When I was growing up on a farm in upstate New York, I never really noticed there were birds other than the pigeons in the barn, the barn swallows that nested on the outside of the barn and chased the cats when they got too close or the chickens that ran amok around the barnyard. Then I met Tim, who would become my husband. He worked at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and the first time I rode in a car with him, I noticed he spent as much time looking at the fields and the trees as he did the road. Over the years, I got used to Tim pointing out every hawk or falcon or eagle we might see while traveling the back roads of our country. By sheer osmosis, I learned to distinguish a Cooper’s hawk from a sharp-shinned hawk and a red-tailed hawk from a rough-legged hawk. It was as if a different world — one that always had been there but was invisible to me — just opened up.
Juan Manuel Borrero/Superstock
I knew I was a willing accomplice when I visited the tiny island of Iona in the Hebrides off the western coast of Scotland. I was there for a week of meditation and deep reflection and was staying at the old monastery with other spiritual seekers. I arrived early on the day we were to start our week and happened to be looking for birds around the dock when the ferry arrived. Two men — one wearing a cleric’s collar — walked off the ferry, binoculars slung around their necks. They quickly used them to look at some jackdaws on the ground near the old convent cemetery.
I introduced myself to the newcomers — one was a Baptist minister from Maryland and the other an Episcopal priest from South Africa who had a parish outside of Nottingham, England — and we spent the next week scouring the island for the elusive and rare corncrake. My fellow birders had come to Iona for a spiritual recharge, but the pull to look for birds was so strong that the three of us neglected our religious sides. We told each other that this close connection with nature lay within the realm of spiritual seeking, and that shared reassurance somehow made it OK for us to sneak out of Evensong, the traditional evening service of the Anglican church.
I think I finally have to admit it: I have become one of them. I am a birder. I travel with binoculars and a bird guidebook tucked into my backpack. I spend afternoons at the little lake near my house looking for ducks and herons and other waterfowl.
Just don’t tell anyone.
Rachel Dickinson is the author of Falconer on the Edge: A Man, His Birds, and the Vanishing Landscape of the American West. She has written for Men's Journal, The Atlantic and Audubon.