Birds Are Inspirational - AFA 2006 Convention Keynote Address


Given that the theme of the AFA Convention 2006 is IDhe beauty of birdsp I decided to make this keynote address about the inspirational effects that birds have on us humans, because it is indeed their beauty which inspires us. Exactly what constitutes the beauty of birds, and in which ways we are inspired, are points for substantial discussion. But I can state at the outset that birds transmit something which unites us m brings us together and labels us as oird-loversDI might want to be recognised as a professional ornithologist, but as sure as eggs are eggs, I do want to be known as a lover of birds. And so, we are united by an enchantment with birds, and in this sense we have a collective experience. But of course, it is also a personal experience. Each one of us has his or her life's journey with birds, and I ask your indulgence to include in this presentation some parts of my journey with these feathered friends.

Apart from a rash of distractions in my teens, I cannot ever remember being without an interest in birds. They always caught my eye rn always wanted to track down the hidden bird making the sound in the nearby bush. But there are certain events which left an indelible impression on my mind, especially one from an early age. The delightful House Martin (Delichon urbica) is the ecological equivalent in the Old World of the New World Cliff Swallow (Hirundo pyrrhonota). When I was six, I found a young House Martin resting on the sidewalk, which did not attempt to fly away at my approach. It had probably flown from the nest a tad early, but no doubt would soon have taken flight again. Of course, I did not know that, but fully expected to be able to help it if I could get it back to my nearby house. Running home, I was fascinated by the sporadic appearance from between the feathers of scuttling parasites called louse flies. I lacked the squeamishness about them that I developed in later life when I was studying several species of swallows.

Rushing excitedly into the house, there was my mother at the kitchen sink with my two-year old sister clinging to her apron. I opened my hand to let the bird fly, seeing at the same time my mother shaking her head against it but, too late, the bird fluttered down to the kitchen floor and my sister, with nothing more than a reflex action, saw the movement, stepped out, and in that instant the bird's life was gone. This itself was a crashing blow, but it was nothing compared to the silent and tearful rage of my mother, who intensely mourned the careless loss of one of God's beautiful creatures. Despite the many more young birds that I found in my childhood, I was never again so careless. Moreover, that painful event triggered something inside - it made me more aware of the beauty of birds and the fragility of life. The experiences I have had with birds ever since have been overwhelmingly uplifting. For me, birds are always therejjlike a second shadow, and they accompany my life because of their beauty. And each of us bird-lovers in all likelihood shares the same sentiment.

At this point we verge on the age-old questions of what people find inspiring and why. I think it wise to side-step entering into such extensive and philosophical territory in the space of this presentation. However, there are two aspects worth mentioning. The first is that while we bird-lovers find birds inspirational, we know that a whole lot of people out there in the big wide world do not feel what we feel []hey do not perceive birds in the same way []hey do not carry birds as a second shadow. That's not to say that they are totally impervious to the presence of birds in their surroundings: in their daily lives people have always noticed, and hopefully will continue to notice birds. But it is true to say that the level of consciousness that people have of birds is a gradation, from those folks who notice them a lot, to those who would virtually need a bird to fly into their face to notice it. We should be concerned about the people for whom birds are virtually invisible, and this is something to which I will return at the end of the presentation.

Let's turn this discussion on its head and explore the other aspect. Where does that imperceptible barrier lie between a person who is easily conscious of birds in his or her surroundings, and a bird-lover who derives continual inspiration from birds? Can we adequately describe the traits of the latter which set us apart? There are many Ciba many to include here CTbut, getting out of bed every two hours through the night to feed baby birds comes to mind, or doing a full day's work in the aviaries before leaving home to have another full working day in the office, or getting up at 4.00 in the morning to go and watch birds in the middle of a bug-infested swamp. This is normal behaviour Clb us. To those folks on the other side of that invisible barrier, it is anything but. We know that we are inspired, but they see that we are, to use a polite word [Obsessed! I have a sneaking feeling they could be right.

For example, are birders (or bird-watchers rnve argue amongst ourselves about the term) obsessed? Let me dwell for some moments on this fringe of society. What...