Thursday, May 18, 2006

In praise of the useless

You'll find the Massachusetts Audubon Society's "Bird Sightings" tucked away in the Boston Globe twice a week, with the comics and crossword puzzle. For some folks the Audubon report is more interesting than the winning Megabucks numbers, or what the weather will be for tomorrow's Red Sox game.

I'm not a serious birder, but birds do provide a kind of punctuation to my life. In late-February (for many years) I listened for the crraaack of the season's first red-winged blackbird, then later the sweet-sad song of the meadowlark, and the lightning streak of orange that is the first Baltimore oriole. And, of course -- phoebes. Commas, semicolons, exclamation points, occasionally a question mark -- never, let us hope, a period.

Amateur birdwatching embodies one of science's best qualities: Knowledge for its own sake, pure, unselfish curiosity.

In 1807, John James Audubon, amateur birder extraordinaire, opened a store in Louisville with his partner Ferdinand Rozier. The venture was not a success. Wrote Audubon: "[The store] went on prosperously when I attended to it; but birds were birds then as now, and my thoughts were ever and anon turning toward them as the objects of my greatest delight."

Rather than attending to business, Audubon ranged the woods with his sketchbook and ornithological journal, leaving poor Rozier to mind the store. Rozier intended to grow rich, wrote Audubon, "and what more could he wish for?"

What more, indeed? Perhaps a flash of oriole orange or a phoebe's six white eggs.