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Scott Weidensaul  (photo: Amiran White)
Scott Weidensaul (photo: Amiran White)

A life and career of watching birds

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Ornithology, the study of birds, is entering a new "golden age" with tens of millions of participants, according to award-winning nature writer and bird expert Scott Weidensaul.

He's the featured speaker at the 9th Annual Great Adirondack Birding Celebration at the Paul Smiths College VIC on Saturday night. Weidensaul lives in Pennsylvania and has written more than two dozen books on natural history.

Todd Moe spoke with him about about how bird watching grew out of a "gentlemen's hobby" in the 18th century to become a professional and popular pastime.

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Todd Moe
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“We are no longer those weird eccentric people running around in pith helmets and tennis shoes. We are completely mainstream today,” Weidensaul said.

At the end of the nineteenth century bird study transformed from the study of dead birds to the study of live birds. The first ornithologists shot the birds they wished to study.  

“They had no choice; there were no optics,” Weidensaul said. “They didn’t have binoculars, or spotting scopes or cameras. They didn’t have field guides, and in fact they didn’t even know what species of birds were out there.”

Weidensaul said there was initial tension between ornithologists and bird watchers. He said one of the presidents of the American Ornithological Union was asked to speak to the newly founded Audubon Society and responded, “Madam, I do not protect birds, I shoot them.”

Weidensaul said he thinks ornithology and birding are in some ways co-dependent. Birders’ field guides, for example, are organized by the taxonomic presumptions of relationships of birds, an ornithological pursuit.

Weidensaul said the birders of today are similar to the original ornithologist because “they were just really committed, really obsessive amateurs.”

“We are poised to enter a new golden age of birding that unites this sense of research and curiosity with the enthusiasm of tens of millions of extraordinarily competent amateur birders,” Weidensaul said.

Birding has become a competitive sport for many people, Weidensaul said. Birders today compete to see the most birds or spot the first migrant, pursuits that Weidensaul said are fairly shallow and superficial. “They can use those skills and techniques that they’ve honed in birding to learn more about birds,” Weidensaul said.

“Many species of birds, guilds of birds, are in trouble today because of habitat depletion, degradation and fragmentation, climate change, and so many human caused changes to the landscape that are making it more difficult for birds,” Weidensaul said. “We as birders and conservationists have a responsibility to use our talents in the service of the birds that give us so much joy.”

Weidensaul grew up in Eastern PA at the bottom of a mountain and said his parents allowed him free reign to explore. “It gave me a chance to dig myself into nature in a huge way,” he said.

Weidensaul is the author of two-dozen natural history books. His most recent publication Of a Feather: A Brief History of American Birding traces 400 years of ornithological history and is the topic of his talk at the Paul Smith’s College VIC on Saturday at 7 p.m..

His newest book, The First Frontier: The Forgotten History of Struggle, Savagery, and Endurance in Early America will be published next Februrary. His writing has appeared in publications ranging from the Audubon Society to New York Times.

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