The bay-breasted warbler is one of the beautiful prizes of spring birding.
Two of the main passions in my life began at about the same age. I was twelve years old when I started running. That was the same age I also became a birder.
Both interests began with seminal experiences earlier in life.
At the age of five I was given a Peterson’s Bird Guide from my Aunt Carol, my mother’s older sister. I learned to draw copying images of birds from that book, which I still have. I can trace my interest in birding and painting wildlife to that gift, and also to growing up in New York and Pennsylvania where there were plenty of woods and wildlife in which to roam and find birds.
I recall an encounter with a kestrel perched just a couple feet above my head on a laundry pole in our backyard in Lancaster. The pattern in the face of that bird filled my entire senses. From then on I was officially obsessed with birds. When my eldest brother Jim took an ornithology course in college and started driving us around the back roads of Illinois, my brothers and I all became real birders. We kept life lists. Planned birding trips. I started painting birds and have sold my work to more than 2000 people.
My interest in running had similar roots. At the age of six I would time myself doing laps around the side yard. I loved the feeling of running. It helped that I lived next to a beautiful golf course (Media Heights) in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I’d often run the half mile to my buddy’s house across the course.
All through high school and college I birded and I ran. Sometimes the two activities would come in conflict with each other. The early hours of the day are precious times for runners and birders. The window in which you can see the most birds often runs from 6:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. After that, many species stop singing and are harder to find.
The spring months of April and May are premiere times for bird migration. Of course those months are also peak training periods for track and field athletes. So I had to make choices sometimes. There are only so many hours in the day.
Same goes for fall and cross country training. More than once I recall glancing up during a cross country race to see a bird in the bush or field that I’d love to stop and identify. Usually I can do that on the fly or at a glance. But once in a while you need a minute or so to pin down the exact species. That’s especially true in fall when birds like warblers go into molt and lose their bright colors. It serves them well to head south in fall with a plumage dull and indistinct. They live with that muted look all winter, which gives them cryptic coloration, and emerge only in spring with the bright colors that serve them so well for breeding season in competition for territory and the right to mate.
We’re just like birds in many respects. We have rhythms too, and have to balance our priorities in life. For birds, nature takes care of much of that. Hormones and seasonal plumage set birds up for the cycle of life. But for human beings, we think ourselves smart enough to live outside some of those natural rhythms. We like to think we make choices about the time and place for competition.
But it still shows through. Even among birders there is a natural tendency to compete. Every spring when migration kicks into gear birders sweep out into the field to count as many species as they can. It is not unusual for a good birder to find 100 species of birds in a single day. These lists are often posted to birding sites and mail lists such as the IBET list (a birding sighting group on Yahoo!) in Illinois.
Reading those posts, it’s easy to fall into the trap of being envious of the birding activities of your peers. The classic Big Year among birders is notably a competition to see who can find and identify the most bird species in a county, or a state, or a nation, or a continent. Or the entire world. Think of that! There are thousands of species of birds in the world. How do you plan for that?
The answer is, you can’t. You must respond at times when and where the birds show up. For that information you are partially dependent on others. That means the competition is a tradeoff between wanting to be the best and needing the help of others, even your competitors, to succeed. There is an important lesson in that.
Birders may not think of themselves as competitive by listing their finds, but there is an aspect of throwdown when someone posts, “Had 25 species of warbler today.”
These games of finding birds do have scientific value. Every spring and in December there are national bird counts that feed into a database. These annual surveys present valuable information about bird populations in America. We now have decades of data that tell us that some species of birds are doing quite well while others, especially some woodland species, are not holding up as well thanks to predation, habitat changes and competition with invasive species of birds.
Survival of the fittest
What all this observation tells us is that all of nature is competition. Just last week I witnessed a blue jay visiting the nest of a tiny species of bird known as a blue-gray gnatcatcher. The gnatcatcher parents swooped and attacked the jay, but in the end the marauding jay reached into the nest with its beak and gulped down an egg, then flew off to another source of food.
The work that went into laying that egg is tremendous. Gnatcatchers make their nests of lichen bits and spider webs. These they fuse into a cup standing more than an inch tall. The precious eggs are then laid in this cup and protected by the parents. And then eaten, in some instances, by a blue jay.
We all know the feeling of putting hard work into something and then losing the opportunity. It happens in business all the time, and in politics too. It hurts, and it stands us on our heels. But ultimately we have to move on.
Those of us who run and ride know this feeling better than most. We’ve all likely experienced the loss of fitness from injury, or getting sick the week of an important race. These setbacks teach us how to deal with disappointment. Hopefully we also get to experience the joy of completing a goal. Yet even these sometimes come with addendums.
Imagine that you are a small bird like a warbler. You’ve built your nest and laid your eggs. Then along comes a cowbird who dumps a larger egg in with your clutch (the brown eggs in the image at right).
Some warblers simply build over the cowbird eggs and start over. Others raise the cowbird as one of their own.
Cowbirds save themselves a lot of work by dumping eggs in the nests of other birds. It is likely a behavior that evolved out on the prairie where cowbirds followed bison herds for food. They didn’t have time to sit around making nests and raising young. So they dumped that responsibility to another bird, not even their own species. It’s easy to think that we should hate the cowbird for its habits. Yet from the cowbird’s perspective, nothing could be smarter or more efficient than parasitic nesting. It really is a marvelous evolutionary adaptation to environment and need.
It’s true as well with gender and pair bonding. Homosexuality exists in nature, as does serial breeding among familiar species such as the Northern Cardinal. There are also birds where the male does the nesting. This is true in a group of birds called phalaropes, where the male of the species is less colorful than the female. The gender roles are reversed.
Birds and all of nature sexually hedge their bets and interact in ways that defy human perception. It’s a fact: we’ve superimposed a judgmentally dysfunctional value system over a perfectly functional and eternally changing system of creation. Put simply, nature doesn’t give a lark what you think about it. Nature is what nature does.
And if we really pay attention to a book like the Bible, we learn that God actually likes it that way. Neither nature or God are static in their interactions. The entire concept of free will and acceptance of grace (which is love) is dependent on that kind of freedom.
How interesting then that human beings seem to spend so much time trying to impose their vision and version of free will upon others. Talk about contradicting the entire flow of nature!
See, nature has a lot of workarounds that we humans love to think we’re above. We like to think we choose our competitions rather than respond to them by force of nature. To some extent, that is true. Human beings have by force of dominion have actually destroyed entire ecosystems. But we’re not so smart as we think in such actions.
The animal instincts within us still rule or subconscious minds. We still respond viscerally to winning or losing, and to the roles we assign each other. We deeply know that our survival depends to a great extent on our ability to compete. The question is whether this approach to life is helping us evolve as a species of pulling us back down into the primordial muck.
We consciously compete. That’s the difference. That’s why birders still do the bird list throwdown. That’s why people who run and ride do the half-wheel or half-step drill during training and racing. We like to nudge our rivals, to push the pace to see what they’ve got.
We also subconsciously push ourselves and then compete with others because when we cease doing that, we feel like we’re less alive. Admit it: when you’re walking around town and see a person that is fat or bent by age, you size them up and compare yourself. It’s an ugly aspect of human nature, but it’s wired into our makeup.
Yet we are capable as well of transcending this animal instinct. Ostensibly our religions are designed to help us do that. Which is why it is all the more unfortunate that sects of religions and entire belief systems fall into patterns of competition. That’s when the human race really suffers. When we blindly combine our native instincts for competition with our spiritual belief systems, people usually die. It happens every day, and we repeat the same processes over and over.
It really is insane. One religion whines about persecution while the other threatens to wipe out all others. The Bible itself is a chronicle of all that ancient conflict. Sadly, the organic foundation of the bible that actually gives us great insight by celebrating nature through symbolism to convey spiritual principles is essentially lost by those who turn the words of the bible itself into law rather than working to comprehend the deeper, more natural meaning that lurks beneath.
Think about it: Jesus taught using symbols based on nature to convey important spiritual truths about the Kingdom of God. He did this to make it accessible to all believers. Yet the leaders of religion most typically push nature to the background to focus on who rules the earth among men (and that gender-specific word is intentional). All the while the more feminine, nurturing aspects of our nature are forced into subjugation. Religion is supposed to help us avoid these primal bad habits. Humans are supposed to learn the nature of God from the foundations of creation. That is how we achieve transcendence.
That is in part why I no longer feel the need to compete in ways that I once did. Don’t get me wrong. I still love to race. It’s fun. And healthy. And good for society.
But when I’m out birding, and I find a beautiful species like a bay-breasted warbler singing so quietly in the treetops that it requires every ounce of my hearing to detect it, there is a great feeling of satisfaction in that moment, that sense of wonder. And I don’t feel the need to compete with anyone by bragging that I’ve seen it.
It’s not about competition then. Nor is it about competition when you’re out riding and you simply feel strong and healthy. You love the feel of the breeze in your face and the rolling motion of running through the woods. You could not care in that moment who you defeat or who defeats you.
The time and place for competition is when you choose. All other moments are yours or better yet, shared with others who also love what you do.