I had a conversation recently with someone about the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. She was talking the latest Sibley guide, and how either the Ivory-billed Woodpecker wasn’t listed at all, or it was listed but shown as “extinct” (I don’t remember which she had said). Later I thought about what she’d said and it got me a little riled up. From the moment Cornell published their materials about the Arkansas Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, Sibley criticized it. Why does that rile me up? This is the kind of reaction that for DECADES has dampened any kind of search for Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, or restricted any efforts to save remaining habitat. Those who have claimed to have seen an Ivory-billed Woodpecker since the 1950s have primarily been met with scorn and skepticism, rather than excitement.
Cornell had several long-time ornithologists and birders who gathered evidence about the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. No, they didn’t get any clear video or photos, but the PEOPLE who reported sighting the bird certainly have the “cred” from a birding and ornithology standpoint. I certainly believe them, just as I believe the Auburn group who claimed they saw Ivory-billed Woodpeckers shortly after the Arkansas sightings. What I’ve found since I started birding 15 years ago though is that birders definitely fall in certain categories. I’ve never met David Sibley, but based on his reaction to the Cornell group and the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, I can imagine what “class” he falls into in my mind.
Let’s put it into “bird terms”. If a birder were a bird, what kind of bird would he be? Here are the general kinds of birders I’ve run across over the years:
The Peacock – Peacocks are all about appearance. How do I “look” to other birders? What is my reputation? For this class of birder, it’s less about the birds and more about their own reputation. What’s that you say, non-Peacock? You saw a rare Yellow-footed Gobbling Grouse? Pfft…I haven’t seen one, and I’m not so sure you have either!!! Besides, if you have, it can’t compare to the Whistling Chatter-billed Flycatcher that I have seen!
The Kingbird – Have you ever watched Kingbirds along a fenceline? Life seems to be a never-ending competition, fighting for every inch of fenceline. Kingbird birders view birding as a competition. Life lists, “Big Year” lists, county lists, state lists…and most importantly…how does your list compare to MY list…these are the concerns of the Kingbird. There are definitely many well-intentioned and friendly Kingbirds, for whom birding is a game, but a friendly and cordial game. The birder you need to look out for though? The Kingbird/Peacock hybrid, for which the “game” is deathly serious. Don’t invade the space of a Kingbird/Peacock hybrid…you may not come back with all your limbs intact.
The Chickadee – Have you ever noticed that Chickadees seem to be the “journalists” of the bird world? They’re always letting the other birds know what’s happening. OWL! DANGER! Here comes a birder! Be Alert!! Chickadee birders are cherished because they love to share what they’re experiencing. Hey birders! A Broad-butted Cuckoo was spotted along Rosie’s Creek! On the way back I saw a Pink-legged Wattlebird…here are the coordinates! For the Chickadee, a major part of the birding experience is sharing that experience with other birders, and helping them to share the same experience. A great class of birders, and one that we fortunately have many of in South Dakota.
The Yellow Rail – Have you met a Yellow Rail birder? I’m sure you have while out birding. Do you know their name? Do you know where they live, what they do for a living, what birds they’ve seen? Very doubtful. The Yellow Rail birder lives an active birding life. However, they do so in anonymity, avoiding the crowd, not publicizing any birding activity they do, not reporting their sightings. Yellow Rail/Kingbird hybrids definitely exist, birders that may obsessively “list”, but for them it’s a private activity, for which no sharing is needed. Comparing to other birders’ lists? Not important, because for a Yellow Rail, it’s all about leading a quiet, unobtrusive birding life. The Yellow Rail and the Peacock are often mortal enemies, with neither fully understanding the mindset of the other.
The Coot – How often do you see a lone Coot? Not nearly as often as you see a gaggle of Coots. For the Coot, birding is about camaraderie. Birding is a social activity, something meant to be shared. Going birding? It may also mean grabbing a beer or a bite to eat after. Coots can be either quite serious or very casual birders.
While I’m sure you can easily slot some birders you know into one of the above categories, in reality I think most birders are probably hybrids. If I had to classify myself, I’d definitely leave out the “Coot” component. For me birding is “me” time, time to be alone with my thoughts and enjoy not only the birds, but just being outside. In that respect I’m definitely part Yellow Rail in terms of wanting solitude, but I also have a lot of Chickadee in me, in that I do like sharing what I find. In that respect though I admit I probably DO have some “Peacock” in me, particularly given my fondness for sharing my photos with the world!
As for the start of the post, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, and David Sibley…as I said, I’ve never met the man, but the attitude of complete disrespect and disdain for the Cornell work really turns me off.