“Two things were crucial in the evolution of the field guide. First was the recognition of the importance of naming things. The second was the fact that Peterson chose birds to start with.”
-Robert Bateman in the forward to the 5th edition of Roger Tory Peterson’s field guide to Birds of Eastern and Central North America
The act of identification is key in regards to advancing science and analyzing the status of populations of various species. However, the act of identification goes beyond the quantitative in many respects. Just ask any birder.
Many see birders as obsessives who get wrapped up in the act of ticking the names of birds off a list. But truthfully, birders are interacting with the natural world in a unique way. Taking time to study both the sight and sound of each bird. Steadying their breath and their movement in order to take in the natural world as it is. Finding joy in a chance appearance, a hoped for coincidence of a human meeting another piece of creation. These qualities are rare in our modern society. We’ve lost our closeness to nature and forgotten the simple joys of taking the time to notice.
Following the quote above, Bateman goes on to describe how humans have drifted from our nearness to nature. Modern society allows us to spend nearly our entire lives separate from the natural world. We sleep in homes carefully sealed from drafts and insects. We walk from our front door to our temperature-controlled cars. We commute on concrete roads and work indoor jobs, illuminated by artificial light. Bateman claims that “The average person knows only 10 wild plants but can recognize 1,000 corporate logos.”
It’s no wonder we have an enormous disconnect in our world with regards to conservation. We live lives separate from our evolutionary counterparts (e.g. plants, animals, insects, fish, etc.). Likewise we have isolated ourselves from the environments that were once a source of prosperity for our ancestors.
It is easy to make points concerning the importance of identification in relation to advancing science and data-driven conservation. But the ability to identify goes beyond what we can count. The ability to identify can make things personal and make nature come alive.
When I was in the fourth grade, our teacher assigned a science project requiring students to draw different types of birds and compare their similarities and differences. I chose to draw 4 birds–a Cardinal, a Blue Jay, a Robin, and a Downy Woodpecker. At the time, I thought little of it. I wasn’t concerned with the birds or the science. I was interested in the task of drawing. I wanted to impress my teacher with my artistic abilities and to illustrate each bird with striking detail. I carefully chose the right colors and drew the beaks in proportion to each bird’s body. My favorite was the Downy Woodpecker. I loved the color of its plumage and its unique ability to peck straight into a tree.
I do not remember if I got an ‘A’ on the assignment or whether or not my artistic ability was acknowledged, but I do remember those birds. I kept those birds, the details of their feathers and their beaks, and I kept their names. Throughout my adolescence I would call out the names of those birds to my friends and family. I was a naturalist on the smallest scale and it was empowering. Simply knowing the names of those four birds was enough to make me feel a connection to a world beyond myself.
Years later I would be gifted a Peterson Field Guide to North American Birds. In fact, it is the same book that is quoted above. At age ten, I identified 4 common birds of Eastern North America and 12 years later I was provided a tool to identify many more. This is the point where my unfound passion in birding took root.
It is a simple thing–to identify. But when applied to nature, one easily becomes more cognizant of nature and his or her place within that world. For me, I knew only 4 birds at first, but that was all it took in order for me to make a connection.