Birds and The Fine Art of Noticing
A new generation of post-pandemic birders can change the way we see our cities
If you were to wake up tomorrow from sixteen months of fairy-tale sleep, you’d probably have a few questions. What the heck is a delta variant? What happened to restaurant menus? When did all of my friends become birdwatchers?
On the last Monday in May of this year, 1,046 birders in New York State submitted checklists to Cornell University’s wildly popular eBird project, counting 247 differently-feathered species. A lot of factors influence how many people come out to watch birds on a given day (the weather, the pace of seasonal migrations) but if we look at the ‘Mean May Monday’ — the average number of eBirders out on the first day of the week across the month, it’s clear that many more people are outside with binoculars raised. This figure has increased nearly three-fold from just under seven hundred in 2018 to almost eighteen hundred in 2021.
I’m one of these new Monday birders. Looking back, I suppose it was inevitable: I’ve been bird adjacent for most of my life. My first foray into activism was fighting a golf course development that threatened a heron rookery near my neighborhood in B.C. when I was thirteen. As a National Geographic explorer I’ve been part of research trips led by ornithologists into the Okavango Delta and Angola’s remote highlands. There was something about actual birding, though, that I spent three decades trying to avoid. Maybe it was because I didn’t have the patience yet. Maybe it’s because there’s absolutely no way to look cool with a pair of binoculars around your neck.
I wish I hadn’t waited so long. The experience of being closer to birds has been a gift. Learning their names and their habits and their songs, welcoming newcomers in the fall and then again in the spring. A few weeks ago I let out a little yelp of glee when I saw the improbably red plumage of a Summer tanager perched atop a yew tree, waving in the wind. Spending hundreds hours walking and watching over the pandemic has also cultivated in me a new kind of super-power: urban observation. Simply put, I notice more.
Jane Jacobs, perhaps this city’s greatest noticer, wrote of the necessity to “understand, and understand thoroughly specific places.” She spoke of the 1959 urban planner’s inability to see the a city’s small details, of their “helpless” dependency on bundling the particular up into the general. Blocks into census tracts, real places into administrative generalizations.
We’ve tried in the last decades to answer for some of this shortfall in specificity with devices that listen, and algorithms that choose what to hear. A so-called ‘smart’ city’s details are swept up by sensors and microphones, classified and tagged through machine learning, made actionable, put to work. More things are being measured, more records are being made, but is anything being understood more thoroughly? It seems to me that if we’re to get to a smarter city — or a wiser one — we’ll need a citizenry that is paying at least as much attention as are the machines.
The quick dark swoop of a chimney swift as it flies into its nest in a rusted air conditioning unit. The gurgling croaks of two ravens courting on top of Brooklyn Bridge’s stone towers. The safety-vest orange throat of a Blackburnian warbler high in the crown of a honey locust tree. The lilac-spattered shell of a Common Yellowthroat egg, laying under a park bench. These are all things that I notice now, things I’d never have noticed before.
Those other 1,045 newly-minted Monday birders out there are noticing things too. They are seeing their cities and towns with new, more careful eyes. With birding comes the ability to tease out field marks from a flock, the instinct to go towards detail and texture and nuance. With every new birder comes a new observer, one whose eyes and ears are aimed toward that which is small and fragile and alive. Crucially, this new generation of binocular-toters doesn’t look like the last one, or the one before that. There are more Black birders and queer birders and disabled birders, each bringing along their own experiences and their own particular ways of seeing the urban landscape.
As this city wakes up from its pandemic slumber, there are things that we’ll want to let go of. The sound of sirens racing along the FDR. The dread we feel when there’s a tickle in our throats. But there are things we’ll want to hold onto. Jane Jacobs wrote the that “cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration,” and if you look closely, you’ll see those seeds in front of us on the ground. In the hope that came from mutual aid. In the kinds acts of strangers. In this new gift of noticing that has come to so many of us through the watching of birds.
Jer Thorp is the author of Living in Data.