Birdwatching, Anxiety, and Technology

Nathan Heller's reply to my post on birdwatchers and anxiety makes clear that his viewpoint and mine aren't so far apart. And it prompts me to expand a bit.

1) Far from diminishing Roger Tory Peterson's legacy, I was calling attention to his tribute to Ludlow Griscom for making a great cultural leap. As Peterson reminds us, birders used to go into city parks and blast away for specimens, or raid nests for eggs. The stuffed bird collection created by young Franklin Roosevelt (b. 1882) is still on display at his Hyde Park estate. It was a big leap, conceptually as well as technologically, to develop an alternative that was both more challenging and more humane. I agree that it was a further huge leap to engage millions of people in birding, which Peterson did. In fact, Peterson's system of diagnostic marks, supported by superb draftsmanship, was also well matched to Depression-era populism. It was based not on academic systematic biology but on meticulously selected visible traits, some usable by beginners, others requiring experience.

2) I agree with Mr. Heller that pursuit of images of birds and other wildlife does have an overtone of anxiety. Even John James Audubon in the early 19th century, who shot and posed birds for his art, was aware of incipient threats, especially to the passenger pigeon. Portrait photographers, too, appealed to well-founded fears of early death with mottoes like "Secure the Shadow, Ere the Substance Fade." So preserving memories and images of endangered life might well be a motive, even though I still believe the enjoyment of entering into the world of birds, learning to distinguish increasingly challenging points, is more important than anxiety.

3) Ironically, the increase of human longevity and numbers since the precarious 19th century has been one of the greatest threats to bird habitats, while nuclear and conventional weapons sometimes have had paradoxical effects on conservation. Witness the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge on the site of a former massively polluted nuclear weapons plant. The Chernobyl exclusion zone is indeed hazardous to children and other living things, but after so much human suffering the Berlin Wall and East German security zone paid a real conservation dividend, and the Korean Demilitarized Zone was considered, a few years ago, "threatened by peace." On the Vietnam-Laos border, land mines have discouraged hunters and metal fragments in trees have kept loggers at bay, resulting in a "Noah's Ark lost in time," as the wildlife biologist George Schaller put it. 

4) Mr. Heller is correct that diligent birders arriving before dawn may indeed encounter vampires in the early morning hours. I apologize for any aspersion. A hundred years ago, and even thereafter, action in films like Louis Feuillade's Les vampires (1915) was often set in the lightly settled, wooded areas on the outskirts of cities. These were also prime birdwatching zones, and the Bronx's Van Cortlandt Park, a prime site for Griscom's club, still is. Another such hot spot, the picturesque Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Mass., is the final resting place of Ludlow Griscom. Some serious birders have keys for early morning visits. So while my own experience during normal visiting hours years ago was uneventful, Mr. Heller is definitely on to something.

Presented by

Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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