June 16, 2022
Botteri's Sparrow male singing
Botteri's Sparrow male singing
In a recent conversation with an old birding friend, she casually mentioned she thought we were both bird nerds.  Her tone of voice, though, made me think I should have used the verb “accused” rather than “mentioned” in that opening sentence.  Curious, I looked up the definition of “nerd.”  The dictionary says the term is “often used pejoratively,” and that it can be used as a verb as well as a noun.

I’ve never used “nerd” as a verb (to talk obsessively about one’s arcane field of expertise), but I have used it as a noun (an annoying person who lacks social skills), referring not to birders but anyone obsessed with one field of knowledge to the exclusion of any interest in others.  The urban dictionary defines “nerd” as “someone whose IQ exceeds their weight.”  Now that’s a provocative thought!  I’ve decided that henceforth I will use the term “wonk” rather than “nerd.”  Less judgmental, more estimable.

Growing up I considered myself a nerd/jock, one foot consciously and firmly planted in each camp to ameliorate the pejorative connotations attached to both.  During my college days though, and not yet a birder, I experienced situations where the “jock” label proved a detriment to my advancement in academia and, in retrospect, I probably doubled down on the former while flipping the bird to the latter.  And then, as a young adult, I became a birder, reveling in a newly minted passion for something outside the field of athletics in which, by then, I was firmly ensconced.

So, am I a “bird nerd”?  Not in my own mind.  I consider myself a serious birder, but I am certainly no expert, and I have several competing interests which have nothing to do with birding.  There are times when I regret not having a zoology degree, but then I think about the biologist who is the world’s leading expert on Arizona’s Botteri’s Sparrows.  She knows more about that single species than 99.99% of the world’s population but, really, how much fun would that be?

I figure there are only two things in life I do better than most people, but knowledge of birds is not one of them, and “most people” is a far cry from 99.99%, so my two things are never going to qualify as a “brand.”  If I were a one species or even a one family specialist, would looking/hoping for owls still be the coolest thing ever, or would I even want to traipse through the White Mountains looking for birds I never see in the desert?

I think not.  I enjoy, as I know many if not most birders do, being a generalist.  I’m happy to parse the plumages of immature Bald Eagles, but that’s about as far as my interest in the national bird goes.  I’ll gladly spot an empidonax flycatcher and try to gauge the amount of dark shading on the lower mandible so I can record it to species in my personal notes, but I have no intention of diving into wing chords or recording call notes.

And, for sure, it’s a toss-up as to which makes my eyes glaze over quicker, a discussion of hybrids or an argument over whether a local subspecies should be “countable.”  Sorry.  I.  Don’t.  Care.  I’d love to see a Harpy Eagle, though, and a Bee Hummingbird too, but imagine how many great places and birds I could see right here in Arizona for the time and treasure it would take to go to Brazil and Cuba.

Which brings me back around to my friend who called me a bird nerd.  Actually she had called to tell me, wonder and delight in her voice, that she had a flock of Evening Grosbeaks visit her yard.  Before her retirement she was a world bird traveler who eschewed “listing,” seemingly the ultimate birding oxymoron.  She also pursued an avocation having nothing at all to do with birds which took her abroad several times.

My friend was and remains a keen birder, but I would never call her a bird nerd or even a bird wonk.  Like me she’s just a generalist, fascinated by the variety and abundance of life on this planet.  I’m bummed, though, that she didn’t invite me to come see her grosbeaks.  Of course we both know they’re nomads but hey, so are we, and we both know the journey’s the thing, not the destination.
Evening Grosbeak male
Evening Grosbeak male