Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

A Birder's Guide to Gracious Deportment

Pip the Birding Dog
A few minor changes and this birder would be properly attired for virtually any social occasion.  

Back in 2004, a group of whimsical Duluthians organized what they called a Geek Prom at the Great Lakes Aquarium. Being an everyday, stereotypical, geeky birdwatcher, I was asked to serve as a judge. Many birders bristle at the very thought of being considered a geek, which is defined in the American Heritage Dictionary as “A person who is single-minded or accomplished in scientific or technical pursuits but is felt to be socially inept.” In my case, as a person who grew up considering Miss Jane Hathaway a perfect role model, I can’t think of a more apt description, so I jumped at the opportunity.

At the time, a few people seemed to think I should be offended, though I thought the whole idea of a geek prom was pretty cool. I decided to make it clear that I wasn’t deficient in the social graces by appointing myself the “Miss Manners of Birding,” and wrote a few basic rules of etiquette for birders. Over a decade later, those rules need to be updated a little.

When dining with friends or family, at home or a restaurant, and an interesting bird is seen or heard, it is inconceivable that anyone would not jump up, grab the nearest binoculars, and gaze intently out the window. In this situation, the only issue of good manners revolves around nearby diners. Miss Manners chides anyone for rudely staring at a person for any reason. If someone does stare or comment negatively, it is he or she who is behaving in a socially inept way, and besides that, is missing a good bird.

In 2004 I wrote:
When watching a movie at a theater, a birder may quietly announce, right at the movie’s dramatic climax, that a Savannah Sparrow is singing in the background.  And how could that birder possibly keep from pointing out that the habitat is all wrong for that species?  Occasionally the theater-goer sitting behind may kick our seat hard and go “shhhh!” but he’s probably repositioning himself for comfort, and gasping with surprise or excitement at the movie or the sparrow.  If our own date or spouse elbows us for identifying a bird during a movie, the graceful way to deal with it is to suggest taking an anger management class.
In 2016, I realize that this advice also holds when we are watching a movie or television show at home. One of the most fundamental underpinnings of etiquette is the need for generosity among community members, and what could be more generous than sharing valuable ornithological information that will better inform the entire viewing audience about the birds depicted at that moment? The movie's sound director made a specific decision to insert a bird vocalization, be it a Kookaburra or Red-tailed Hawk, into that scene for a reason, and it would be dismissive and rude to ignore this important contribution.

When traveling on a non-birding excursion with friends or family and riding in the passenger seat, one should never insist that the driver stop and back up a little so you can identify a bird on a power line more than once every six miles, though if two intriguing birds appear within less than six miles, it's perfectly allowable to ask again as long as the total number of stops to accommodate your birding hasn't exceeded an average of once every six miles. Miss Manners regrets that on some interstate highways and where traffic is heavy and the shoulder narrow, factors other than etiquette may enter into the driver’s decision whether to comply, but it's no breach of proper deportment to ask. 

At any major social event, the well-appointed birder's attire will be accessorized with a tasteful pair of fine optics. At most funerals, the binoculars should be black or a dark neutral color.

When weddings or funerals are held in the out-of-doors, pishing during the ceremony is a serious faux pas unless the bird could be a lifer.

Tilley hats are considered gauche in most formal settings: to avoid a serious fashion breach, most birders cover the hat with bird-themed buttons and pins. If the bride or widow is a birder, it’s perfectly acceptable for her or her seamstress to arrange a veil over the hat. At formal gatherings and most weddings and funerals, another clever solution is to place a large Chicago Cubs “This Year for Sure!” button on the hat, which both draws attention from the Tilley hat and serves as a perfect conversational ice-breaker. Smoothing social discourse in subtle ways such as this strengthens the social fabric of our lives.

The bride is expected to make eye contact with at least 74 percent of the people in the receiving line even on a peak hawk migration day, though all but the most self-absorbed guest would excuse her for cutting out if a Mississippi Kite flies over.  If the bride or groom gets a text message about a rare bird showing up a hundred miles away that day, she or he is only allowed to skip out on the reception and first night of the honeymoon if the bird is a lifer, or at least new for a state, county, or year list. If the bride or groom has started a Wedding Day list, chasing a good bird under any circumstance would of course be allowed.

Adhering to these simple rules of etiquette should allow every birder to blissfully yet responsibly build up our bird lists even as we impress everyone we encounter with our unimpeachable social graces.