For the Birds Radio Program: Geek Prom

Original Air Date: April 14, 2004

The Miss Manners of Birding has a few gentle suggestions for proper deportment at social gatherings, and extends an invitation.

Duration: 4′48″


Geek Prom

One of the myths that birders have been trying to dispel for generations is that we’re a bunch of Miss Jane Hathaway-type geeks.

Most birders bristle at the very term “geek.” I suppose I can understand, considering that the American Heritage Dictionary defines a geek as “A person who is single-minded or accomplished in scientific or technical pursuits but is felt to be socially inept.” Birders are certainly single-minded, and often quite accomplished in our pursuits, but that hardly means we’re “socially inept.” Of course, we may not consider the social graces when we spot a Peregrine Falcon cruising by overhead, just because we happen to be seated in a fancy restaurant overlooking Lake Michigan on Chicago’s north shore. In that situation, how could anyone help but jump to our feet, grab those binoculars discreetly carried in our handbag, and gaze intently out the window? Other diners may stare at us, but Miss Manners chides people a lot for rudely staring at strangers, and writes virtually nothing about the proper way to look at a good bird while dining, so I’d submit that it’s the staring diners who are behaving in a socially inept way, and besides that, they’re missing the bird.

When watching a movie at a theater, a birder may quietly announce, right at the movie’s dramatic climax, that a Savannah Sparrow is singing in the background. And how could that birder possibly keep from pointing out that the habitat is all wrong for that species? Occasionally the theater-goer sitting behind may kick our seat hard and go “shhhh!,” but he’s probably repositioning himself for comfort, and making a shushing sound because he’s gasping with surprise or excitement at the movie or the sparrow. If our own date or spouse elbows us for identifying a bird during a movie, the graceful way to deal with it is to suggest taking an anger management class.

How could it possibly be considered geeky when a birder goes on a family vacation and drags her husband and children to a sewage pond to take a quick look at shorebirds? The lovely view of a pair of three spinning phalaropes would certainly offset the inconvenience and the odor for anyone. Of course, it isn’t good manners when riding in the passenger seat to insist that the driver stop and back up a little so you can identify that bird on the power line, at least not more than once every six or seven miles.

Wearing a tasteful pair of black binoculars could hardly be considered a faux pas at a cemetery gathering following a funeral, though some birders might be surprised to learn that it really is inappropriate to start pishing in warblers during the eulogy. At outdoor weddings, most birders realize that it’s a little gauche to get tangled in the shrubbery searching for a cardinal nest, at least before making an appearance in the receiving line. If the bride is a birder, she’s expected to make eye contact with people in the receiving line even if it is a good hawk migration day, though all but the most self-absorbed guests would excuse her for cutting out if a Mississippi Kite flew over. If a bride gets a call from the hotline about a rare bird showing up a hundred miles away that day, she is only allowed to skip out on the reception and first night of her honeymoon if the bird is a lifer, or at least new for her state, county, or year list or, in some cases, her Wedding and Anniversary list.

Following guidelines such as these, any birder can transcend geekiness. But for those of us who are still socially inept, misery loves company. This Saturday, the Geek Prom at the Great Lakes Aquarium will allow all us geeks to gather together in a celebration of our social ineptitude. Whether you happen to be an ornithological geek, a computer geek, a Mesopotamian history geek, a Shakespearean geek, or any other kind of geek, come join in the fun. You can find out all about the event at