Birding and science fiction.

by Mike at Two-Fisted Birdwatcher on October 27, 2011

What does birding have to do with science fiction? Two things: Not much. And a lot. Sounds like a contradiction. Good old  birding has not much to do with science fiction because it’s about getting down to earth in the buggy, overgrown, muddy wilderness. It’s about sometimes seeing bears and liking it. It’s about seeing birds, and knowing their names.

It’s often about going places alone, getting lost, getting scratched by thorns, facing down a weirdo in the woods who’s cradling a shotgun and looking at you while sucking on the only tooth in his mouth. It’s about spending some time like you’re living on the frontier.

You could say this has not much to do with time travel, UFOs, lost-world dinosaurs and leaps of imagination. But wait a second. Did we just say time travel?

You could also say that birding has a lot to do with science fiction. Birding is time travel. This rugged sport is also about dinosaurs, unidentified flying objects and imagination. Go for a walk in a suburban forest. Once you’re in the woods, it’s not 2011 any more. You could be in a time machine. On days when no jet contrails are ruining the sky, it could be the 1800s, the 1600s, hell, it could be twenty thousand years ago. The place belongs to trees, bugs, animals and birds. Walk the game trails. As long as you avoid human hikers, you’re living apart from time as we know it. It’s just “place.” And “time” is taking the day off. If that sounds like science fiction, cool. (And if your I-phone buzzes, hey, pure sci-fi).

Now: dinosaurs. Without going into hard science, there’s recent credible information, including a story in National Geographic, showing that birds didn’t descend from dinosaurs; they are dinosaurs. Look into the eyes of a Great Blue Heron if you can get close. Millions of years of saurian self-confidence will stare back at you. Check the scaly claws, the bone structure. Birds equal dinosaurs. Dinosaurs: a classic sci-fi subject.

Next: “Unidentified flying objects.” Do we really have to say more?

The final point: imagination. When you walk in the woods, your two fists wrapped around grubby binoculars, you think of things. Your mind takes off. You’re not always spotting birds. You dream up stories. Sometimes, they’re science fiction stories. Example: “The Ferruginous Hawk.” This short tale came from the imagination of a guy walking in a birdless woods on a birdless day. Is it sci-fi?

Sometimes science fiction fans are believed to be a little nerdy. An unfair image problem. Generally, they’re bright and interesting. The public imagination has also thought of birders as being a little nerdy, too. Screw the public imagination. Two-fisted birdwatching is here to zap that image into the twenty-fourth dimension.

Birders are going to go into the wild places tomorrow, and these places will be time machines. There will be dinosaurs and flying objects. We’ll identify some of these birds, but others will remain UFOs. And, as we go where no one has gone before, we’ll know that our down-to-earth style of birdwatching has not much in common with sci-fi stories…and also a lot in common with them. That sounds like a paradox. Well, all the best time travel adventures are paradoxes.

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A somewhat different version of this essay appeared on Two-Fisted Birdwatcher. 

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