I meant to blog on this post of Nate’s a while ago, but I got distracted with all the crazy birding adventures and so forth. Still, better late than never.
150 years after we got the origin set out for us, the species concept remains nebulous, wispy around the edges. The endless lumping and splitting, along with oddball hybrid birds popping up to frustrate local committees, have given us ample notice that birding as we know it and the world as we find it don’t always map perfectly to each other. Still, like many scientific concepts with a wispy edge, the species idea remains robust in the center, and it’s hard to see how even the most holistic birding could dispense with it entirely.
But if we get to a place where many species of bird cannot be reliably identified in the field using our current tools, what then?
The Technocratic Paradise (Arthur C. Clarke goes birding): Nanotechnology creates iPhones powerful enough to perform the work of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Super-focused microphones let us tune birds in and analyze their flight calls on the spot. No matter how far this goes, however, it’s difficult to see how it could apply to species distinguished only by the quirks of their DNA – to analyze that, you need physical specimens, and there’s no way that birding could return to a collector’s ethos under our present circumstances. Still, technology being what it is and the market for birding gadgets being what it is, I expect we will see big leaps forward to help with the audio side of the problem.
The Dystopia (George Orwell goes birding): The new, subtle species distinctions forever slay the citizen-scientist and sunder the expert from the hobbyist. The former stretch limited grant money to cover only the most urgent or trendy species while the latter are reduced in significance to something between a trout fisherman and a stamp collector. Frankly, certain big listers won’t have far to fall in this scenario; and there would still work to be done for citizen scientists doing things like observing life cycles, habitat preferences, etc. for the birds that can be identified. It need not be Birding Apocalypse Now. Still, losing the connection between the scientist and the hobbyist would mean losing the thrill of the chase as a tool for drawing people into ornithology, and that would be a damn shame.
The Totally Unforeseen (Philip K Dick goes birding): Just because it’s hard to see doesn’t mean it won’t happen. Birding becomes about displaying great technical skill in observing every facet of a single individual bird, in a single instant, and recording it totally in every aesthetic dimension using technology yet unknown…. or birding becomes about tagging a bird once, with minimum intrusion, and then following the rest of its lifecycle with tiny cameras and GPS, every bird a bird cam… or hell, birding becomes about taking psychoactive drugs developed by the CIA and communicating with birds telepathically and reporting back on what they tell us. I mean, this is the future we’re talking about here.