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Flight Lines: Bird watchers aren't creepers

According to a recent study, bird watching is thought of as being "creepy" by some. Is it simply because of the binoculars?

Earlier this month word spread of a rare bird showing up at a residence in the town of Leeds, N. D.

It had been years since someone had seen a boreal chickadee (poecile hudsonicus) in North Dakota so it was with more than just casual interest that I read the report.

Job commitments kept me from making the nearly three-hour drive while precious days passed. Several state birders had converged on the sleepy burg and observed it in the interim. When I finally had the opportunity to go, the bird had not been seen for a few days. Still, the allure of adding this little beauty to my "state list" was too much to shrug off so I ignored the odds and took the plunge.

I found the address with little difficulty, parked along the street with a broad view of the feeder area and began the stakeout. Normal weekday activities transpired around me with a few cars and pedestrians moving here and there. I sat keenly attentive in my car, binoculars in hand, eager to catch a glimpse of this tiny northern visitor.

Readers who "chase" birds know well the gamut of emotions experienced by those on a rarity quest—anticipation, frustration, pure elation, and everything in between. As I feared, a couple of hours clicked by and the boreal chickadee had not made an appearance. That's when I heard the footsteps.

The crunch-crunch- crunch of footfall on pavement alerted me to someone approaching. I turned to face the person fully expecting to say, "hello."

Then she unloaded. A woman from the neighborhood read me the riot act.

"You need to leave now," she growled. "Yours is the fourth vehicle I've seen parked here with binoculars. Do you realize there is a daycare on that corner?" she asked pointing in a different direction. I quietly and carefully explained that I was merely here to see a special bird at her neighbor's place. I even dropped the name of the homeowner. It didn't help. "My daughter is so scared she can't even walk to school," she hissed.

I told her I was sorry to hear that and again tried to assure her I was not causing any trouble and that I would leave town when I had seen the bird. "There are plenty of birds in the country," she said, "go watch birds there; leave us alone in this town." With that she turned and strode away.

I stayed a bit longer—fully expecting a visit from a Benson County Sheriff's car-- before becoming confident the chickadee was no longer there. I likely missed it by days. I had planned to fill my car with gas and maybe grab a snack in town but decided not to; I wasn't going to spend my money in a place I wasn't welcome. I left Leeds in my rearview mirror feeling disappointed and angry.

A couple of weeks passed before I ran across a blog by the Washington Post's Karin Brulliard where she commented upon a study conducted by Knox College (Ill.) psychologists Frank McAndrew and Sara Koehnke titled, "On the Nature of Creepiness." High among the hobbies found to be creepy was-- you guessed it-- bird watching. Brulliard wrote, " seems to be rooted in a key birding tool: binoculars."

Indeed there have been occasions when someone will eye me suspiciously or furtively peek around curtains at my presence. I am fully aware a person with binoculars can be a tad unnerving but usually a few words of explanation suffices to put everyone at ease. Not so with the Leeds woman. This brings me to my point.

Daily, we seem to be becoming a nation of frightened reactionaries. Blame the media (by the way, child abductions are statistically trending down over the long term and abductions by strangers make up 1/100 th of 1 percent of the total; that's one in every 10,000! Yup, your mother was wrong. Instead of warning us about "strangers," she should have pointed to the cousin, the neighbor, the priest, the babysitter, or the uncle), blame 9/11, blame small town ignorance, or blame unfounded paranoia but our freedoms are being scrutinized every day it seems. We tread on a very thin line when individual liberty squares off against public safety and security.

I'll continue to look at birds through binoculars; it's a necessary part of the hobby I love and still legal the last time I checked. Yes, it may happen in residential areas. And I'll challenge anyone to stop me. By the way, I'll not spend a dime in Leeds ever again.