For the Birds Radio Program: Gambling

Original Air Date: Feb. 9, 2000 (estimated date) Rerun Dates: Aug. 13, 2015; Aug. 11, 2014; Aug. 22, 2013; Nov. 10, 2008; Feb. 4, 2004

Chasing down rare birds is a form of gambling.

Duration: 3′50″


Every time I talk to someone who visits Las Vegas, or see one of those Powerball commercials on TV, I wonder what it is about gambling that attracts so many people. The chance of winning seems so remote compared to the probability of losing, and the process of gambling doesn’t seem enjoyable enough to be worth the costs. Every now and then we get a family game of poker going with our kids and my in-laws. We’re only playing for chips, and I have a lot of fun. If we were playing for small amounts of money, say a penny a chip, that wouldn’t be as fun for me, probably because my income is so small that risking even a few dollars seems like a lot to me. I’m simply not a risk-taker or a gambler, at least not when it comes to money. When it comes to birds, I’m actually a big-time gambler.

Any time I hear on the internet chat or the telephone hotline about an interesting bird that I need for one of my lists, I try to chase it down. Over the years, I’ve driven all the way across Minnesota to East Grand Forks to see a Brambling, down to La Crosse, Wisconsin, to see a Green Violetear, to Gordon, Wisconsin, to see a Painted Bunting, over to Bemidji to see a Rock Wren, to Shakopee to see a Tufted Duck, to Faribault to see a Swallow-tailed Kite, to Minneapolis to see a Calliope Hummingbird, and up to Grand Marais on various occasions to see rarities from Anna’s Hummingbird to Fork-tailed Flycatcher.

Usually when I make long trips out of state, I am going for the full birding experience, without planning specifically for one or two birds, but I once made a trip to Colorado for no other reason than to see Sage Grouse and Lesser Prairie-Chickens, neither of which was guaranteed. In chasing these rarities, I’ve spent a lot of money for gas, fast food, and sometimes even lodging, and an enormous quantity of time. I’ve had better odds of seeing my target bird than I would of winning the lottery, but since birds can take off whenever they feel like it, and because rare birds are already off-course and likely to move on fairly soon, every time I’ve made a trip to find a rare bird, I’ve been gambling. Many times it’s paid off, but there have been several long trip s to see a bird that wasn’t there. One time I dragged Katie and Tommy all the way to Grand Marais to see a King Eider that had disappeared just five or ten minutes before we arrived, never to be seen again. And the time we made a special overnight stop on a trip east to search for Kirtland’s Warblers, all my kids saw was a tiny shape flitting across a path, and my husband Russ never saw even that.

Why do birders like me fritter away so much time and money chasing down birds? Maybe it’s our own personal gambling addiction. In birding, I’ve chosen the kind of gambling that is enjoyable for me, win or lose. Whether I see the particular species I was looking for, I’m outside, visiting new places, meeting interesting people, and enjoying at least some interesting birds. Come to think of it, maybe chasing down birds isn’t such a gamble after all.