Birder demographics in a nutshell: young obsessive dudes and old folks. There are exceptions, but consider this: my wife and I have been birding together for 13 years--we've seen hundreds of fellow birders in dozens of states and several countries. We have never seen another couple with young kids toting around a scope and binos. There are several excellent reasons for this, no doubt--kids are, after all, just horrible human beings--but it doesn't have to be this way. As long as you are willing to be kind of a bad parent and kind of a bad birder there is a whole world of stupendous experiences out there for your family.
Below you'll find a long itemized list of things birders require to be successful, followed in each case by a description of the exact manner in which children obliterate all hopes of ever acquiring it. We returned last night from a 4-day birding/camping trip with our three children [3, 5 and 7] and I'll use specific examples from this trip to the Okanogan area of northern Washington to illustrate the challenge and--well, not the solution, but the compromise.
Birding: Excess noise startles birds and obscures calls. Good birders bird with their ears first--this is impossible without silence. The smallest chip note can indicate a target species somewhere in the underbrush and a subtle artificial noise will flush shy species.
Kids: Apocalyptically loud. It's really unbelievable how loud kids are. Maybe ours are worse than most--it might have something to do with needing to penetrate our aural filter as we try to track the chipping of a skulking MacGillivray's warbler--but all kids are loud. They have no sense for appropriate volume: in the car they whisper from the back seat and expect us to hear. In a holy place where silence is sacred they will scream for no reason--not necessarily angry screams, just: "I NEED WATER MOMMY!!" We say "shhhh!!!" and that just means we didn't hear the question so they have to repeat it even louder. If I tried to reproduce the volume of our second child the internet would break: they're loud.
Anecdote: Our first night in Okanogan we camped at a gorgeous burnt area in the subalpine forests of the Tiffany Lake area:
The place is blessed. We went primarily to see a northern hawk-owl:
but wanted to hang out for a day to explore and enjoy the wild and also to try to track down some three-toed woodpeckers. We walked with the kids for hours in the morning, picking up faint drumming sounds from all around us but never seeing a thing. Finally, as we were almost back to camp we heard pecking from very close. We knew we had a good chance at seeing a three-toed, and just then a violent argument erupted between our two girls, who insisted on being right beside us as they bleated.
A good parent would mediate judiciously in the argument and forget the woodpecker.
A good birder would gag the children and find the woodpecker.
A kind of bad parent and kind of bad birder told the kids to go away and argue further down the trail; saw the woodpecker, but briefly.
It really was a fabulous bird and our kids are still alive.
Potential side-benefit: Perhaps our children discovered new conflict-resolution strategies further down the trail. It's possible, though we really have no idea what was going on down there. We actually do this a lot: let our kids loose on the wilderness and bird somewhat nearby. Some birders would find this overly restraining and some parents would find this appalling, but it consistently works for us and I feel that wilderness and freedom is fundamentally good for kids:
Bonus strategy: camp only in remote empty places so your kids can scream all they want and not disturb anybody [except for you]. We have paid once for our last 6 nights of camping together by only camping in obscure locations [in good habitat!].
Birding: It's hard to overstate how critical the very early morning is for birding. A forest that seems devoid of life at 5pm could be flooded with bird activity twelve hours later. Similarly, some of the more prized birds--like owls--are nigh unto impossible to find in daylight. Timing is key.
Kids: Never, ever, ever shortchange a kid's sleep. Just never do it if you value life, sanity, the civilized world or values in general. Under-slept kids are not kids at all but zombie spawn who predate the very brain waves of anything good, decent or upstanding in human nature.
Anecdote: Our second night in Okanogan we pitched our tents in a random ditch next to a random road in the Scotch Creek wildlife area. Up here in almost-Canada this time of year it gets dark around 10 and starts getting light at 4-ish. This means that the birds wake up several hours before the kids ideally would. Sometime in the early morning at Scotch Creek a least flycatcher started che-bek-ing right above our tent. We had spent a considerable time trying to tease a least flycatcher ID out of an Empidonax we saw the previous day to no avail; this time we knew the ID before even seeing it. So we did what we always do these days: we quietly left our tent, snuck past the kids' tent [genius idea, by the way], and started birding right away. Glorious views of the least flycatcher ensued. We generally try to stay within screaming distance of the tents and get the best of both worlds: the kids sleep [we get respite from them] and we get to bird. This isn't so much of a compromise as a brilliant strategy--it only requires that you camp in whatever destination you want to bird in the morning, thus the whole camping-in-a-ditch-by-the-side-of-the-road thing [the next night we pitched our tents in a parking lot for similar reasons].
Another anecdote: The kids watched a completely un-age-appropriate movie while we tried unsuccessfully for great gray owls [as #3 calls them, "great great owls"] at Havillah Sno Park until 11pm:
It was pretty, we could have seen an owl and the kids didn't even die of neglect. Success!
Bonus: Of the last 10 lifers we've added together we saw an astounding 6 of them while birding in the general vicinity of our tent as the kids slept. It's probably a good birding strategy regardless of whether you have to haul kids around with you.
3. [various personal attributes].
Birding: requires discipline, time, patience, planning, organization and resourcefulness.
Kids: require discipline, time, patience, planning, organization and resourcefulness.
"Here's the thing though: kids don't really require that stuff. We do it to feel better about ourselves as parents; there's little to no evidence that "good" parenting [carefully tracking micronutrient intake, providing age-appropriate brain-stimulating activities, strictly limiting "screen time", etc.] is better than "adequate" [no homicides] parenting. If you want to be a superstar parent--awesome; it's just as valid a hobby as birding. Knock yourself out--just don't fool yourself into believing your kids are going to be singularly amazing adults as a result of all of your efforts."
This is the story we tell ourselves as we put the third consecutive feature-length DVD on for the kids during our third day of the Okanogan trip. It is possible that we could have resolved their horrendous behavior with patient, wise parenting, but we had birds to see, dammit! So watch Pokemon again and shut up! Hey, it's enlightened parenting. Don't knock it. We took BOTH of these pictures during separate in-car showings of Pokemon:
Cows in an old house. Huh.
Bobolink! Fantastic birds. Up here in WA they are, at least. I love them.
There's no way around it though--even zombie children babysat by Nickelodeon need to eat, drink water, poo, sleep, drink water, get cleaned up, pee, drink water, pee more, drink more water, pee again, drink yet more water, pee, nobody is drinking any more water ever again I don't want to hear a word of it and if you have to pee just hold it! And no matter how much we convince ourselves that we can compromise on the superstar parent impulse the truth is that almost everything we do is parenting. There's no way around that--there's a very good chance that the second-best bird of the trip went unseen as we pursued infinite repetitions of the process of finding shoes, putting on shoes, finding them again, putting them back on... with some yelling in between for good measure.
Bonus: There is no upside to this except perhaps the realization that you're still on the hook for all this soul-sucking repetitive drudgery regardless of whether you're birding. So if you can fit a Williamson's sapsucker pair between apoplectic screaming fits over which panties to put on [check!]--well awesome. Beats the screaming fit at home!
Birding: often involves being around other people.
Not all kids are horrible--just your own kids. Our kids are humiliatingly awful. We're embarrassed to be seen with them. All other kids are angels of respect and quiet maturity, but ours are nightmares of selfish impulses, hideous hygiene and a complete lack of interpersonal skill. Our oldest is terrified of innocuous things and often runs around in public naked. Our second kid refuses to wear shoes and is always filthy. She makes outrageous growling/screaching sounds when she's mad, which is always. Our third kid never stops beating the crap out of everybody--his sisters, us, the car, strangers, owls. He is convinced he's a ninja but to everybody else he is a terrorist.
Strategy: banish all thoughts now of birding with friends, going on guided field trips together, hiring guides, any of that. In our 7 years of birding with kids we have done exactly one birding activity together and it was mercifully without the kids: last year's Christmas Bird Count. Otherwise we've done everything on our own: Costa Rica [twice] and Nicaragua by bus, all over the western US, road trip to Alaska, Hawai'i, etc. We've spent countless days in the riparian corridors of southeastern Arizona with a newborn on our back. And you know what? We haven't seen half the birds we would have if we had gone with the experts. But we have 650+ life birds to our names--which isn't shabby--and an unlimited number of special experiences. We consider a self-found bird to have a special cachet and we kind of have to in order to be happy birding within the confines of parenthood.
Addendum: Think very hard before bringing a child to a stakeout. This has worked for us exactly once: the red-flanked bluetail in Vancover this last winter had the good graces to spend its entire time within a screaming distance of an actual playground. Otherwise it's just not worth it.
Kids: very expensive.
There's no way around this dilemma. We're students and have a limited budget; kids use almost all of it. The only thing I can say about this is that all of the strategies discussed here are free. Our only recurring bird-related expense is gas, and even that we minimize by trying to spend most of our time on foot while the kids roam free.
Birding: absolutely requires a good spotting scope and a pair of binoculars, preferably radically expensive ones. And in our case it also requires phenomenally bulky, heavy and expensive photo gear.
Kids: like to put grimy fingers all over optical surfaces.
It's just reality. Deal with it. And optical glass isn't all THAT sensitive to grubby fingers. Our scope got toppled over not once but twice in this trip; it still works. We can still kind of see through it. Moving along...
Birding: makes me happy.
Kids: make me very happy.
Despite everything I've said above, this is still true: birding with kids combines the two very best things in my life. I wouldn't have it any other way:
When our third child fantasizes about being a snowy owl, or the first talks about seeing swifts playing in a remote waterfall on a Nicaraguan volcanic island, or the second makes up songs about Hudsonian godwits [only one of these is not true]--that's how I define successful parenting. And I wouldn't have it any other way. My kids may be monsters, but they're adorable, sweet, wonderful, lovely monsters and I love them more than anything.
If all else fails you can always edit the trip pictures to make everything seem peachy.
This is Mommy and #3. He is discovering a new antpitta species from a water taxi in Costa Rica. Everybody is happy and living an unbelievable life of adventure and harmony where all birds perch indefinitely in ideal light for lovely photos and all bodily functions have been disabled permanently. The end!