Birding Brains

How birding in Central Park in an age of terror makes the man.

By Bruno Maddox
Nov 30, 2006 6:00 AMNov 12, 2019 5:16 AM


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MANHATTAN, NY It is September in Central Park, a few days before the Eleventh, and the excitement is literally palpable. Along the paths and across the lawns, little kids skip to ultracompetitive kindergartens with visions of Fox News war-on-terror graphics dancing in their heads, counting off the seconds till the next History Channel investigation of the special relationship of steel with burning jet fuel. It's that same kind of morning as well—warm and cool, four-dimensionally blue, girded with arches of towering light—the kind of perfect fall morning that New Yorkers of a certain generation will always associate with disbelief and poor cell phone reception and showstopping acts of mass murder.

And our eyes, again, are on the skies. My guides at this early hour of the morning, ornithologists Chris Filardi and Paul Sweet of the American Museum of Natural History, are frozen in reverence by the sight of what they assure me is a male American redstart, fanning its tail as it hops from branch to branch at the very top of a tree. I work the knob of my binoculars and succeed in perfectly replicating the magnified blur of leaves and sky that would follow every tee shot in the early days of televised golf. Suddenly there it is, though: a bird, fanning its tail and hopping from branch to branch, precisely as advertised.

"Magnificent," Chris murmurs.

That's overstating it, I reckon, but not by much. I'm clearly never going to be in Sweet and Filardi's league—Sweet manages the museum's climate-controlled mass grave of bird corpses; Filardi spends months on end living in a hut made of leaves on the Solomon Islands, extracting birds' DNA—but even I, an urban sophisticate with a belly full of latte, experience an ineffable, or barely effable, satisfaction at the sight of a twitching organism ringed by darkness. Which apparently may have something to do with the fact that behind my drapes of custom tailoring and shimmering layers of TRESemmé Anti-Frizz Smoothing Crème, I am a man.

It must be acknowledged up front that the greatest birder of all time, the unimprovably named Phoebe Snetsinger, was a woman—moreover, the kind of woman who puts men to shame. Diagnosed with terminal cancer in 1981, Snetsinger, at the time only a casual bird-watcher—note the distinction—chose to say good-bye to the world with a hard-core birding trip to Alaska. Eighteen years and 8,500 species of birds later, Snetsinger further embarrassed her physicians by dying in a road accident while birding in Madagascar.

The rest of us, though, are predominantly male. Exact figures are hard to come by, but the anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that while there might be a semblance of gender parity at the casual level, it fades away as one approaches the inner sanctum of obsessive birders like Sweet and Filardi.

Exactly why this should be has been the subject of intermittent scientific inquiry. The Nobel Prize–winning Dutch ethologist Nikolaas Tinbergen speculated it was some sort of sublimated expression of the ancient hunting instinct—an observation so screamingly true it seems rather petty of Tinbergen to have bothered to slap his name on it. Every healthy, red-blooded man knows the experience of being jolted awake, sometimes at four in the morning, by an aching conviction that he really should be out there on his belly in the undergrowth stalking a fellow organism. If one happens to have binoculars at hand, birding is a more than decent outlet for this atavistic hunger.

Significantly more light has been shed on the matter by the recent work of one Simon Baron-Cohen, a professor at the University of Cambridge, who theorized that men love birding less for its resemblance to the macho practice of hunting than for its resemblance to the unglamorous practice of accounting. Men and women have different brains, he has determined. Girls are apparently wired for something known as "empathy"—which I think has something to do with the way they always visit the restroom together while dining in a group at a restaurant. The male brain, conversely, is adapted for "systemizing," which is all to do with the making of lists, the recognition of categories, and (as regular viewers of the Learning Channel's Property Ladder can testify) a genderwide delusion that we can single-handedly replace the plumbing and wiring in a 1940s Long Beach bungalow over the course of a long weekend without a lick of prior experience.

In other words, the appeal of birding for the average man might have less to do with pursuing a creature through foliage than with the fact that when one finally gets the creature in one's sights, it can, with satisfying certainty, be crossed off, or added to, a list. This is why men go birding for birds and not dogs—because birds don't interbreed. A Chihuahua may on occasion choose to mate with a Great Dane, given the necessary physical and psychological lubricants, but a hummingbird will never breed with a golden eagle. In fact, a golden eagle won't even breed with a bald eagle. Golden eagles, like most birds, will breed only with their own species, the result being a third, smaller golden eagle that can be diagnosed as such from a distance by checking off a short, satisfying list of physical identifiers. The warm tingle that subsequently sweeps through the birder's body has no relation to the bloodthirsty thrill of hunting; it's more like the comfort and satisfaction of filing.

Which men crave, I submit, far more that we like to admit. For all our well-documented sloppiness in the areas of personal hygiene and proper toilet-seat positioning, for all our vaunted bravery, we have a need to believe that the chaos of reality is undergirded by fixed and definite and intelligible systems of ordered knowledge, a need that borders on the pathetic and the creepy.

Perhaps that's why it's such a glorious feeling to be out spotting birds on the eve of the anniversary of the most chaotic, messed-up, and unfathomable morning in the history of this most excellent city. In two blissful hours of hushing and peering and pointing, and of Paul undoing his backpack to consult his Sibley Guide, then putting it back and redoing all the straps, we have carefully and irrevocably identified about nine times more species of birds than I frankly knew existed. Blue jays and mourning doves, cardinals and catbirds. Canada geese—as opposed to geese from Canada—the noble black-and-white warbler, the elusive scarlet tanager. . . .

One of our final sightings, as we amble toward Central Park West, is of a white windowless, unmarked plane, arcing downtown against the gilded blue sky. The pulse rate quickens ever so slightly from the plodding Zen-master groove it had achieved.

"Hmm," says Chris, working the focus knob on his binoculars. I say "hmm" as well and work the knob on mine.

And it is well that at this precise moment Paul Sweet, who has peripheral vision to rival that of a set of conjoined triplets, catches a glimpse of what he's fairly sure is a grackle, which enables Chris and me to retrain our equipment away from the world of the scary unknown and back on the world of the bird, where every last twitching, chirping individual is, unequivocally, what it appears to be: the comfortable inhabitant of an immutable category and, to men driven by an ancient desire to silence their anxiety and Stop Wondering, a source of bottomless strength and comfort, truly the wings above our wind.

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