For those who missed the big news in the bird world last week: The man considered the North American birding champion for nearly three decades, who was immortalized in the 2011 Hollywood movie The Big Year, has probably been toppled off his roost.
In birding circles, being the top lister is like winning the Masters.
It's safe to say the feat won't ruffle the feathers of longtime top birder Sandy Komito, who set a record in 1987 by scoping out 721 birds in one calendar year in an area defined by the American Birding Association — then broke his own record in 1998 with 748.
"Birders are competitive — but only with themselves, and (they) will go out of their way to help a fellow birder find birds," says the new provisional champ, Neil Hayward, 40, who identified his 750th bird of the year, a great skua off the coast of Cape Hatteras, N.C., on Dec. 28. He says Komito, 82, "gave me lots of advice and said he hoped he'd still be alive when someone broke his record. … No one was quite expecting it to happen this year, though."
If you think birding — formerly known as bird-watching — seems like an obscure pastime, think again.
About 85 million Americans enjoy observing, photographing or feeding wild birds. Birding ranks 15th on a list of the most popular outdoor activities, just below bicycling and beach bumming, according to the most recent National Survey on Recreation and the Environment by the USDA's Forest Service. About 18 million are serious enough to take trips exclusively to commune with other birders or count birds by sight or sound, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's 2011 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation. Some die-hard birders embark on what they call Big Years, competitions to spot as many species as they can within a certain territory.
"It's one of those rewarding activities like exercising or reading or tending a garden … that are just universally acknowledged as good things to do," says Jeff Gordon, president of the ABA. "And birding is so quick and portable, you can go birding on your lunch break from an office downtown or waiting outside the school to pick up your kid. Birds are everywhere."
A WINTER SPORT: Why January is high time for birders
Nearly as ubiquitous are smartphones, which put encyclopedic field guides, rare-bird alerts and cameras in the palms of our hands. "It's the perfect hobby for the 21st century," Gordon says.
The Internet and mobile devices are pushing the pastime to new heights as about 300,000 people a year — from home-schooled youngsters to seniors — engage in such "citizen science" projects as sending bird counts to scientists and conservationists, says Janis Dickinson, director of citizen science for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. It's the ultimate in crowdsourcing.
To complete his 2013 Big Year, Hayward, an ex-pat from Oxford, England, who lives in Cambridge, Mass., scoured 28 states and seven Canadian provinces, flew 193,758 miles on 177 flights visiting 56 airports, drove 51,758 miles, and spent 15 days at sea and 195 nights away from home.
"Quite a few of those nights … were spent sleeping on a plane or in an airport or in a car, so I'm now an authority on which cars are the most comfortable to sleep in," Hayward says. The ABA and local birding jurists must verify the count to make his 750 claim official, because three of the birds he sighted were not on its official checklist.
While most Americans counted down seconds to a new year Tuesday, molecular neuroscientist Dorian Anderson, 35, was preparing for the count of his lifetime. He is riding his bike cross-country in 2014 — covering 15,000 miles and hoping to document 600 species — to raise money for bird conservation.
"I have no idea at all whether I'll make it," says Anderson, who admits he's something of a cycling newbie. "There isn't a dry run for this. I can't take a year to practice, then do the actual Big Year the following year."
"What's often overlooked is the health aspect of birding," Anderson says. "They think birding is ... something people might discover in middle age or as they retire and slow down, but you know what? These people are out on the beach or riding a bike while birding, and it's keeping them healthy and happy. That's definitely an underrated benefit. It depends on what level you do it, though — I'm at like the disease level, like a Stage 10 Addict."
TAPPING IN TO MORE THAN SAPSUCKERS
Why such fascination with avifauna? Arguably no animal — not even man's best friend — is as intertwined with human experience as birds, which serve graciously as muse, meat and messenger.
"Birds are absolutely fundamental to us as humans," says author and naturalist Scott Weidensaul. "If you go back to the very oldest expression of human art that we know of, cave paintings" in France's Chauvet Cave dating back 35,000 years, "one of those drawings is very clearly an owl. Somebody sketched it with the tip of their finger in soft mud … ear tufts, globulous eyes. … We're stuck here on the ground, but birds can fly and have become symbols of almost everything from majesty to mystery. … We've freighted these birds with an awful lot, frankly."
As canaries were sentinels of toxic-gas danger in 20th-century coal mines, birds remain bellwethers of:
•Climate change, via the flux of migration;
•Diseases, such as mosquito-borne West Nile Virus, which crows and robins helped bring to light and was blamed for the deaths of two dozen eagles last month.
•Earth's ecological health. More than 1,200 bird species — 12% of the planet's total — face extinction over the next century, according to the conservation group BirdLife International.
Big Years, Big Days and Biggest Weeks aside, here are ways the average peeper can participate:
•The National Audubon Society's 114th Christmas Bird Count, the oldest citizen-science project, which goosed about 63,000 participants this year, ends Sunday.
•eBird, launched in 2002 by the National Audubon Society and Cornell Lab, has revolutionized fieldwork. Members worldwide submit millions of mappable bird sightings, creating a dynamic glimpse of migration and location.
•The annual Great Backyard Bird Count, a snapshot of bird activity held in mid-February, set a 2013 record of 100,000 common-bird checklists by mere commoners over four days.
•Celebrate Urban Birds weaves bird-friendly gardening with mentoring as it rallies 250,000 members, including many disadvantaged children, to monitor 23,000 urban areas and counting. In Dearborn, Mich., a 2013 grant helped to coach blind youth on birding by ear.
•Live-streaming bird cams are set up worldwide, so you can change out your desktop bird wallpaper any time. Cornell Lab's year-round birdcam portal, http://cams.allaboutbirds.org/, typically offers dual-camera angles and the ability for group chats with your peeps.
•Participation in NestWatch grew 32% in 2013 and is well on target to break its record of 20,000 nests pinpointed and protected. Even the General Motors' main campus in Detroit pitched in.
•Cornell Lab's wintertime Project FeederWatch, in its 27th year, enlists about 17,000 people to identify and count visitors to their yards or balconies over a four-month span.
BLUEBIRD OF APP-INESS
App-happy actress Lili Taylor, 46, has fed data to FeederWatch for four years, entertaining about 12 species in her "little patch" in Brooklyn. She admits it was the iPhone that kicked a longtime passion into high gear. "I realized there was a way to communicate with other birders … that there's a tribe out there," she says.
Taylor, who was elected in October to the ABA's board of directors, is awed by migrating birds' "tenacity. I just feel like they deserve a medal, you know, for what they've lived through, what they've done, what they've accomplished. If I think I'm having a hard day, well, this guy just flew maybe 3,000 miles, (and) he's starting to eat his organs!"
Because "birding is a gateway drug to nature," Taylor says, she has loaded up on handy birding apps, such as the popular handheld field guide iBird PRO, eBird's tracking app BirdsEye, The Sibley eGuide to the Birds of North America, Peterson Birds of North America, Birdwatcher's Diary for listing and two apps to help her ID birdsong: Spectrogram and Larkwire. She also uses weather apps, a radar app and MyNature Tree Guide. "I'm finding the more I learn about trees and weather and everything makes me a better birder," she says.
Birding apps keep improving, too. Mitch Waite, creator of iBird PRO, hopes birders will augment their field glasses with his new Glass Birds — a Google Glass app with its sights set on a mid-January release ($30 for iPhone; $10 for Android). Imagine: You see a bird perching in a tree. You tell Glass, "Identify bird." The app knows your location and eliminates possibilities based on range and habitat, then narrows attributes by shape, size, color, markings — all instantaneously, via voice commands. The interface projects images onto Glass' prism optics, making the screen appear 25 feet away, so it's not so in-your-face as you navigate through the puzzle.
It's not exactly The Terminator, Waite says. "Today's technology isn't sophisticated enough to scan something 50 feet away and come up with an ID on its own." Nor can any software nail a bird by song alone. "The reason programs like Shazam work is an imprint coded into digital songs. All you need is a couple of seconds of 1's and 0's to get a match. But birds have two sets of vocal tracks, and they play the most complex frequencies."
So the good news: Birders are not in danger of being replaced by cyborgs anytime soon.
Above all, "the digital photography revolution has completely changed what we do," says David Bonter, Cornell Lab's assistant director of citizen science. People will e-mail a photo, "saying they just want to confirm this is a fox sparrow, and we can get back to them sometimes when the bird is still at the feeder," he says.
As movies go, Hollywood may be due for a do-over in A Birder's Guide to Everything, an indie film set for release in theaters and on demand in March about "the restorative power of nature" as teen birding geeks chase a duck thought to be extinct. Featuring Sir Ben Kingsley as an odd-bird loner, it earned rave reviews at New York's Tribeca Film Festival last April.
Director and co-screenwriter Rob Meyer says the seed for the film came when he worked as an associate producer at PBS' NOVA and heard of the possible rediscovery in the early 2000s of the elusive ivory-billed woodpecker, dubbed extinct in 1994. "The excitement and enthusiasm for finding the bird really stuck with me," he says.
Kingsley, 70, who notes that in the U.K. a birder is called a "twitcher" — basks in birdsong at his home in the English countryside and says he "was intrigued by my character … how his passion for ornithology filled empty spaces in his life."
CHIPPING AWAY AT STEREOTYPES
Paul Riss, 42, an extreme birder from Toronto, wears his obsession on his sleeve. The associate art director for a Canadian advertising agency is covered in tattoos, mostly Latin names of the 234 bird species that he claimed during his own "Punk Rock Big Year" in 2011, covering the province of Ontario.
Riss was inspired by birding icon Kenn Kaufman, who hitchhiked through a Big Year at age 19 in 1973. Kaufman "was sort of a hippie with long hair," Riss says. "He didn't look like the typical birder — an old lady with blue hair and a silly hat and field glasses." People would always tell Riss the same thing — he didn't seem the type. In 2010, he decided that four decades was too long for birders to be pigeonholed. He resolved to tattoo the Latin species names of each bird he bagged onto his body. He's about halfway there, having used up his back and arms; he's eyeing empty areas on his legs. "I'm trying to make birding more appealing to a younger market," he says.
"A lot of my birder friends happen to be elderly, and they're my mentors," Riss says. "Anyway, if hipsters became birders, they would probably wear silly hats and field glasses, that would be the hipster thing."
STARTING YOUNG, A FOREVER PASTIME
Though the demographics bear out that the typical U.S. birder, indeed, is a woman over 60, "we had 175 new young birders join the ABA last Christmas," crows Liz Gordon of the ABA.
Self-described teen birding geek Ali Iyoob, who turned 19 on New Year's Day, is a sophomore at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill who was inspired by Kaufman's book, Kingbird Highway: The Biggest Year in the Life of an Extreme Birder. Tuesday, Iyoob knocked off the North Carolina state Big Year record set in 2008 with his 352nd bird, a Le Conte's sparrow, after crisscrossing the state all year.
"For me, it's a sport, it's something that feeds my competitive side," says the biology-environmental studies major. "I actually love the birds — they're beautiful, and I love to photograph them — but I really love the adrenaline of getting a text" and sprinting out of class to nail that rare bird.
Nate Swick, editor of the ABA's blog, says some people compare birding to golf, in that everyone keeps their own scores, relying on the honor system. What sets birding apart: No one cheats, "because that would be cheating yourself," he says.
Birders find it pretty easy to identify one another.
"You can tell birders even without their binoculars," Swick says. "We're aware of our surroundings and nature even in places that don't seem very natural. Sometimes I have to apologize to people at an outdoor function because I'll be in the middle of a conversation, and I'll look away to see something. Once you're keyed in, you're always birding. You don't go birding, you are birding, all the time."