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An Underrated and Unappreciated Sport: Bird Watching

Luke Dempsey is the author of three books, on birding, Monty Python, and soccer. He has also written for a wide range of publications, including Capital New York, the New York Observer, The New Republic, and Howler. A native of England, he lives in New Jersey.

Long-time book editor Luke Dempsey became an accidental author when he fell in love with the under-appreciated recreation of birding. The adventures he had along the way led to his first book, the very funny “A  Supremely Bad Idea.” He writes here about how the thrill of getting a book deal can be knocked right out of you when not everyone shares your passion.  His latest book, Club Soccer 101, is a collection of essays on 101 top football teams. Since the beautiful game has roughly 3.5 billion fans around the world, this new book might help him get more respect at the computer store.


There are any number of failings to which one should avoid admitting, but a partial list is likely to include “hating all puppies and kittens,” “living for the next episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians,” and “being a birder.”

I am a birder (love puppies/kittens; never watched the Kardashians).

I didn’t mean to be a birder, honest. I was idly minding my own business when two friends came to stay one weekend in the country and made me take a walk. Since then I’ve been obsessed, but it’s not a healthy obsession, like making sure you’ve turned the gas off before a vacation, or collecting gourds. This one brings nothing but trouble, and sideways glances, and worse: Cool people don’t think you’re cool anymore, if they ever did.

I learned this a few years ago at Tekserve in Manhattan, a super-hip Apple repair store where all the people who help you are called Dax, wear coolly scuffed Vans sneakers, and sport impeccable sideburns (even the women!). I found myself at Tekserve one day after I opened my MacBook and discovered, instead of a screen ready to cater to my every whim, merely a thin blue line that refused to resolve into more useful pixels. This was Not a Good Thing (TM). Dax took one look at my thin blue line and whistled through his gauge-extended lips. Fearing the wrath of his coolitude, I said, “Well, Mr. Dax, I need this fixed pronto, as I’M WRITING A BOOK.”

Being a writer can sometimes feel like being a birder/Kardashian lover/puppy kicker, but I digress. Some people are impressed. Dax was one of them.

“A book! That’s like way cool, man,” Dax intoned, this high priest of the 404. “Way cool. What’s the book about?”

I took a deep breath. I’d been to this rodeo before.

“Birds,” I whispered. “It’s about being a birder . . .”

Dax shuffled in his Vans, looked me up and down, and, as though he’d found porn on my hard drive, hissed, “I’ll find someone else to help you.”

With that, Dax disappeared, to be replaced a little while later by a young woman by the name of Dax. I didn’t tell her why I was in a rush, but I got the sense from how she played nervously with her sideburns that she already knew.

For some reason, being a birder is considered the opposite of cool. It brings to mind both trainspotting (the actual endeavor, not the cool book/movie) and playing with model trains. It’s for sad men with nothing going for them; women who have no friends. Who, the argument goes, in their right mind would stand in a field all day looking into trees and across beautiful fields in case something as stunningly gorgeous as a scarlet tanager, or a cerulean warbler, or a peregrine falcon might pass by? Why waste time charting the seasons via the migration of birds whose travels have brought them from central and south America all the way to here: Central Park in Manhattan, or Cape May Point in New Jersey, or my own backyard near Princeton? Why, when April slips into May, why then don a pair of binoculars and walk, walk for an entire day, with nothing upon which to think except that this next tree, this very one in the woods near Griggstown, NJ, this tree might harbor a yellow-throated warbler, or a barred owl, sleepy from a night of hunting rodents? What’s the point of heading up to a high point anywhere on the eastern seaboard once September grouches into October in order to see the mind-altering spectacle of thousands upon thousands of migrating hawks heading south away from the encroaching cold? Wouldn’t it be cooler to be more Internet savvy, know more about TV, understand celebrity culture just that bit more? Isn’t there an NFL game on you could be watching? Instead, you really want me to believe that being lost to the vagaries of the natural world for hours upon useless hours is cool? You want ME, Dax, to think what you do is cool?

“I’ll find someone else to help you,” he said. Thanks, Dax. And hey—nice Vans.

A Supremely Bad Idea: Three Mad Birders And Their Quest To See It All
Luke Dempsey

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An Underrated and Unappreciated Sport: Bird Watching

By Luke Dempsey | October 29, 2014


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