For the Birds Radio Program: Why Birdwatch? Charlton Ogburn Explains

Original Air Date: Nov. 12, 1986 Rerun Dates: Jan. 26, 1989

Laura reads Charlton Ogburn’s words about why humans are so fascinated with birds. 3:49 Date confirmed.

Audio missing


Why Birdwatch?

(Recording of a Rufous-sided Towhee).

Why do some people become so involved with birding? Charlton Ogburn, a naturalist and a government worker in the State Department, tried to explain:

To begin with, there is something stirring in the very idea of birds, of the freedom that mastery of the air allows, of the exalted perspective that flight affords of the mountain-wrinkled, river-ribboned earth, of the vast distances birds travel. In the mere contemplation of such beings is to be found a vicarious release from the limitations to which mortal man is sentenced.

What makes the appeal of birds immediate and real to us for the first time, however, is likely to be an encounter with a particular bird. By chance or because someone points it out to us, our attention is drawn to a towhee–let us say–in the sense that we really see it. There it is, with its tidy, contracting pattern of black, white, and chestnut. There it is, self-contained and complete in its own universe. All at once it strikes home with us. This is not an abstraction in a painting or a zoo, a trivial background figure for man’s activities. In all its individuality and perfection, it was produced without any particular intention that mankind should ever even see it. Its intense dedication to towhee-ism, with which its red eyes are bright, would remain unruffled by the subtraction from the scheme of things of the entire human race. And it is one of myriads of equally individual and perfect species that populate the forests and the seas.

There is suddenly disclosed to us the whole tide of life, limitless in its scope, scrupulous in its attention to the tiniest detail, that lies beyond our smoke-hung cities, beyond the expressionless facades of masonry, glass, and steel with which we have surrounded ourselves, and– more than that–beyond our rationalistic reckoning of things. For what, in the materialistic concepts our age entertains, can explain why there should be this jewel of a towhee?

I like to think that the appeal of birds lies in their incomparably vivid representation of life. It is as if the essential principle had been isolated in these creatures to display its attributes most pointedly and most movingly. Consider the cedar waxwing’s refinement of sculpture and creamy-consistency of hue. Could a conscious artistic inspiration have wrought with greater sureness? Picture the fire in a Blackburnian warbler’s throat, the cascades of gold and silver in the hackles of the pheasants, the torpedo-purpose in the forms of the diving birds, the heraldic grandeur of the condor, the reckless lines of the frigate-birds, the war mask of the harpy eagle. What an incomparable display is this! Motionless as the trogon watching from its branch, violent as the jaegers in the chase, birds seem always to manifest a matchless vitality of purpose. It encompasses the rocket-energy of the swifts, the exuberant, assertive vivacity of the jays, and the concentrated virility of the hawk, glaring unmoving and unmoved out of the the solitude of his soul… In the cathedral-singing of the thrush (is) an intimation of a transcendant purpose in the universe.

(Recording of a Hermit Thrush).

That was Charlton Ogburn, this is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”