Birding and Judaism:
Gifts We Can Give Ourselves
I am an enthusiastic amateur birder. My journey as a birder began in Mendocino in 2001. My husband and I were on what we called our “mini-moon.” We were married three days before 9/11 and ended up taking an impromptu trip around northern California when our original honeymoon plans had to be postponed. (That’s a story for another time.)
Standing on the cliffs gazing at the water below, we both noticed a large black bird with a conspicuous orange bill on the shore. “I wonder what kind of bird that is?”, we simultaneously mused. That innocent inquiry led us to a local store where we bought our first pair of binoculars and a bird field guide. With Birds of Northern California in hand and the motivation to solve the puzzle, we easily identified the mystery bird as a Black Oystercatcher. I was hooked.
Since that time, I have continued birdwatching – while hiking in our local parks, volunteering as a hawk-watcher for the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory, conducting monthly bird counts at Edgewood County Park, taking various birding classes, and simply enjoying and watching the birds in my own backyard. I absolutely love it, and it nourishes my mind, body, and soul.
During the shelter-in-place orders, I have heard many people comment that they’re noticing birds more. The LA Times recently ran a story entitled “Bird-watching takes flight amid coronavirus outbreak.” In it they wrote “with coronavirus restrictions dragging on, interest in bird-watching has soared as bored Americans notice a fascinating world just outside of their windows.” The birds have always been there, and now more people are noticing them because they have the time to do so and are eager to get outdoors.
So what does birding have to do with Judaism? Birding encourages, if not requires, you to stop, listen, and be present. It compels you to be observant,
to focus, and to notice – really notice. Judaism is, by nature, a religion that requires us to be mindful, to engage with life, and to express gratitude for everything from waking up in the morning to the food we eat and even to seeing a rainbow. It’s about noticing, appreciating, and not taking things for granted.
There’s a term in the birdwatching world called “little brown jobs” or “LBJ’s.” It’s an informal term used to refer to any of the numerous small brown songbirds, which are often difficult to distinguish. It’s easy to dismiss an LBJ as just another ordinary little brown bird. But when you take time to look more closely, you just might be challenged, surprised, and intrigued by what you discover. Perhaps you’ll notice the dark brown head and white outer tail feathers of a Dark-eyed Junco while it flits into the bushes. Or the rosy red face and breast of the male House Finch, whose female counterpart lacks the rose color. Or the Golden-crowned Sparrow sporting a bright yellow forehead during the breeding season. Not to mention hearing the distinctive songs and calls of each LBJ.
In birding, there’s so much more to see and learn when you take the time to observe. It’s like solving a puzzle, which is what makes it so fun and rewarding! What is the overall shape of the bird, the color and shape of its beak? Does it have any distinctive markings? Notice its habitat, behavior, songs and calls, flight pattern, and even what time of year it is. Any of these aspects can reveal clues as to what species of bird you’re seeing.
Similarly, paying closer attention to our Jewish prayers and rituals reveals so much more than what meets the eye. In Shabbat services, I’m paying more attention to the Hebrew words in the siddur, noticing their roots to see if I might recognize one. I’ll listen more closely to a particular melody, rather than mindlessly singing it. While I am not shomer shabbas like my Orthodox brother, I’ve learned to better understand and appreciate the underlying intent behind the mindful rituals he observes in order to make Shabbat different from the other days of the week. When we take time to delve deeper into the words of our texts or the purpose of our rituals, the more meaning we discover.
Being present, noticing, and appreciating the beauty around us are important behaviors in both birding and Judaism (not to mention life itself.) They challenge us to pay attention to and not bypass so hastily the ordinary little brown bird or familiar word. They challenge us to engage more deeply and intentionally with what’s right in front of us. With this mindset we can wrestle with the even bigger, more existential questions that our Torah and tradition summon us to do. As Rabbi Lavey Derby recently noted: “Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, of blessed memory, wrote, ‘An answer without a question is devoid of life.’ Our religious practice too easily congeals into ritual whose lifeforce has long been forgotten and to belief that has become stale. Living religion pulsates with the summons meant to make our souls tremble. Who am I? Why have I been given life? What does it mean to be human? What is my purpose? How do I live with awe and wonder and gratitude?” These are beautiful gifts we can give ourselves at any time, especially in our current, unsettling environment.
To quote the LA Times article, “I’m really reconnecting with what’s immediately around me…and it’s really good for the soul.”