What To Do When You Notice People Noticing Birds

by Ted Floyd

September 19, 2020

Female Northern (Yellow-shafted) Flickers displaying. © Greg Neise

The whole world seems to have started to notice birds, a phenomenon that has been widely reported in major newspapers, on network news, and at online information sites. Outreach has understandably focused on all the folks who are going outside and noticing birds for the first time, and we at the ABA are proud to have been among the earliest emissaries of information during the COVID-19 crisis.

But what about the folks who had been noticing birds all along? What about you? Let’s be honest: Most of the visitors to this website are already at least “bird curious,” if not full-on, self-identified “birders.” Again: What’s in it for you? In particular: What can you do—what should you do, and what shouldn’t you do—when you encounter people apparently new to birding?

With this little primer, we’re going to suggest three strategies for engagement. First, the initial contact. Second, what to say. And third, if we may be so bold, what not to say. We also have prepared a short list of resources, both online and print and even on your body (!), that we think might come in handy as you engage persons noticing birds for the first time. Without further ado:

1. You see somebody, or somebodies, plausibly or definitively bird-noticing. The very first thing to remember is that this is 2020, not 2019 or 2018, or 2009 or 1999 or 1989. You can’t simply skip or prance forward, shake hands or embrace, and offer a look through your bins or scope. You need to keep six feet away, and you need to be wearing a mask. See the ABA’s Code of Birding Ethics for further guidelines on ethical behavior at this time of coronavirus closures and strictures.

2. Break the ice with a question or other inquiry, not a statement of fact. For example: “What are you guys looking at?” Rather than: “That’s a Northern Flicker, an ASY female of the auratus subspecies group sensu strictro.” The latter approach, we find, tends to be dismissed with a shrug, whereas the former is, in our experience, so often an opening for sharing and wonder. “Thanks for pointing that out that bird to me,” you say. “It’s a Northern Flicker,” you continue . . . and then what?

3. Don’t go all bird-nerd at first, do go all-out with heartfelt delight. There’s a Least Flycatcher or something perched just beyond the flicker, and the last thing you want to do is point that out. Look, we at the ABA are totally into Least Flycatchers; we’ve written articles and whole books on such matters. But this isn’t the time for that. A flicker, even a comparatively muted female, is objectively brilliant and fantastic, a Least Flycatcher less so. “IT’S A FLICKER!” you reiterate.

3–cont’d. More on that heartfelt delight thing. Any bird, even a Least Flycatcher, does amazingly cool, eminently observable things. But let’s keep at it with our hypothetical flicker. Mention that flickers are anteaters—who knew! Talk up their bright colors, braying calls, and large size. And don’t forget to mention that they’re a kind of woodpecker. A woodpecker—who knew! That sort of thing isn’t common knowledge, not at all.

3–concl. Just one more thing about heartfelt delight. It is impossible to overstate the value of blatantly beautiful birds in the service of birderly ambassadorship. Along with flickers: adult male American Goldfinches and House Finches; most water birds and any raptor; and always an adult male Red-winged Blackbird swaying on a cattail. Birds that are doing things—singing and fighting and feeding—are the best of all.

How To Usefully Get Resources In Their Hands—And On Their Devices

This is tricky. In light of point #1, above, you can’t hand somebody a business card–style list of books, magazines, and websites. But check this out: The American Birding Association has one of the easiest-to-remember URLs in all of birderdom. If they go away from an encounter with you muttering, “Ay Bee Ay dot org, Ay Bee Ay dot org,” you have achieved success!

Now let’s say there is some sort of opportunity for follow-up—you know each other from the neighborhood, you see each other again, etc. In that event, you might want to steer folks to some particular webpages at ABA.org. Those include:

• The ABA’s Code of Birding Ethics, discussed above.

• The ABA’s “Ten Tips for Watching and Enjoying Birds,” specifically developed for people noticing birds for the first time in this era of social distancing and other restrictions.

• Hannah Floyd’s “What To Do When They Close School,” focusing in particular on the school-age population of people who suddenly find themselves at and around home, looking for things to do in nature.

• The ABA “state guide” series of photographic field guides. Not all states are covered yet, but many are. If you find yourself in Texas, California, New York, Florida, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio, and elsewhere, please mention the existence of the guide for your state.

• Why, the American Birding Association! Mention that basic memberships start at $30, a tremendous bargain for the fantastic volume of information and other resources available to all members.

A Final Thought—Act the Part

Consider wearing an ABA cap or ABA binocular straps whenever you go out. Our t-shirts are the absolute coolest. Don’t like t-shirts?—Then buy one from The ABA Shop, cut it up, and make the world’s coolest face mask out of it! How about a tattoo? Nothing starts conversation like a sharp flicker emblazoned on your upper arm. The ABA isn’t in the body-art business…yet.

Seriously, if flicker tattoos and even flycatcher t-shirts aren’t your thing, consider the value in proclaiming that you are a birder. What does that mean?—Well, it means you are friendly and knowledgeable, and that you are as fired up about flickers as when you first began to notice birds yourself.


Cover image by Mia McPherson.

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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.