Friday, December 3, 2010

I Know Your Kind: A Short Story

Do birders ever get in fights? I mean, have you heard of a physical altercation between two fellow birders? I certainly haven't. Let's picture how it could happen. 

Meet Dave and Rick. They have never met, but have been brought together in order to see Humboldt County's own Brown Shrike, an ultra-rare bird which few have managed to lay eyes on. I would imagine it would go down something like this:

Sunset is coming to Clam Beach. The shadows are long, and the dunes and hollows are coated in a soft, golden light. After hours of tedious and agonizing searching, Rick spots the Brown Shrike in a small willow patch. Ecstatic, he calls over to Dave, a stranger, but a fellow birder nonetheless. Dave trundles over with spotting scope, camera, and various accessories. He is very excited. He doesn't even say anything to Rick, but Rick doesn't notice. His girlfriend, Jennifer, also a hardcore birder, should arrive at the site in a few minutes (she had to dash off to a restroom down the beach). Aside from his own unabashed joy at seeing this bird, it would be Jennifer's 700th ABA bird, a true milestone, and he knew that if she got lucky.....well, he would too. Our story starts as Dave, camera with massive lens in hand, scurries toward the shrike.....

"Whoa there buddy, don't get too close to that Brown Shrike, it's flighty", said a concerned Rick.

Dave pretends to not have heard Rick, and continues to lurk closer with a camera.

"Come on man, my girlfriend said she would be here in 5 minutes. We drove all the way from Baker to see it. Can you just wait a second?"

Dave looks over his shoulder and gives Rick a withering hate look. Unfazed, he continues on.

Rick is beginning to panic. "Hey, c'mon, you're being an asshole. You know how flighty this thing is. Will you just lay off for a minute?"

Dave continues creeping closer to the visibly restless shrike. He has tunnel vision now....nothing else in the world exists. Right now, there is only The Shrike. Then a twig breaks beneath Dave's foot.  The Bird launches itself high and away down the beach. By the time it was out of sight, it was still picking up altitude. It did not look like it would be back soon.

"Goddammit you son-of-a-bitch!", Rick explodes. "Don't pretend you didn't hear me. That would have been my girlfriend's 700th ABA Area bird! We have to go back to Baker tonight. What do you have to say for yourself?"

Dave, being a longtime birder, had very poorly developed social skills. He was scared, yet very angry at the same time, which is a recipe for disaster for people with this condition. He boldly walked right up to within a few inches of Rick's face.  In a mocking, childish tone, he twisted his face and said "Oooh that would have been my girlfriend's 700th bird! Well poor poor me! Listen you, you, you.....(his face now becoming deeply flushed and blotchy) JERK! It's a free country! This bird needs to be needs to be....properly documented!"

Rick couldn't believe what he was hearing. "Properly documented??? You asshole, you just want a picture! Wait a minute....Iv'e heard about're that guy who spooked the Black-tailed Gull aren't you? Right as all those poor birders were just parking their cars. Yeah, I know your kind. I'm going to write this up on every birding email list from NWCalbirds to Inlandcountybirds to.....CALBIRDS!!!!! You won't have a friend left in the state when I'm done with you, you little shit!" 

With that, Dave knew something had to be done. He hadn't been in a physical confrontation since he was 15 years old, when he was badly beat by a large group of kids....most of which were considerably younger. It had been very embarrassing. But his fight or flight instinct kicked in, and for the first time in his long, uneventful life.....he took a swing. A right hook that glanced off Rick's chin. It did little but hurt Dave's hand. However, it had the intended effect. Rick staggered backward and almost tripped in the sand, then found his footing. Rick, of average build but with a large beer belly, charged Dave, head down. They collapsed in a heap on the ground. Rick quickly rolled over to pin Dave, a small man of slight build, and began punching him in the face. He was also trying to bury Dave's head in the sand at the same time.

His hands still free, Dave clawed viciously at Rick. He thought he was fighting for his life now. He opened wounds on Dave's arms and protruding belly.

After a minute or so of this Jennifer rounded the side of the dune and was shocked at the scene that was playing out in front of her. This was the last thing she expected to see. The shock turned into stunned bewilderment when she recognized her beloved Rick pummeling the obviously smaller and weaker man. She ran over screaming and flailing, and managed to convince Rick to get off of Dave before it could get much worse.

Dave laid on the sand, dazed, looking up at the sky. "How did this happen?", he wondered. He felt no need to get up and leave....he simply didn't know what to do.

Jennifer dialed 9-1-1 on her cell phone and a Humboldt County Sheriff's Department cruiser arrived within a few minutes. An enraged and slightly-bloodied Rick, and a bitter, vengeful Jennifer (she had not seen the shrike, after all) decided to press charges, and Dave was off to jail. He got out quickly....but it would be a year before he got the courage to pick up his binoculars again.

For the duration of this madness, a Red-tailed Hawk had been high overhead, watching it all unfold. Turning in tight circles, it had a great view of the whole scene. Although it was high above the ground, the hawk had excellent eyesight...the distance made little difference.  It saw the shrike lift off. It saw Dave's face change colors. It saw Rick's head jolt backwards when it met Dave's fist. It saw the terrified, inhuman look on Dave's face as Rick stuffed fistfulls of sand into his mouth. It saw the wind blowing through Jennifer's hair as she ran toward the fray. The hawk did not fully understand what had happened, but it firmly decided that it thoroughly enjoyed all of it.

Satisfied, it flew south.

Once again, if you know about anything about this peculiar realm, we would love to hear about it. More data for The Human Birdwatcher Project, you know what I'm saying? Have a birdy weekend ya'll!


  1. well that was just marvelous. Well done. My favorite line was this: Dave, being a longtime birder, had very poorly developed social skills.

    So true, right? yes.

    Funny, funnily? I about had issue with someone over the Mountain Plover last year at Clam Beach. I bit my tongue, but had visions of making his head meet my knee and shoving fistfulls of sand down that dick's gullet. What? lovely then!

    (ps..i have no idea what that purple flower from Canyonlands is...and this makes me frustrated)

  2. Is this an excerpt from a forthcoming novella? I think you've got the material for a series on the trails and tribulations of twitchers. Brits vs Yanks, young vs old, male vs female, straight vs gay, married vs single, professional vs amateur, hard of seeing vs hard of hearing, etc. Go for it, mann.

    I've witnessed two kinds of birder disputes: professional ornithologists defending their personal theories of proximate and ultimate causes of migration, and the same arguing vehemently about the presence or absence of white outer tail coverts in a LBJ in SE Asia. The bird was seen for about .45 sec while flying into dense vegetation when the birders, in a slow moving train glimpsed it at the same time. They carried on in bitter dispute for the better part of an hour, and then refused to speak with each other the rest of the day.

    One time a British lady birder in her 70s shared a taxi to Bandipur Wildlife Sanctuary in S India -- she became so incensed at the blaring pop tunes that she almost attacked the driver. Under no circumstances would I disagree with her about a bird ID.

  3. Dude, excellent story.

    In Japan, as we all know, birdwatchers are freakin old, and have expensive camera and lens. whenever they have an argument, it is always about where to take a picture.

    Now, my country is more physical than in America of old ages. Remember they survive WWII and still alive. They tend to go old-man fist fight. And, we younger people enjoy to watch that! Although their fight is like a slow motion, it is easy for me to stop it. Just slap thier old head to tell them fuck -off. Easy solution.

  4. Brilliant! While I haven't seen two birders get into it quite like that I've seen situations that I hoped would escalate to that level. I very much identify with the Red-tail in your parable: "The hawk did not fully understand what had happened, but it firmly decided that it thoroughly enjoyed all of it."

  5. Thanks guys! Well it sounds like physical confrontations may be lacking (except in Japan), but it seems that a birder's urge to attack people is just as strong as most peoples. Fascinating!

  6. Man I have definitely wanted to stuff some sand in someone's mouth before.. Well. Not really related to birding, just a fact. Awesome post.

  7. I'm late to finding this, but I also have to say WELL DONE!