Arts and Culture

On Birding and Paying Attention

On a humid and gray day in late April, one of the sections of Jessie Knowlton’s ornithology class stands crowded around the edge of a pond in Caratunk Wildlife Refuge in Seekonk, MA. Most people’s binoculars are pointed towards a tree in the distance, some murmuring excitedly, others standing silently in concentration, almost everyone holding their phones in one hand, recording bird calls. 

The group stops because someone has spotted a Summer Tanager — a bird relatively rare for the Northeast, flying around a large tree that hangs over the pond. Knowlton and a few particularly passionate students debate whether or not the bird may be a cardinal. 

“No black eye mask,” one student says. “And it’s not behaving like a cardinal. It has to be a Tananger. The people on eBird are not going to believe it.”

The group reaches a consensus that the bird they spotted is in fact a Summer Tanager, as someone took a picture with their binoculars and phone camera that shows clearly it lacks the black eye mask that a cardinal has. 

The student who spotted the Tanager is ecstatic. “This one is a lifer for me!” They say. “I don’t care what happens for the rest of the day.”

I am on the trip to Caratunk because of a development I had noticed among my friend group: a random interest in birding. Most of my friends have downloaded an app called “Merlin” which records bird calls and then identifies the species. This includes the ones who study science and are in Knowlton’s class, as well as my friends who have not, up until now, expressed any interest in birds or birding at all. 

Knowlton’s ornithology class, which started out as a junior-level class, used to have only one section. This year, the class size doubled and she had to split the lab groups into two different sections and teaches  as many seniors and juniors as first-years and sophomores. Every week, the students go birding as a group either in the Wheaton Woods or in nature preserves near Wheaton. 

Knowlton has also noticed this newfound interest in birding, evident by the increase in students who take ornithology. She attributed this to birding being a way to destress and seeing more news outlets cover it, as well as people having more time to spend outside during the pandemic. Knowlton also says that the Merlin app has played a big role in making birding more accessible. Merlin is powered by Ebird, the world’s largest database of bird sightings, sounds, and photos. It was developed and is run by Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Alli Smith is an ornithologist who works at Cornell Lab of Ornithology and a coordinator for the Merlin app. Like Knowlton, she has also seen more people become involved in birding and thinks that the app has made it easier for people of all backgrounds to bird. 

“I think you could make a really strong argument that birding is the most accessible outdoor activity. You can be in the most remote parts of the world, and there are birds around you” she said. “You don’t need any special equipment, you only need yourself. You can bird with your eyes, you can bird with your ears, you don’t need binoculars, you don’t even need Merlin…you can just enjoy birds wherever you are.”

According to data provided by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Merlin has 982,500 eBirders and 1.7 billion observations — it is citizen science taking place on a massive scale. 

“We’ve been able to make new types of analyses that have just not been possible before, like just not at this scale. We can’t possibly have a biologist in every single town, in every single county, in every single state. But we have almost a million eBirders, volunteer citizen scientists who are kind of doing the same thing for us and are really, really helping us help birds in that way” Smith said. 

“I think the fact that Merlin is an app and not a book or like its own separate device is so helpful for people, who aren’t already connected with nature and birds. They’re much more likely to try it out if it’s on their phone,” Smith said. “It’s so easy to just, you know, you’re scrolling through Instagram or whatever and you see someone shared a screenshot of Merlin and be like, ‘Oh, I’ll download that really fast. It’s free.’”

One of the biggest benefits of Merlin making birding more accessible that both Smith and Professor Knowlton see is how diversity within the birding community has greatly increased since Smith started birding as a child in New Jersey. 

Smith sees “a shift happening in the birding community. Just from the communities I’m in on social media, I see so many more different people joining the birding world, which is really cool. I think it’s becoming more of a cool thing to do,” she said.  “There are definitely more like young birders clubs around than when I was a young birder and looking for others that were like me in New Jersey.” 

Besides more young birders clubs, there is also ACAB (Anti-Racist Collective of Avid Birders), Feminist Bird Club, and Queers of a Feather, all of which are groups for underrepresented birders in the greater New England area. While I had always associated birding with rich retirees, it seemed like the birding community had become increasingly diverse. On Knowlton’s birding field trip, the class was full of female and visibly queer students. 

I pointed out the demographics I had noticed to Charlie Darmstadt ‘24. Darmstadt is the founding president of Wheaton’s birding club, which was established in 2021, and currently has 75 people on its roster. 

“Yeah, it’s pretty gay to like birds,” Darmstadty said. “A lot of the people I know who like birds are queer.”

“I think a lot of time with less mainstream hobbies like birding, you get a lot more queer people because it’s, you know, it’s a place where you can make your own community” they said.

One of the other surprising things about the increased interest in birding is how connected it seems to be to technology. It is undeniable that carrying an iPhone on you at all times has brought us farther away from the natural world. But Merlin seems to be doing the opposite. 

Most of the birders I talked to brought up how Merlin had made them pay closer attention to nature. Aidan Connor ‘24 is not a science student, nor is he in Knowlton’s ornithology class. He downloaded Merlin after seeing an owl in the Wheaton Woods, an experience he describes as “amazing.”

“When I saw the owl for the first time I was like, ‘oh my god, like if you actually pay attention and you can just see cool ass birds so easily.’ I was just missing out on that,” Connor said. 

He agreed that Merlin has helped make him feel closer to nature. “Without the app, I would not be able to do this… appreciate all these birds. It has made me want to go out into the woods and just go listen for birds. I think the technology of this app has allowed me to connect more with the outdoors which seems kind of contrary to what technology is.” 

Connor said when he went home to Maine for spring break he used Merlin in his backyard, and within the span of an hour he had identified 22 different kinds of birds.

“I was like ‘holy shit.’ There are that many birds just around me right now. And I wouldn’t have ever known without the app. It’s made me more knowledgeable and aware of my surroundings. It’s honestly making me listen more and pay attention more to like what’s happening around me…It makes me appreciate the different life that’s here.”

In her book “How to Do Nothing,” author  Jenny Odell looks at the ways in which technology and social media has isolated us from nature and each other, and how we can find our way back. The book largely ends up being about how to pay attention to the world around you. 

Odell writes about birding as a practice to improve our attention spans.

“Bird-watching is the opposite of looking something up online….what amazed me and humbled me about bird-watching was the way it changed the granularity of my perception. At first, I just noticed birdsong more. Of course, it had been there all along but now that I was paying attention to it, I realized it was almost everywhere, all day, all the time.”

The first time I used Merlin was one Sunday a few weeks ago, in which I spent several hours sitting in a field on a picnic blanket during a particularly warm and sunny day. Between working 20 hours a week, attending class, doing homework, and applying for jobs, I hadn’t spent multiple hours just existing in nature and noticing the world around me for a long time—something that I have lost as I’ve gotten older. When I was a child growing up in the Pacific Northwest, the vast majority of my days not in school were spent playing in a forest or at the beach, becoming intimately aware of the way sea stars clung to a rock, the kinds of animals that exist in a tide pool, the flow of a stream and the life cycle of a salmon. 

As I sat there, a brown bird with a large beak landed on a branch of the tree I was sitting under. I watched it for several minutes, and in that time, it became important to me that I know something about it. I opened up Merlin and started recording its song. Merlin identified the bird as a Northern Flicker, a member of the woodpecker family that is found in most of North America, parts of Central America, Cuba, and the Cayman Islands. It is one of the few woodpecker species that migrate.

Sitting there over the course of the next couple of hours, I recorded over a dozen species of birds on my phone. As I did, I noticed more and more how the sounds around me engaged with each other: how the high pitched chirping of a Song Sparrow sounded markedly different from the whistle of a Brown Cowbird. Both fell under the category of “birdcall” but they had meaning now, they were no longer ubiquitous. I felt like I knew the world around me in a way I had not just an hour before. 

According to Cornell Ornithology Lab, North American bird populations have declined by nearly three billion individuals since the 1970s. While noticing the birds around was, for me, a way to feel more present in nature, it is an urgent way to inspire conservation for Smith, Darmstadt, and Knowlton. 

Knowlton said it’s important that people know the birds around them.“If people don’t appreciate them, then they won’t care when species go extinct or when the population size reduces drastically.”

 “It’s up to the point where a lot of species could go extinct in the next few decades. And if people aren’t aware of the birds around them, then they won’t notice that there’s a problem, right?”

When I asked Smith why she liked birds, she told me the story of when she visited Cape May, NJ in middle school on a field trip. On that field trip, she saw migrating shorebirds that were making their way from South America to Canada where they nest in the tundra. On the way north, they stop in Delaware bay and eat horseshoe crabs to fuel their journey. 

“And that was like the coolest thing ever for me, as a 12 year old in New Jersey, that there are birds that eat crab eggs and there’s an entire species that depends on that…It’s still the coolest thing ever, they’re still my favorite birds. I was totally hooked after that and I ended up going to college for wildlife science,” She said. “birds are so inspiring in so many ways. I’m still drawn back to that.”