MTPR

Deep Dive Into Wonder With Jim Robbins

Nov 2, 2017

"Get off of Facebook, go out into the natural world, reconnect with nature. I think that’s the most important thing of all. I mean a lot of the answer to this question you asked me is not out there in the world protecting habitat—that’s important—but it’s in our nervous system.  It’s being comfortable in the world, knowing something about the natural world, it’s spending time outdoors." -- Jim Robbins

The Wonder of Birds

The following are highlights from a conversation with Jim Robbins about his book, The Wonder of Birds. The full conversation can be heard by clicking the link above or subscribing to our podcast.

Sarah Aronson: You catalogue a fact that half of the first year students in biology at the University of Oxford can’t name five British birds and 20% can’t name one. What’s the significance of being able to identify and name birds?

Jim Robbins: Well there’s certainly an importance in knowing the natural world around you and what’s there. I mean it sustains us, the natural world sustains us and we should know about it. . . But what’s bigger is that we’ve lost our connection to nature. As important as it is to us, we really don’t pay a lot of attention to it, at least a lot of us don’t, and I think that’s one of the things I hope to encourage with this book: is to have people read this and say “Wow, there are so many things about birds.” I guess the take-home message from this book is how little we really know about the world and how fascinating it is. It would place us in great peril if we destroy it, and we are destroying it, so I hope to encourage some wonder about birds, hence the name The Wonder of Birds. 

If you could give one recommendation to listeners about how to aid in the conservation of birds, what would it be?

Inform yourself. That is the biggest one, is to read about these things, to talk to people who are working on the front lines of conservation. Understand where the most important habitat is, how that habitat can be conserved. Get off of Facebook, go out into the natural world, reconnect with nature. I think that’s the most important thing of all. I mean a lot of the answer to this question you asked me is not out there in the world protecting habitat—that’s important—but it’s in our nervous system.  It’s being comfortable in the world, knowing something about the natural world, it’s spending time outdoors.

I mean I really think that we’ve neglected that part of our being, the internal part. I talk in a couple of places in the book about perception. There are people who’ve gone their whole life and not thought about birds and then one day they saw a bird, and they saw it, I don’t mean they just saw it visually, I mean they saw it and perceived it and that epiphany and that coming to see a bird for more than just a thing out there flying around but for the miracle or the wonder that it really is, that’s the battle. And people can do that, that can be taught, that can be experienced. But people have to go out in nature, they have to take their kids out, they have to really immerse themselves, and after a few days of that you’ll start to notice a change, not only in your understanding, your intellectual understanding, but also your feeling of being in the natural world.

And birding, or bird-watching, seems to have taken off, culturally, and I’m wondering if you can share the snippet in the book you include about the psychology of what it means to be a bird-watcher.

Okay, this is kind of a heavy topic, but I think it’s important, and I was shocked when I heard this, but I think intuitively it made a lot of sense to me. I interviewed an ornithologist [Janice Dickinson] at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in New York, which is the nation’s, if not the world’s, premiere institute for the study of birds.  . . . She wrote a paper about climate change and why people deny climate change. And she quoted a work from Ernest Becker who wrote a book called “The Denial Of Death”  . . . and his theory at the time was that we carry this hidden fear of death all of our lives and it affects us, it affects our nervous system, but we don’t know it’s there, but nonetheless it governs our behavior.  And we all have it, everyone, it's inherent in the species . . . and what [Dickinson] says about climate change is that people deny climate change because it’s a way of denying this fear of mortality that we all carry with us, and she said birds run counter to that, though. Birds are relief from this terror, this anxiety, this existential angst, and that there’s something we do called ‘striving for immortality’ as humans. In response to this subconscious fear, we look for things that will give us symbolic immortality. It might be religion, it might be patriotism, and it is birds, there’s no question about that. I think part of the reason birding is such an addiction, is that it’s a transcendent relief from earthly concerns.  

Jim Robbins
Credit Denver Holt

About the Book:

An examination of the powerful--and surprising--ways birds enrich our lives and sustain the planet. This book illuminates the seemingly miraculous qualities that birds uniquely have, which demonstrate to us just how invaluable birds are to humankind--both ecologically and spiritually. The calliope hummingbird, for example, weighs the same as a penny and influenced the Wright brothers' flight design; the chicadee's song is considered by scientists to be the most sophisticated language in the animal world and a "window into the evolution of our own language and our society"; and the eagle's quietly powerful presence in the disadvantaged neighborhood of Anacostia, D.C., proved to be the most effective method for rehabilitating the troubled teenagers placed in charge of their care. 

The last few decades have been an accelerating tragedy for birds. Out of ten thousand bird species, 1,313 of them are imperiled because of declining habitat, pollution, and a rapidly changing climate. Robbins shows us why birds are necessary for humanity, and for the planet.

About the Author:

Jim Robbins is the author of "The Man Who Planted Trees: A Story of Lost Groves, the Science of Trees, and a Plan to Save the Planet." He is a frequent contributor to the science section of "The New York Times" and has written for "Smithsonian," "Audubon," "Vanity Fair," "The Sunday Times (London)," "Scientific American," "The New York Times Magazine," "Discover", "Psychology Today," "Gourmet," and "Condé Nast Traveler" and has appeared on ABC's "Nightline," National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" and "Morning Edition," and as a guest on the "Today" show.