enthusiasm.

Sal said...

Personally I'm a big fan of just always being polite towards any nice but however-misguided strangers always, as undoubtedly Neil is (given the etiquette I see of him here on his blog).

But it's possible to still be frustrated by stupid questions, and though ignoring it in the moment, saving that frustration for later expression, for example, in a comedic post on a blog written for birders. It's probably even healthy, psychologically, to do that, rather than just to bottle up that frustration or try to ignore it completely.

Larry makes a good point that we who appreciate birds (and nature in general) are the fortunate folks who have much to offer non-birders. But I do not think it should become a duty for all. My opinion is that birding--and indeed any hobby--has to be first and foremost an activity you enjoy *for yourself*. And besides, the best ambassadors are those who actually enjoy sharing it.

Anonymous said...

My wife and I started birding in earnest this past weekend. After a Big Day on Saturday, on Sunday we went to Santiago Oaks Regional Park. We noticed a bird list on the bulletin board by the park map. We decided to go to the nature center and see if they had a bird list.

We walked inside and asked the young volunteer if they had a list of birds we might see in the park (thinking we could use it as a check list). The guy replied "BIRDS??" Like we had asked him for a list of space aliens that visit the park.

I felt like asking "You do have birds here correct?" Instead we thanked him and quickly left the building. It was a good day after that.