I started birding one summer in college, after I picked up a copy of the Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America. During that three-month break from studying biology, I wanted to connect with nature outside the classroom, to be a real naturalist. So I kept my eyes pressed up against my binoculars all day. I spent nights poring over the field guide. I kept with the hobby. Over the years, birding has helped me feel more connection with the world, and more joy in everyday encounters. It helped me become the kind of person I admired.
Last year, as people searched for something safe and outdoors to do, my hobby went mainstream, entering into the pandemic zeitgeist. “You can do it anywhere,” the New York Times told readers. “Wake up early,” exhorted the Washington Post. These stories apparently worked, as Audubon reported a jump in sales of feeders and seed. The youth even found ways to justify an activity that is typically associated with aging boomers—Vox called it “Pokémon Go, but for nature.”
The case for birding during the pandemic is easy to make. But as everyone else picked up their binoculars, I stopped birding. I can’t exactly explain why—in between working and taking graduate-level classes in science journalism, I had some free time, but I mostly spent it watching Seinfeld. I simply lost the motivation to zip up my cargo vest and head out to look for wrens and warblers.
To be quite blunt—I have not been birding in the past 18 months. I wanted to figure out what happened, and to find a way to fall in love again.
I thought maybe understanding why humans enjoy nature in the first place could help. So I picked up the phone. Psychologists offered me a few theories about the appeal of plants and wildlife. One is the “biophilia hypothesis,” or the idea that we’re “genetically preprogrammed to pay attention to elements of nature,” says Susan Clayton, a psychologist at the College of Wooster. And we appreciate animals specifically as “emissaries from another world,” she says.
Nature is also full of fractal patterns and movements—endlessly repeating shapes and patterns of varying sizes—which our brains might process more easily than the hard edges and straight lines of the city, says Marc Berman, a psychologist at the University of Chicago. Things like trees swaying in the wind or a fish bobbing around a tank can be very pleasant to watch, perhaps due to the fractal nature of those movements and shapes, he says. Birds can exhibit fractals, too, in their feathers, as red-legged partridges do, and in their flight patterns, as is the case for foraging albatrosses.
In general, nature may stimulate our “involuntary attention,” Berman says, which means that when we look at a field or a flock, we are free to take it all in without thinking too much about what we’re looking at. Stimulating our involuntary attention, including through nature, might recharge our supply of “directed attention,” he adds, which is what we use while listening to a lecture or working on a computer, for example. Doing something like going on a walk in the middle of the workday to gaze at birds can help you feel more focused when you get back to your desk. And unlike directed attention, you probably can’t run out of involuntary attention, Berman says.
“You don’t often hear people say, ‘Oh, I can’t stand looking at that beautiful painting anymore. It’s just too interesting,’ ” Berman says.
In those magical early days, I couldn’t look away from that beautiful painting either, so to speak. I’d spot a bird, yellow on its front, black around the eyes, small, jumpy, and flip through the pages to find a match: common yellowthroat! I’d look at the bird, whose name I now knew, and marvel that it had always been right in front of me—common yellowthroats live in grasslands and forests across North America—and I’d never known it.
But after a while, seeing a common yellowthroat started to feel a little mundane. They are, as the name implies, quite common! I craved that initial feeling of a new species, that shock of wonder—it’s infectious. So, as I started to run out of new species to see around my neighborhood, my birding became less leisurely backyard pastime and more thrill-seeking adventure sport.
I spent my spring break senior year of college birding myself into a tizzy driving around southern Florida to see painted buntings, Florida scrub jays, and anhingas. I drove across the country after school and birded in the swamps of Louisiana, the grasslands of Texas, and the mountains of Southern Arizona. In the years after graduation, I traveled for my job in wildlife conservation, flying out to the Peruvian Amazon or Ghanaian highlands. I’d always buy the requisite field guides and make sure to pack my binoculars. I racked up species after species on my life list, riding the wave of mystery as I clambered up mountains and through jungles to spot another avian delight.
And then lockdown hit. My birding options became limited to the parks near my home in D.C. Without the promise of a toucan or a biblical torrent of shorebirds, what was the rush to go see some sparrows I’d seen a thousand times before?
Involuntary attention may be inexhaustible—that is, you can look at gorgeous bird after gorgeous bird. But to actually stimulate that involuntary attention, our nature experiences can’t be boring either, Berman says. And different people are bored or stimulated by different levels of activity, he adds. When you see Monet’s Water Lilies for the first time, you could probably stare at the painting all day. But seeing it for the hundredth time? You might not even give it a second glance—especially if you’ve decided that looking at paintings is now about seeing as many different ones as possible.
Now, I’ve seen my fair share of birds. But I’m not even close to the world’s most experienced birder. And if this kind of apathy could plague me, I wondered what might happen to a real birding superstar.
In 2015, Noah Strycker traversed the planet, from Antarctica to Uganda, spotting 6,042 bird species—more than half the bird species on Earth. He’s also the author of multiple bird books, and he leads birding tours.
But being a committed birder is about more than flying off to far places to see technicolor sunbirds and hordes of penguins. Strycker tells me that he birds anywhere he finds himself, whether it’s the Subantarctic Islands or a backyard in Oregon—it grounds him. “There’s the trying to find new birds and lifers and go on adventures, and there’s the studying bird behavior and watching, you know, one bird for a long time and trying to learn about it, and then everything in between,” he says. “And I really like both aspects of birding.”
I used to be like that too, before the drive to add new birds to my list overtook everything else—letting the hours pass, ignoring my emails, and watching the sandpipers forage in the mud or the ducks toss in the choppy Atlantic Ocean. It was … transcendent.
Maybe the issue is I don’t feel the way about birds that I used to, I thought. Maybe I haven’t in a long time.
I tried abandoning my computer for a bit to take a walk in the woods. It’s not procrastination, I told myself, it’s stimulating my involuntary attention.
Along my route, a mob of Canada geese had congregated by the lake and hissed at me. A sharp-shinned hawk swooped from one branch to another and stared me down. In a gully, I walked past five American robins splashing together in a creek. I’ve seen all these birds before, and I’ve been hissed at, swooped past, and treated to the sight of a bird pool party before. But in each of these moments, I noticed a vestigial flutter, a hint of a familiar joy I could nurture back to life.