Easy Birding, Ch 16, The Unspeakables

The Unspeakables

Birders are generally polite, civilized people. They are nice to each other and mostly the same to nonbirders. Sure, we have trouble not going anti-Emily Postal with certain dog and cat owners, some hunters and a few others. We mostly hold our tongue and keep quiet about people who are abusive, whether it is to us, birds or generally to the environment. That is difficult, but there are forums to voice differing opinions. Besides speaking out or up likely will take away valuable birding time. After all, so many birds, so few hours.

What we are about to discuss are the unspeakable behaviors that interrupt the flow of easy birding. These will not, usually get you arrested, provoke an argument or a fight and are beyond the usual dos and don’ts of birder etiquette discussed in earlier. What are enumerated here are the things no one will tell you. They will not speak of them. What comes to mind are beyond the mustard lips from a hotdog, someone’s nose about to drip on your field guide or toilet tissue sticking to a shoe. As with all unsavory things, there ought to be a time when the unspeakable parts of life are put be on record.

The Human Condition

Birders are, for the most part, humans. Humans may do things that serve to annoy other humans, which partly explain why we all have what we consider our space. It is an individual if not cultural thing. Most of us don’t care to be crowded, partly because of our space credo and just to avoid any misunderstandings. Once, packed in a crowd waiting for a bus on a snowy day, I found that my hand, its position beyond my control, was wedged between the front of one person and the rear of another at a height an inch above where their legs met. Flexing my fingers or ever so gradually or retrieving my wayward arm and connected hand was out of the question. Eventually the mass of impatient people throbbed forward as a bus pulled up. I quickly put my hand in my pocket and stopped worrying about being arrested for groping. Birders, when birding, usually don’t find themselves so packed, but it could happen. Many things could happen, but most can be avoided. Here are a few examples to help avoid birder trouble:

The telescope line: regardless of your position in the line and especially at the scope, do not, most definitely do not, fart. If it cannot be avoided, hope for a strong side wind, assuming no one as at either side of the line. If the line is becalmed, hold it in. If all else fails, remove yourself from the line and walk away from your compatriots before breaking silence. In the event of premature or unpredicted flatulence, look askance at your nearest neighbor, curl up your nose and pretend to edge away. While doing so, try to catch the attention of others. They will then join you in the pantomimed disparagement of the innocent compatriot. Finally, bear in mind that the cabbage and bean dish the night before will likely produce an unpleasant outcome. An ounce of prevention may be worth a cubic meter of gas. If an episode produces a sonic boom and mist beyond human endurance, it might be provident to leave. No one should have to contend with a devil fart.

Less odoriferous, but nonetheless breathtaking, is sweat and breath. Unless everyone else has sweated away their morning application of under arm alarm, thus making for equal opportunity BO, keep your arms to your side. Likewise, if you recently ate a meal laced with garlic or onion, and not all your birder friends did, hold your breath.

What should you do if you are a recipient of the human condition at the telescope line? In the case of escaped flatulence, there seems to be two opposing reactions, disgust and humor. These are not mutually exclusive and are dependent on several factors. Considering rarefied air humorous may imply psychological implications beyond this tome. Suffice to say, do not laugh. Neither the actual airy product nor its producer should garner even a chuckle lest you be pigeonholed along with the windy architect. Showing disgust should be limited so as not to embarrass anyone. It should be OK at least to hold your hand over your nose and mouth. If the situation goes beyond a five in the Richter scale, a well-aimed look of disapproval is in order. Definitely do not gasp which usually requires inhaling. An exhaled negative grunt might give a hint to an olfactory abuser. Faint coughing and wheezing would seem in order, especially when the situation lingers. If the telescope line is short, it might be possible to hold your breath. However, by the time you get to the scope might be the time you faint. Avoid fainting as this will probably be taken as over-reacting to the ill wind. Fainting is also disruptive and may scare away birds. In fact, fainting, passing out or seizures should definitely be avoided in telescope lines.

Defensive mechanisms against anyone suffering from not enough deodorant or too much garlic are similar to the above. All are a form of being gassed.

Field guide abusers: There are many ways a field guide might be abused. Loaning a field guide automatically places the owner in jeopardy from FGA, Field Guide Abuse. A lender has to trust the borrower to return the book just as it was lent. Some of the types of abuse might be more or less forgivable. For example, a few raindrops or melted snowflakes may leave the guide slightly wrinkled. That could happen to almost anyone. A worse mishap is when a field guide is dropped. If it’s the car floor that might not be too bad, but that depends on where birder feet may have been. Dropping the book in the mud, especially red clay, will leave its mark as will letting it fall into a stream, puddle, or lake. That’s assuming, of course it is retrievable. It is probably not worth sending down a scuba diver. Any way, accidents will happen and a forgiving lender will ignore the fact that most accidents are avoidable. What really is bad is food and coffee stains. That little brown bird may not be brown at all. The red dot is not a diagnostic field mark. It’s ketchup, a smeared French fry finger print, a drooled secret sauce between to more or less beef patties. It is enough to regret letting the field guide out of your sight.

What is a birder to do? One, do not lend your field guide, or, if you do, lend judiciously to those who respect others property, especially books. Personally, if a book comes back damaged, one might consider firmly but politely in a civilized manner, point out any FDA; then ask for either monetary retribution or beat the person to a pulp. Avoid the latter as such behavior tends to scare birds and might lead to an arrest.

In addition to double-ended gas is nose picking, something we all do, and we all should do in the privacy of our own domain. Sometimes people forget where they are or they simply cannot wait. As for noses, that’s something anyone should be able to pick their time. A number of people wait until they are in their car, apparently believing the windows shield them from someone seeing their fingers reaching for their brains. Others simply forget, perhaps from habit, and deftly digitate away. Once on the Washington, D.C. Metro, a man sitting next to me was earnestly committing nostril hygiene. This was not a side benefit from working at Smithsonian. Finally, I had enough. I looked him in the eye, trying not to notice his nose and said loudly over the rumble of the train “Excuse me, but you are picking your nose incessantly and should stop.” He stopped.

For practicing birders, don’t go public with your dismay. That subway guy might have hauled off and slugged me, hopefully not with his laboring hand. For unfortunate witnesses to PBRS (Public Bugger Removal Syndrome), avoid anything the picker may have touched. That might be good reason not to loan binocs and field guides.

Equipment Forgetter: Some people have trouble remembering things. Usually it is a form of short-term memory loss and with a little practice, assuming you aren’t beyond hope, is treatable with a modicum of discipline. Uh? What was I saying? Oh yeah, forgetting. Some individuals are so unfocused they forget many things numerous times. We know their names. Favorites are “scatter brain,” dumb head” or “dumb something,” “air head,” “hopeless” and so on.

In a recent Birding, an author suggested bringing an extra pair of binocs in case a fellow birder forgets theirs. That’s all very nice and civilized, but may lead to trouble. Of course, that, just like the field guide lender, is between you and the borrower. If there is no optional optics, several scenarios seem possible. One, admonish the person for failing to remember their binocs and leave them at the curb or turn around or detour to the kitchen table where their binocs lay. The last penalizes everyone, but polite birders should definitely practice their eagle-eye stares at the lackadaisical person who couldn’t bring along their most important birding tool.

Should anyone ever find themselves forgetting their binocs, they ought to, if they borrow a pair, treat them like their first-born child. If they are too young for that, they should treat the lent binocs like their game boy or cell phone. Apologize profusely and repeat the apology later when appropriate. If you are in a van, take the very back seat, the one that labors the back’s lumbar region and require contortionists skills. Give back what you receive. Because of delaying the birding trip, keep mostly silent between apologies and at least offer to buy everyone lunch and pay for the gasoline.

Aside from what birders might do onto other birders, is what birders might do to others when arrogance sets in. Most of us have heard some of the incidences when a member of the group attempts to admonish a bystander. If a rancher or farmer allows you on their property be grateful, not an ingrate. Do not pontificate to the property owner how you don’t like the way they handle their livestock or plant their crops. Complaining that a person at a bird feeding station was not on time to let anxious birders view the feeders is ridiculously arrogant. It is impolite for a guest to criticize your host, no matter the location, be it their home or elsewhere.

Happenings on public land that might touch a nerve are probably best dealt with by contacting authorities such as the police or the regions administers. That person littering or allowing the dog to litter and run wild is hard to ignore. However, it is best for personal safety and the safety of anyone with you, not to confront perceived abusers or lawbreakers. If the arrogance and abuse of what is public makes you believe you must speak out, remove your binocs and hide your field guide. That way any vigilantism will not be attributed to birders as a group. Remember vigilantism, even if it is only verbal often backfires as Batman learned. Chances are, what ever is said will not change the situation. In fact, circumstances may escalate more negatively or even become physically dangerous. For example, censuring someone about the behavior of their dog, be it poop or chasing birds, is tantamount to an attempt to discipline someone’s children and calling the owner a bad parent. Let the authorities handle it.

Another human condition is an indirect one and it concerns canine crap, be it Dalmatian discards or a mastiff mound and other shoe or boot ornaments. If doggy do-do takes your footwear hostage, do not walk into a group of birders, or anyone else for that matter, or get into a vehicle, without first removing the messy stowaway. Step away from your birder friends, gingerly, to a tussock of grass or sand and work to remove the offal parasite. Incidentally, the grass or sand should not be somewhere in the path of other walkers. No since sharing. Practice safe poop purging. If you are lucky, there will be a water puddle nearby. Water is great to penetrate the nooks and crannies of Vibram soles and helps loosen and rinse away most of the pesky mud and doggy detritus.

Besides dog do-do, some bird poop ranks high on the stink meter. Two that are also big on the scale are from geese and turkeys. Since Canada Geese now are everywhere (they did not always breed so far south), their droppings are also everywhere. As for turkey turpitude, it often has an oily quality that is beyond most household cleaners. Undoubtedly, other bird dung will be catalogued in time. For now, if it is large, it will likely smell. Watch where you walk, and be reasonably sure there is nothing on the bottoms of your footwear before settling into a vehicle, especially if the heater is on. If that happens, your fellow passengers are liable to blurt out something like “Oh dung.”


We all use machines, some more than others, and there problems from their misuse. Some actually may endanger us; others may change the behavior of a bird we want to see.

Traveling to a site for some easy birding most frequently requires a motor vehicle. Obviously, safe driving is paramount, but birding and driving are sometimes bad partners. Most of the roadside birds I see are hawks or, when on the coast, gulls. Usually, on interstates or slightly slower freeways, those large birds are the only ones it is safe to even notice. Gnatcatchers and kinglets are invisible blurs. Blackbirds might be identifiable to family. Something red, if it dared to enter the fast lane, might be a Cardinal or maybe some kind of tanager. As for the hawks, a sitting bird may often be unidentifiable. A flying raptor might be a Red-tailed Hawk, some other species in the genus Buteo or perhaps a falcon. A quick check of the general shape and underwing pattern offered some hope for the person not driving. Gulls at 60 to 80 mph are usually hopeless. The really easy species are going to be the ones identifiable at fast speeds. The slower the speed, the more chances of seeing and identifying other birds. Perhaps there is a maxim here: The faster you go, the more easy birds you see. For easy birding, and birding that is easy on your safety, do slow down or better, stop.

Of course, no one has ever done this, but it is worth mentioning: Don’t drive while looking through your binocs. If you do, use your knees to steer. No, never drive with your knees or any other body part except your hands. Other driving techniques need not be discussed except to mention driving in the wrong lane, stopping unsafely and other stupid tricks. Those will get you arrested, and are discussed in How to Avoid Getting Arrested.

Cell phones may be useful in emergencies such as alerting a fellow birder that you just found an Eskimo Curlew. “Come quickly and bring a camera.” Otherwise, cell phones are annoying. People talk on them as if the person on the other end is hard of hearing, and phones blurting sounds that would embarrass Alexander Graham Bell are right up there with gas passing. Further, besides annoying people, the phones may frighten birds. Certainly some of the customized ring tones scare people, and just how many more times does one have to hear the introduction to Fur Elise. Soon Northern Mockingbirds will be singing Beethoven.

There are other noisemakers that are either be bothersome or may help birders. We are talking playing recordings of birds in order to lure them closer or at least call or sing in response to the recording. Some people don’t like the idea of playing bird recordings in the field. They complain that, during a search for a particular bird, they have been drawn to the recording and not found the bird. Others think that is a mean trick on the birds by disrupting their daily routine. What recordings of birds do for birders is provide evidence of presence, which helps us monitor populations. It also often brings birds closer to the recording, thus affording birders to identify species they might not otherwise see or hear.

The jury is out still out on the use of recording to lure birds, but at least people will discuss the pros and cons of playback. There is less discussion about other noises such as the roar of the jet that hauled a person to a birding site. These are not unspeakable issues. Knowledge of unspeakable issues, some of which are aired here, may help avoid unpleasant birding. At the very least, a birder may at least manipulate some unspeakable to avoid behavioral responses such as fight or flight. It is best to remain calm and be kind to others and to birds. Doing so promotes easy birding.

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