I used to think I was a birder. I took an ornithology class in college, kept a life list, and memorized Latin names. Then on a camping trip one year at Torreya State Park in northern Florida, I was laying in the pop-up reading when I heard the most delightful bird song. It was a male cardinal in the tree right outside the camper. I put down my Kindle and just sat- watching, listening, and smiling. This was birding.
I never got ‘good’ at it. In fact, I am convinced that ignorance is bliss as far as birding is concerned.
Bird like a complete novice, with a beginner’s mind, as the Buddhists would say. Simply experience the individual in front of you, separate from all previously held knowledge and everything else you long to learn. Why does naming so often mean knowing anyway? Is being able to correctly identify 800 species really better than having intimately known a handful? I think not. Instead of just checking off boxes, yearn to forge a deeper connection with a fellow being. Be a perpetually amateur birder. You can still keep lists. I have mine, however poorly maintained, to this day. Listing can act as the bridge to coexisting. Use them as reminders that you still get to share your world with new beings.
In this spirit, I recently led a Mindful Naturalists program called Birding Like Buddha. Our goal for the evening was to maximize the length of our encounters with other beings so we could prioritize the meaning we made from those encounters.
Our challenges were to:
- Abandon the urge to go-go-go, to see more birds.
- Question our biases suggesting that one bird is ‘better’ than another because it is more ‘attractive’ or less commonly seen.
- Acknowledge and then let go of species names and identifying features, in the same way that we acknowledge and then let go of our thoughts in traditional meditation.
Here is the guide I provided participants (of course, these same tips apply to mindful wildlife observation in general and are not only applicable to birding!):
So now, may you go out into the world and have an encounter like Mary Oliver and the dipper’s. Observe an individual bird. Wonder what it thinks and feels and how it experiences life. Feel gratitude for connecting with another being in a meaningful way. Catch everything you can about this fellow creature.
And may you be so present, that half a century from now, when most birds living today are bones comfortably crumbled, the memory of that single bird still gives you joy.
Then practice non-attachment as it floats, flies, dives, or waddles away.
Bird like Buddha.