Birding is not just about the thrill of the numbers. It’s about spending time in nature, setting ourselves challenges, observing beauty and hanging out with other twitchers. The irresistible allure of birding is captured in the new book, Featherings. Wild shares an extract by CapeTalk’s John Maytham who explains why he too has “a thing for feathers”.

Featherings – True Stories in Search of Birds offers an incredible collection of birding stories written by some of South Africa’s most intrepid bird observers. The book is edited by Vernon Head, former chairman of BirdLife SA and author of The Search for the Rarest Bird in the World.

One of the book’s contributors, veteran talk radio host and seasoned news journalist John Maytham from CapeTalk, shares an extract from his tale.

John writes:

I love birding for many of the reasons that most birders will offer when asked. Though most will look at you with some perplexity at first – as if the answer was as obvious as the wing ornaments on a standard-winged nightjar – it’s about being in nature: different geographies, different habitats. The more serious one gets, the more of the world one sees.

It’s about the challenge of identification; it’s about the importance of preserving habitat; it’s about the thrill of the new and the comfort of the familiar. And, for those of us who unashamedly describe ourselves as listers, it’s about the numbers, which means it is also, to a degree, about the competition. (In my experience, always the friendliest kind.)

But there is another noteworthy reason why I love to bird, and why I love to hang out with other birders. It’s because of the stories. Stories are, and always have been, special in my life and in the life of mankind. No one knows when the first story was told, but what’s the point of developing language if you don’t want to liven up life around that new invention – fire – with something more than grunts and gestures and facial expressions.

There is much scientific disagreement about the origins of language. A 2003 book on the subject, Language Evolution, edited by Morten H Christiansen and Simon Kirby, described language evolution as “the hardest problem in science”, and there are numerous competing theories as to what sparked the development of speech. My personal favourite, just because of the name, is Dean Falk’s Putting the Baby Down theory. This postulates that Homo sapiens women couldn’t take their babies with them when foraging like their primate relatives, because evolution deprived them of the fur to which primate babies cling. They had to put them down and leave them alone for a while.

Language thus developed out of the need for a system of communication that reassured the baby that mummy would be home soon. But it is generally believed that humans started talking about 100,000 years ago, and perhaps that all languages – a total of about 5,000 – evolved from one common language developed in Africa. And all of those languages have a rich tradition of storytelling.

When you’re birding, there are plenty of opportunities for storytelling. Those long periods in the car getting from one stake-out to the next; the fallow intervals waiting for something to appear out of the reeds or from the sky while in a wetland hide; and the very fertile occasions offered for narrative by mealtimes, especially after a long and lifer-rich day of whipping the binos up and down and around.
Birders are far from the nerdy, train-spotting, number-plate-noting old (even when young in years) duffers they might have once been portrayed to be. I have been privileged to bird alongside some notable individuals who have told some wonderful stories, most of them probably true. Oh, all right, all of them.

The stories that matter to me most, though, are small stories of personal birding achievement. The majority of my grand stories happened when I was in the company of other more experienced friends or professional guides. I am not a very good birder – I don’t have the characteristics that an article on the Birdwatch website described as necessary to be outstanding: “The eyes of a hawk, the hearing of an owl, a photographic memory and a sixth sense for knowing where and when to watch and listen.”

I have moderately decent numbers on my various lists, and I am confident that each tick is merited, but I’ve had an enormous amount of help. So it is the ticks on that list that are the result of my going alone to an area, studying bird calls and bird ID before the outing, and then positively identifying birds by myself that are the stories I tell quietly to myself. I will never forget the sense of accomplishment when, very early in my birding days, on my first trip to the Kruger, I recognised the call of the rattling cisticola on only my second day.

Joan Didion once wrote: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” In my life, stories about birdwatching – the ones I tell myself, the ones I tell others, the ones others share with me – help me to live more richly. And the best part of my birdwatching story is that many more chapters, grand and humble, remain to be written.

Win a copy!

Courtesy of Jacana Media, Wild is giving away three copies of Featherings – True Stories in Search of Birds worth R250 each. To stand a chance to win, email the answer to the question below to [email protected] (subject line: featherings) before 26 April 2018. Remember to include your full names, contact details and postal address. Wild will randomly select the winners. Winners will be notified via email.

Question: Name one of the birds John Maytham mentions in the above extract.

Featherings – True Stories in Search of Birds. Edited by Vernon RL Head. Jacana Media. 2017. All author royalties will be donated to the FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology to support ongoing ornithological research.

Don’t miss the Wild newsletter on 26 April for exceptional birding experiences in the Western Cape.