From the first time I first looked through a pair of binoculars, aged seven, I wanted to be a bird-spotter, even though I’d picked the binoculars up because I was a bird-lover, intrigued by the ways birds’ paths crossed with mine. Nowadays bird-spotters are known as birders while bird-lovers are more commonly called birdwatchers. In terms of etymology and ornithology, there is barely a difference, but it matters greatly to those involved. It’s easy to distinguish between the two types. Birders are the green-clad, kit-festooned action men of blasted headlands, sewage farms and reservoir causeways. They take pelagic trips and dribble a bucket of rancid bouillabaisse behind a boat to entice rare petrels: this is called ‘chumming’. What is crucial for them is the moment between sighting a bird and identifying it. There is a potent second or two (this can extend to hours if a tricky rarity is glimpsed) when the bird is wrested from a backdrop of wind or sea or marsh, or singled out from a cloud of lookalikes, and then named. In their itch to tag the wild, birders travel through the world as if they were closing it down.
For most birdwatchers – a far more numerous category: in Britain, the million-plus members of the RSPB, as well as anyone anywhere who notices a bird and consciously looks at it – birdwatching is a more occasional occurrence, an activity which doesn’t usually require binoculars and which happens whenever a bird asserts itself by its presence, beautifully or intriguingly or annoyingly. Birdwatching offers a kind of sentimental education, permitting a momentary entry into a bigger world, even if only to gawp. To the birdwatcher, the wish to name matters less than the delight at the fizzing otherness of the thing, its flying or singing: a grey heron gobbling a live eel, swifts mating on the wing, arctic terns dive-bombing intruders above their nesting beach, a feral pigeon jumping onto a District Line train at Edgware Road.
All birders were birdwatchers once. At eight I was smitten by a yellowhammer in Surrey; by nine I was hardcore. Since then I have had periods of being a birder and periods of retirement from active service. Now I think of myself as somewhere between the two, an inveterate namer (you cannot unlearn the habit) but motivated primarily by the otherness of birds. Most birders are hatched in their teens and become full-fledged only if they remain teenagers in spirit well into adult life. Almost every book written on birders is alive to their peculiar cast of mind: the comedy of the nerdish pursuit has been told and retold. Several hundred men and their telescopes in a supermarket car park in Kent watching the first North American golden-winged warbler to be recorded in Europe, a few grams of yellow feathers blown across the Atlantic: the anoraks and their obsession are weird but recognisably British. If birding is associated with the comedy of teenage gawkiness it also has the intensity of first love. For some men, nothing else – human or otherwise – will mark their lives to such an extent.
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[*] Princeton, 367 pp., £17.95, March 2009, 978 0 691 13539 7.