Standing at my neighbor’s kitchen window, I am mesmerized by the tiny bird hovering at the glass feeder filled with pink tinted sugar water. LaRue tells me it’s a Ruby-throated Hummingbird and she shows me its picture in her well-worn copy of Peterson’s Field Guide to Eastern Birds. I was five years old.
Later that spring, she gave me a hummingbird feeder for my birthday and persuaded my parents to hang it outside one of our kitchen windows. That winter we added a seed feeder in the backyard and hung a suet ball in an orange mesh bag from a bare tree branch to attract other bird species. Having no children of her own, LaRue left me all of her bird books and field guides when she died – I was 11 years old.
Ushered into my life by a gentle woman and a tiny flying jewel, my birding interests have continued for five decades.
A recent article in the New York Times by Diane Ackerman describes her wonder at observing a nest of Great Blue Heron in Sapsucker Woods. She describes the lush habitat of the area, the antics of the five chicks, and the exhausting relay of their parents. Then she reveals she and her birding friends are not really at Sapsucker Woods. The birders – all 1.5 million of them – are in the woods virtually via two live webcams focused on the Great Blue Heron nest.
Curious, I checked to see whether there were other such webcams spying 24/7 on a hummingbird nest. Sure enough there were several, and I clicked on one in Irvine, CA that was focused on the nest of a Channel Island Allen’s Hummingbird. I was joined by 406 other viewers as I watched two tiny gray balls of fluff, still and sleeping. The screen was surrounded by Ads by Google for Live Mealworms for Sale for $9.95.
The hummingbird species continues to appear in my life in a variety of venues since that early, memorable introduction. When I embarked on a 3-day solo fast in a Utah desert, a hummingbird confirmed I had picked a good campsite – at least that is how I interpreted its hovering in front of me at eye level for what seemed like several seconds as I contemplated if this was the site to settle in. I remember that the dry, silent air amplified the whiz of the bird’s wings reminding me of the whirl of a helicopter blade. In contrast, the hot, moist, heavy air that I experienced on another trip in the Costa Rica lowlands, seemed to slow the birds’ flight as it slowed my breath, allowing moments of feeling them brush against my body as they darted between multiple feeders stationed in my friend’s backyard.
With virtual birding, there is no need to apply bug spray, no torrential downpours to contend with, no early morning walks before coffee, no sensing the movement of bird wings. Ackerman reports she could have tuned into any number of species cams including a tarantula-cam or meerkat-cam or naked mole rat-cam. Millions do. Like the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet, nature comes to us on a two dimensional flat screen in high resolution. Convenient. Efficient. Nature on Demand.
Does it matter that we’re replacing our experience of real nature with technological nature?
Robert Michael Pyle worries about the extinction of experience, a term he coined to refer to the loss of intimate experience with the natural world. Richard Louv describes our children’s lack of unstructured outdoor play and time to just “be” in nature as nature deficit disorder. And Peter Kahn raises concern about the shifting baseline of what we consider a healthy environment and our relationship to it as environmental generational amnesia.
What if the nature our children encounter becomes more virtual than real?
What if my early experience of the Ruby-throated Hummingbird had been via a web cam? Would my connection to the species felt less personal? Would I still be birding today? Would I have brought the experience of birding to my daughter’s childhood? Would a found hummingbird nest sit on her bedroom desk as a treasured relic of her past?
My daughter moved to Kenya a few months ago. I smiled when I saw she had packed her binoculars and a Field Guide to the Birds of East Africa. I imagine LaRue would have smiled too.
Photo by Karen Landen: Female Anna’s hummingbird on Columbine