A gust of wind spooked the bird, or perhaps I did, and it flew away—out of the roadside ocotillo, down the rocky hillside, and out of sight. I stopped the video on my camera, took a step backward, and reflected on the G. O. D. Theorem.
The simple version of the G. O. D. Theorem is that everything was better back in the Good Old Days. I’ve known about this ever since it was handed down to me by a birding mentor, Jack Solomon, from my teen years. But the G. O. D. Theorem conceals a deeper, perhaps unsettling truth: Just because we think everything was better back in the good old days, Doesn’t necessarily mean things really were better. The G. O. D. Theorem is a self-contained irony.
Consider, for example, the experience of finding the five-striped sparrow, Amphispizopsis quinquestriata, in Arizona in 2023 with the experience of finding the species there in, say, 1993. Or, to be more realistic about it: with the experience of merely contemplating looking for the bird there in the early 1990s. Because, in the first half of the 1990s, when I spent a great deal of time in the Desert Southwest, the five-striped sparrow was famously, almost mythically, hard to find. The basic deal was that you had to hike a tremendous distance through steep, stony terrain with absolutely no tree cover or any shade at all, across rattlesnake-and-scorpion–infested gulches and gullies, to the one place in Arizona where maybe, just maybe, you might, just might, catch a backlit glimpse in the blistering midday sun of this very rare bird mostly hidden in some dauntingly spiny shrub on an inaccessible hillside far away. One invariably invoked the phrase “death march” in connection with the experience of searching for five-striped sparrows in the first half of the 1990s.
“Harrumph,” says the fifty-something old man, clearing his throat and tugging at his suspenders, “Back in the GOOD OLD DAYS…[curmudgeonly rant about how today’s kids have it so easy with their eBird rare bird alerts and precision GPS coordinates to an easily viewed nest right along a road that any compact rental car could safely and uneventfully get to]…”
And our hypothetical old grouch does have a point. The five-striped sparrows, plural, we saw in Arizona last month were straightforward. A birding friend, Jennie, had told us where to go. Here:
In case you were wondering: That photo was taken from a considerably greater distance than the many off-road vehicles parading right past the nest. They didn’t have small, powerful digital cameras back in the good old days.
Another adult five-striped sparrow, doubtless the mate of the incubating bird. Check out the rectrix wear. That got us to talking about how the annual cycle of the five-striped sparrow, in the dog days of August, is curious. Five-striped sparrows breed and molt around the same time of year. Most birds in the Interior West keep those two metabolically costly activities—replacing worn feathers and caring for young—temporally separated, but not the five-striped sparrow, which takes advantage of the flush of food resulting from the onset of monsoon rains in the Sonoran Desert. We didn’t know those things back in the good old days.
The bird bopped on over to a conveniently closer ocotillo, inconveniently turned the other way, and started singing:
Thus concluded our encounter, 2020s style, with the five-striped sparrows of Box Canyon. We walked the short distance back to where we had parked our rental and, within an hour, were sitting in the cool shade on the grounds of the Santa Rita lodge in Madera Canyon.
It is natural to romanticize about the good old days. “Walking to school in the snow, uphill, both ways” is something I reveled in—and still revel in. Give me a proverbial “death march,” every time. My future me will thank my present me for the bragging rights. Perhaps there’s a twinge of regret, bordering on guilt, about how easy it was to find the five-striped sparrows a few weeks ago. Perhaps.
But there’s something about the experience of birding in 2023 that I would never trade for the experience of birding in 1993. Never.
I refer to the knowledge gap. More like a knowledge chasm. With our digital cameras and audio recorders, with our text alerts and GPS coordinates, with eBird-equipped phones and iNaturalist-powered databases, and, yes, with Facebook groups and the Merlin Bird ID app, we birders know more, vastly more, than we did a generation ago.
And yet. There’s still something about the good old days. Jack Solomon’s G. O. D. Theorem has staying power. It’s just that it’s not about death marches in the desert and walking to school in the snow, uphill, both ways.
A short while ago on a long road trip, one of my kids asked me a pair of questions.
Q1: Was there a particularly happy time in your life? A1: The early 1990s, when I spent those long field seasons in the Desert Southwest. But not because of the “death marches,” which truth be told, I generally declined to enlist in. Instead, because of all the learning and discovery and knowledge and wonder. I now know more, we all know more, much more, about birds and nature and science than we did 30 years ago; but that was a time, for me anyhow, of the acquisition, daily, seemingly hourly, of new knowledge. Call it the good old days.
Q2: Did fifteen-year-old you anticipate present-day you? A2: It’s complicated. Jack Solomon was going off about the G. O. D. Theorem back then, and he’s still going off about it forty years later—about the good old days, a time of exploration and discovery and wonder. And an audacious corollary to the theorem: that one might continue to explore and discover, to seek new knowledge and new ways of thinking, for the remainder of one’s time on this Earth.
Philosophers of science write of “unification,” the quest for a worldview that brings together sometimes disparate ways of thinking about a problem or a whole body of problems. In that spirit, I herewith posit a Unified G. O. D. Theorem: a paean to the good old days, yes, but also, paradoxically, guidance for one’s present self and a roadmap for the future.
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.
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