Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Feeling Twitchy?

Some of my friends are enthusiastic, lifelong birdwatchers. They go to places to see interesting birds, and keep a note of what they've seen. They also know a lot about bird identification and behaviour.

They don't like being called Twitchers, which I've never really understood. As far as I knew, Twitchers were just über-enthusiastic birders, the ones prepared to travel long distances and buy bigger monoscopes.

That's what I thought until I watched Twitchers: A Very British Obsession on BBC4 last night. This (no doubt highly-edited) documentary spent a year following some birders around the country as they spent massive amounts of money, abandoned their families (and sometimes work) to add birds to their 'year' and 'life' lists. An air of fragile mental health enveloped many of these (mostly male) people, living in their cars while they pursued ticks in boxes. Very few of them seemed at all interested in the birds: they were just a tick, and hopefully one their rivals didn't have. Jealous and distrusting, they circled each other warily, never making friends but carefully not making enemies.

Central to the show was one particular twitcher who described himself as the 'policeman' of birders. He maintained the competitive lists for each year, and usually comes top too. He often appeared on camera explaining that he didn't trust even his friends when it came to spotting, and would publicly rule on who'd cheated - he wouldn't accept that others had seen a particular gull, for instance, until he'd verified it.

My favourite bit from him was his disdainful dismissal of a birding family: 'I don't really see the under-10s as competition', or something similar, while making the fair point that very young kids being dragged round the country by competitive parents isn't the way to instil a lifelong love.

Love was what was completely absent from this world: they're just men collecting ticks, and it was striking how many had previously sourced their ticks elsewhere: plane-spotting, trains-spotting, Rolls-Royce number-plates. Clearly they were in some way mentally or emotionally damaged. They seemed incapable of appreciating anything about these birds other than rarity, which was saddest of all. No country walk seemed adequate without a tick.

Now I've got my own collecting habits, though I've improved recently. I buy a lot of books and music, but I no longer chase every release on certain labels, or hunt down the side-projects of the temporary drummer in a long-vanished band. Completeness has been replaced with a sense that my possession of certain books or records reflects a period of my life and tastes - an appreciation of fluidity has replaced the need for totality. I'm still a bit of a nerdy collector though, but even I found these people unsettling, worrying and pitiable.

I like birds. Even small brown ones. I just don't feel the need to tick them off on a list. I'd rather watch them flying around, and perhaps know what they're called and perhaps what they taste like. It's fine if Ben and Dan have seen more or rarer ones - and they feel exactly the same way. I can't help feeling that the twitchers have entirely missed the point.


Benjamin Judge said...

Now you see the truth. Twitchers, like all collectors, are strange and obsessive people.

It is even worse than you suggest though as most 'rare' birds are birds that have been blown across the Atlantic or have got lost. Essentially twitchers need to find them before they die of exhaustion or starvation. This is perhaps the most morbid activity ever.

For the record I only keep one list. A list of anyone who uses the word bird as a verb. And if I ever find myself in a position of power etc etc

The Plashing Vole said...

How utterly horrible. Sir, I salute you.