How to Know the Birds: No. 37, Two Truths About Birding

  • What: Rock Wren, Salpinctes obsoletus
  • When: Saturday, June 20, 2020
  • Where: Rabbit Mountain, Boulder County, Colorado

Seeing the bird was bittersweet for me. Sweet: What’s not to like about seeing a rock wren, indeed seeing and hearing and experiencing an entire landscape come alive with these blithe, brown birds? Bitter: I wish I’d been there with my friends from Camp Colorado, understandably postponed until 2021 out of concern for the health of would-be campers and the broader community.

For many years, a highlight for me each summer has been time spent with Camp Colorado, especially here on Rabbit Mountain, arid and austere, achingly beautiful. We always find rock wrens on the mountain, but it’s not easy: a brown blob scurrying about the rimrocks; a half-seen form in the dense thickets of sumac and mountain mahogany; a snippet of song around the bend or beyond the next outcropping. But we persevere, for this is a species every camper—and every camp counselor—wants to see, and see well. Why is that?

For many in our group, it’s because the rock wren, Salpinctes obsoletus, is a life bird. The bird can be quite common across much of its vast breeding range, but it occurs far from most concentrations of human beings. I well remember my first sighting of the species, nearly 30 years ago, in remote Box Butte County, Nebraska, and, to this day, I smile every time someone gets a “lifer” rock wren at Rabbit Mountain.

For others, it’s because the rock wren is something to be sketched or journaled, photographed or videoed or audio-recorded. I made a handheld video of one of the rock wrens from my recent visit, come to think of it:

Video by © Ted Floyd.

For yet others, seeing a rock wren leads inevitably to discourses on science and culture and philosophy; we do a lot of those things, and more, at Camp Colorado. And for all of us perhaps, the act of seeing a rock wren requires no justification at all. The bird is there, right there, alive and alert, in this present moment, possessed of suchness, just as we humans are.

Call it one of the immutable truths of birding: Birds and humans are there, in the same place and at the same time, and that is a good thing.

It is not lost on me that my experience last week at Rabbit Mountain reflected some amount of privilege. As an English-speaking white man in Colorado, I enjoy access and opportunities, and safeties and comforts, that other do not. Several months ago, at a convenience store not even five miles from Rabbit Mountain, I was present for a racially charged incident involving an English-speaking clerk and a Spanish-speaking customer. What if I had been the customer? If a person can’t safely give his dollars to an English-speaking merchant, what assurance does that person have elsewhere in the community, at places like Rabbit Mountain, away from security cameras and other surveillance? If I had been the customer, would I have carried on to Rabbit Mountain, for rock wrens and more? Or, shaken and frightened, would I have headed home and sheltered there for a long while?

I didn’t mention this in the previous installment of How to Know the Birds, but my son and I, while listening for grasshopper sparrows in the middle of the night earlier this month, were disconcerted when a pickup truck appeared out of nowhere. Maybe it was just a couple of guys out for some midnight off-roading. Maybe it was more sinister. In any event, we weren’t keen on an encounter, and we hid, literally hid, until the truck passed and was completely out of view.

Experiences like that one are thankfully rare in my experience, but they are not for Black and brown birders. And let’s be honest: I doubt my son and I were in any amount of danger. It’s possible, yes, but unlikely. Black birders and naturalists, however, really do encounter hostility and even the prospect of bodily harm in so many settings that I take for granted. Like going birding at night. Or walking into a convenience store.

Which is a tragedy for the birding community.

It’s a tragedy because Black birders can’t safely go to the places I go and enjoy the birds I enjoy. It’s a tragedy because, I have to assume, it prevents some Black people from ever getting into birding in the first place. Now there are all sorts of reasons why somebody might never get into birding—but for people like me, being in physical danger for the color of my skin was never in the equation at all. And I hope this doesn’t come across as transactional, but it’s a tragedy for all the rest of us. The experience of birding has been terribly impoverished, we are belatedly realizing, for its exclusivity, and—let’s not mince words here—for its racism.

Hence, a second immutable truth of birding: Black Lives Matter. The American Birding Association, along with other allies in nature conservation and environmental awareness, has much work to do. You’ll be hearing from us, as you have for the past month, about what we are doing right now, about what we need to do more of, and, just as important, about what we need to stop doing. But for now, without qualification and without condition: Black Lives Matter.

Rabbit Mountain Open Space rings with the breathy proclamations of rock wrens. Entry is free, and access is available to all. In theory. What sorts of things should white birders do, and not do, to make birding in places like this welcoming and safe for Black birders? Photos by © Ted Floyd.



Ted Floyd is the longtime Editor of Birding magazine, and he is broadly involved in other programs and initiatives with the ABA. Ted has written 200+ magazine articles and 5 books, including How to Know the Birds (National Geographic, 2019). He is a frequent speaker at birding festivals and has served on several nonprofit boards. Join Ted here for his semimonthly spot, “How to Know the Birds,” celebrating common birds and the uncommonly interesting things they do.