The manly sport of bird watching

By

IT'S an old joke: ``Where does a 500-pound canary sit?'' ``Anywhere it wants to.''

Perhaps if there were quarter-ton tweety birds lurking in the fields and forests, bird watching -- or ``birding'' as it is now called -- would be a more accepted in America as a ``manly'' pursuit. As matters stand, however, we male followers of the feathered legions labor under a stereotype only slightly more favorable than cartoon images of a nattily dressed English gentleman flitting and twirling about with butterfly nets.

Like millions of American bird enthusiasts, I tend to keep a low profile. I stay off main roads when packing binoculars and I make sure not to leave the spotting scope atop its tripod in front of the bay window. I want to put off as long as possible having to explain that I am a birder.

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Still, I know the day will come. Excitedly tracing a rose-breasted grosbeak from tree to tree, crouching and standing on tiptoes, craning my neck for the best line of sight, I will make quite a spectacle.

Then I will hear it: the sound of my neighbor not raking leaves.

At a time when men cry unashamedly (I'm told), get asked out by women, and even wear funny-colored fashion underwear, why is it that the noble pastime of birding is still saddled with such an undated image?

Why must we sneak around our own yards? What can be done about this situation?

Marketing -- good old, all-American salesmanship -- is what's needed. This became clear when I spied Roger Tory Peterson, the most famous person in all of ``birddom'' and a distant neighbor of mine, walking into the local supermarket. Not a soul so much as glanced in his direction. The man who popularized bird watching in 1934 with his ``Field Guide to the Birds'' is not even recognized in his hometown.

It is as if Dwight Gooden could stroll through Central Park in New York without anyone's staring, saying ``hi,'' or asking for an autograph.

Let's set one thing straight: Birding can be a sport, a darned competitive one. It has superstars just like baseball or basketball. Peterson could rack up more species lying flat on his back in a tent than I could thrashing through a square mile of underbrush.

Sports reporters make a big fuss over Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who is 38, and Pete Rose, 44, leading their respective teams to victory. Well, I'd have a better shot at out-rebounding Abdul-Jabbar than I would out-birding Mr. Peterson, who is 76 years young.

In fact, this Babe Ruth of avian identification accomplished a feat this May that compares favorably with grueling events like the marathon or a triathlon. Peterson and a squad of birders, racing around Texas in vans, marsh buggies, a plane, and on foot, set a new North American record of spotting 244 species in a 24-hour period.

Now that's what I call ``macho birding.'' Put that spectacular play on prime-time television, get Phil Rizzuto to call the play-by-play (or bird-by-bird: ``Holy cow, it's a king rail . . .'') and I and my fellow enthusiasts would be able to bird-watch on Main Street during rush hour. My neighbor might even ask, ``Say, Dave, was that a wagtail I saw you eyeing the other day?''

``Nope, it was a bufflehead.''

``Jeepers, Dave, you sure know your birds.''

David Holahan is a free-lance writer.

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