For the Birds Radio Program: High Tech Birding

Original Air Date: May 9, 2002 (estimated date)

Birds are utterly low tech creatures, but Laura finds herself more and more dependent on computers to watch them.

Duration: 4′52″


I used to think I was a pretty low-tech kind of person. After all, I spend my life along the bike path of life, driving slow, never making much progress financially, not ambitious enough to compete in a normal career track. I used to think the only material things I needed to be happy were a pair of binoculars and a good field guide. And, of course, a good-old low-tech field notebook to write my sightings in.

I learned how to use a word processor when I was asked to write some articles about birds for the Wisconsin State Journal while I lived in Madison in the late 70s. I always wrote and edited the original drafts on paper and then typed my pieces into their computer. But when they asked me to write classical concert reviews, I simply didn’t have time for paper–after the concert I had to race to the newspaper and compose my review on the spot to make it into the morning paper.

Eventually composing on the computer became second nature. And when I was finishing up with my eleventh or twelfth field notebook, I found a computer program called AviSys that could keep track of all my bird data. After a trip, all I had to do is type in the date, place, and weather conditions of a trip, and click off the birds rd seen, and my computer could keep all the information straight for me.

After I discovered AviSys I had two uses for computers–writing and bird record-keeping. That seemed like plenty. But then one day in 1999 at KUMD I watched Stephanie Hemphill do some sound editing on her computer. In a second or two she was effortlessly highlighting and deleting sections that would have taken me several painstaking minutes each to splice out on tape. And editing on the computer made the cuts so much cleaner–if she deleted something at the wrong point, she could press undo and there it was, back again. It occurred to me that on a computer it would be wonderfully easy to mix in the bird songs, too. There was a great, inexpensive program for sound editing called Cool Edit available for downloading, so of course I bought it. And then I got a CD burner. I was still going into KUMD to record my voice, and transferring the recording to a DAT or minidisk to bring it home to edit and mix in the bird calls until I bought my own minidisk player and started doing the original recording at home, too.

This seemed like plenty of technology for anyone, until I found out that AviSys now makes an add-on interface for a Palm Pilot. I found this out during the week that I was entering mountains of data from my Costa Rica trip into my computer. If I’d had the Palm system, I could have entered my birds into the hand-held computer right as I saw them in Costa Rica, and after the trip in less than a minute could have entered all that information that was taking me hours and hours to do now. So I saved up enough money and bought a system, and suddenly find myself whipping out my Palm Pilot at the drop of a chickadee.

It’s scary to be so dependent on a computer. My hard drive broke a week ago, and it contained every one of the digital photographs I’d taken in Costa Rica and all my pictures of Florida Scrub Jays I’d taken in February. I was planning to make an album of those photos, using PowerPoint so I could make it look really cool, but hadn’t gotten around to it yet, and hadn’t gotten around to backing up all those files. As I write this, I’m still waiting to hear whether technicians will be able to retrieve the data. I automatically back up all my AviSys data every time, thanks to the program’s gentle reminder whenever I exit, and from now on I’ll certainly start backing up all my photo data, too. But slides and prints can be lost or destroyed, too, and the fault was mine for not backing up my stuff. High technology somehow doesn’t seem in keeping with birds and nature, but except in a few situations, it sure does make this birdwatcher’s life simpler and easier.