By David Cronenwett
While going through an old box of books recently, I re-discovered a fascinating paper entitled, “Bird nomenclature and principals of avian taxonomy of the Blackfeet Indians”. It was published in 1950 by Claude E. Schaeffer, and was a project for the Museum of the Plains Indian. My version is well-worn and because it appears to be a third generation copy, challenging to read in some spots. But when you delve into this work it is immediately engaging. There is a sense that Schaeffer, who at the time was interviewing Blackfeet elders in their 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, had an access to the deep past that no longer exists.
Species accounts in this study differ greatly from what one finds in a contemporary bird guide. In Schaeffer’s document, birds have names that reflect specific behaviors or unique aspects of their biology. The Osprey for example, was called “false thunder” because of the tremendous sound produced on some of their predatory dives. And there are onomatopoeic terms; birds named because calls, songs or other sounds produced that were thought to resemble expressions or words in the Blackfeet language. Interesting physical markings were noted too, such as “shoulder-bone-tail feathers” for the McCown’s Longspur. But the paper I dug up recently is also notable for what is not mentioned. There are only about 80 species of birds discussed. As of 2012, Montana Audubon lists 427 species known to occur in the state. Perhaps half of that number spend part of their life cycles on the Rocky Mountain Front, in Blackfeet country. Even accounting for looking at a single study and other variables, I find it pretty remarkable that so few bird species were well-known by Blackfeet in the past.
Why this disparity? There are probably many reasons but among them is certainly the fact that Native peoples of the northern prairies had no high-powered optics in the old days. Our understanding of bird diversity took a serious leap forward when reliable field glasses and scopes were developed. The number of distinct species and regional variants that we are aware of today continues to grow, especially when genetics are considered. But part of me is suspicious of this trend and the tools that have brought us to this point. Humor me please, while we think about binoculars.
For several years I worked as an interpretive guide on the Front. Nearly 20 weeks each summer was intensely devoted to looking at things and explaining them. Bird species were frequently the object of a client’s desire, and the pressure was on to find them. To locate birds, one simply had to have an exceptional eye (and ear) and good optics. By the end of the season however, the binoculars around my neck began to feel like a ball and chain. I distinctly remember the moment when this occurred and the confusing sense that although magnification can open certain doors to the natural world, it closes others.
Binoculars narrow and focus our vision but because of this, other things are necessarily excluded. We birders are sometimes, unfortunately, hyper-consumers who impatiently move from one species to the next. But in doing so, we seem to be sacrificing a depth of knowledge and intimacy more common in the past. Optics create in us the powerful sense that we are getting closer to the feathered, however, in our quest to seek only an image of another creature we lose the greater picture of its ecology and natural history. Indeed, to me there is something almost perverse about interacting with wildlife solely by binoculars. In the old days, being close to wild animals and observing them meant an individual would have to have great patience and the time to accommodate it. Not every species would be observed, but those closer interactions likely yielded deeper knowledge and meaning over time.
Finding the Schaeffer paper made me realize that in the past, there was no such thing as a “birder”. This kind of specialization, a person whose central interest in nature is devoted to one type of animal, is a product of the modern world. And there is nothing wrong with it…except for the fact that the practice tends to limit our overall experience and understanding. There is so much more going on in this world; interactions and connections beyond imagination. I suppose that I am trying to make a case for a generalist approach to our relationship with nature. By all means, pick up the optics and go birding. But also, get close, get your hands dirty, learn about botany, ecology and climate. Go hunting and gathering. Our appreciation for all of creation, including birds, can only benefit from a larger view.