Birding in North America: The Torch Podcast

An Interview with James Currie, Birding Enthusiast

Sport? Recreation? Hobby? On this episode of The Torch, we examine the modern activity of birding and the enthusiasts it attracts.

Here to discuss The National Geographic Guide to Birding in North America,” is internationally respected birding expert James Currie.

The following transcript has been edited slightly for readability.

A “Spark” Experience

The Great Courses: You are a lifelong birding enthusiast; how did you get the bug to bird watch?

James Currie: Well, I started bird watching when I was around nine, ten years old and I had an aunt that used to be out into the field and she was a keen birdwatcher, but it really happened when I had a spark bird experience.

The Great Courses: What does that mean?

James Currie: It’s when you see a bird and look at it and it makes such an impression on you that it makes you want to become a birdwatcher or a birder, and it can be as simple as being a bright red northern cardinal in your backyard, or, in my case a dramatic African black eagle.

Image of black eagle face

The Great Courses: All right. I’ve been saving this story for you because I knew you were here and that we were going to talk today. I just had a, I guess you could call it a spark experience last week.

I live in suburbia so it’s not like I’m out in the vast wilds but there was a hawk in my backyard in a tree, and he was feasting on something he caught. He was just on a very low branch and he sat there for a good half hour, chomping on whatever he had. I was afraid to get too close. He’s big, he was really big.

He was so majestic, and it was such a thrilling experience for me. And I just got to watch him from my kitchen window, so I didn’t have to go very far. That feeling I guess is what drives people in this hobby, sport. Is it a sport?

James Currie: Yeah. Absolutely.

Birding VS. Bird Watching

The Great Courses: Some people call it a sport, right?

James Currie: Well it depends how you look at it. There’s two terms that are used today. There’s bird-watching and there’s birding.

Bird-watching, I don’t tend to like the term too much. It’s a term that denotes passive activity where you’re kind of sitting on your porch, bunch of super old people watching some sparrows coming into a bird feeder.

The Great Courses: That’s me by the way.

James Currie: And that’s fine. Obviously, but I think for the younger people that want to go out and do bird-watching, I think a better term is birding because it denotes an active pastime where you’re actually going out and finding birds.

It can be really exciting. You can get out there, you have to almost run and chase birds sometimes because they fly. So it’s definitely a more active pastime than is bird-watching.

Most importantly, learn from other, more experienced birders. Click To Tweet

The Great Courses: Very cool. By the way your accent belies you. You are not from North America, are you?

James Currie: Nope. I’m from South Africa, born and bred. I was born in Cape Town, one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and I came to the United States about eight or nine years ago.

The Great Courses: So how did you become an expert on North American birds?

James Currie: Well I wouldn’t put myself right up in that category, but certainly I try.

The Great Courses: Others have. You don’t have to do it.

James Currie: It takes a lot of practice. That’s the main thing. Once you know birds from a certain area as I did, I came from a history of birding in Africa, once you get those sort of finer details down on actually how to go about bird-watching or birding, how to separate birds at the family level down into the genus level and then species level.

You put those same tips that you’ve learned into practice in a different country. And you get to learn the different families and then you work your way down from there.

It does take a lot of practice in the field. Takes a lot of reading, a lot of dedication. And also most importantly a lot of learning from other, more experienced birders.

Image of bird watching in the forest

Active Birding

The Great Courses: Well, let’s talk about some of those tips and techniques that you mentioned. And I want to talk about the active birding that you referenced.

Talk about what you teach in the course. How do you go about birding rather than the passive, “Hey a bird came into my line of sight.”

James Currie: Well there’s a number of things that we go through in the course. We basically look at a history of birding and bird taxonomy. So knowing how birds are broken down into different groupings. It’s very important to have that as a basic foundation.

The Great Courses: Why?

James Currie: Just because you need to,  if what you’re looking at a very basic level, are you looking at a penguin, or are you looking at a parrot. And then you need to know what type of parrot. And you work your way down from there.

If you don’t know the difference between a penguin and a parrot, you’re going to be stumped straight out. So you start at the macro level and you work your way down to the micro level in terms of taxonomy.

Then throughout the course we teach a whole lot of tips:

  • how to approach birds in the field
  • how to use sound to locate birds
  • some of the best birding sites in North America
  • how to experience birding beyond your doorstep.
  • how to set up your backyard to make it more attractive for birds.

The Great Courses:  You gave me fifteen follow up questions there. How do you approach a bird so that you don’t spook them?

James Currie: Well the main thing is birds have incredible senses. So they’ve got very good eyesight, much better than ours in most cases, and very good hearing. So you’ve got to approach very quietly and not looking as though you’re approaching them.

The Great Courses: How do you do that?

James Currie: So you’ve got to be kind of sneaky. So I like to take a kind of zig zag approach to birds.

If there is a bird that I really want to photograph or video, I’ll kind of pretend that I’m not walking towards him and then take a long route and come back and slowly come closer and closer, all the while staggering my approach.

Getting a nice look at it, taking some pictures, taking some video, so that I’ve got something in the bag, and then approaching it sort of over a staggered distance and not approaching it directly, not walking straight up to it.

The Great Courses: Right. You mentioned video or a picture. Is that the end goal, is to capture that moment? For National Geographic for sure. But I mean the experience of just seeing the bird is personal, right?

James Currie: It all depends what category, there’s lots of different categories of birders and birdwatchers. Whether you just want to tick birds off your list, or whether you’re more interested in the photography side and having something for memory’s sake, you’ll want to actually photograph it.

In my case, I prefer the video side, so I like to actually video birds. So it all depends, we all have a shared love of birds, but how we go about the hobby is just a little bit different.

Image of tourist looking through binoculars considers wild birds in the jungle. Bird watching tours

Getting Started

The Great Courses: So for a novice, there’s so many species that can be a little intimidating. Where do you start?

James Currie: I think the best way to start is to get hold of a local Audubon society or club, or meet some fellow birders where you live, and start going out with them. And as I mentioned earlier, it all comes down to practice.

Definitely know the basics, get hold of this course because it’s going to be a great tool, and then get out in the field, and get out with people that can help you identify birds and share those tips and the knowledge that they’ve had from that particular area.

A Bird Habitat is Like a Grocery Store

The Great Courses: In the course you use an analogy to shopping in a grocery store. How is that helpful?

James Currie: That comes into our lecture on bird habitats. And I like to think of grocery stores as bird habitats because just like in grocery stores, you can go to a different grocery store and you won’t know where to find something. It’s exactly the same with places in North America.

You can go to one place, and where you might expect to find let’s say the jello and the peanut butter, it’ll be in a different aisle. So habitats are just like that, and just like grocery stores as well, different times of the year.

Like a grocery store for Thanksgiving they’ll have turkey and they’ll feature different things at different times of the year, fresh fruits in summer. It’s the same with birding too and birding habitats because you’re going to have different types of birds migrating through at different times of the year.

The Great Courses: What are some of the great birding habitats of North America?

James Currie: Oh, there’s so many, too many to mention really. But we focused two entire lectures on the best birding sites in Eastern North America and in Western North America. I think some of my favorites, I’m very partial to Florida. I think Florida’s got some of the best birding

Learn More: Birding Sites in Eastern North America

Obviously California on the other coast has got some excellent birding. Generally places where you combine sea birding with excellent land birding, you’re going to get a really nice number of species.

Learn More: Birding Sites in Western North America

The Great Courses: Now you mentioned two warm weather states. Does that factor into it?

James Currie: Definitely does. Having said that though, if you live in Northern North America, you tend to get a really nice influx of migrants. So you get all the Southern species migrating from Central and South America all the way north to Northern North America and you get some exceptional species.

Then up north you also get some species that we don’t get at all down here. Species like snowy owls, and some beautiful boreal species that live up in those habitats.

mage of Man Squatting Next To small yellow Dog and using phone in autumn forestTechnology and Birding

The Great Courses: Is technology affecting how we go about bird-watching and birding?

James Currie: Absolutely in a big way. It’s become a lot easier for us now.

I remember in the old days when I started out bird-watching in Africa, you’d have to have tapes that you’d put into these tape recorders and you have to rewind the cassette to the particular call of the bird that you wanted and play that. And it’ll take hours to set up.

Whereas now we’ve got just a little app on our iPhone, press the button and boom, you play the call of the bird.

The Great Courses: Oh. So you’re talking about an audio reference of a bird call that you play for the birds.

James Currie: Yeah you play it so that you can bring birds in. Absolutely.

The Great Courses: Oh, so that’s another technique that you teach.

James Currie: It’s another technique, yeah. Another tip.

The Great Courses: So there’s an app?

James Currie: There is, lots of apps. Yeah.

Learn More: Birding by Ear

The Great Courses: So talk a little bit about some of the bird species that you introduce us to in the course.

James Currie: Well we actually introduce you to pretty much all the birds in North America, but we take them at the family level. So we take you all the way through all the birds that you can see in North America.

We look at the family level and then explain some of the differences between some of the species in those families. So species that might give a new birder trouble, we explain how to tell the differences between those different species.


The Great Courses: You also talk in the course about some birds like the passenger pigeon, which was very abundant at one time, and now is gone. Talk a little bit about the conservation efforts for birds, or is that just a natural selection that, that bird expired?

James Currie: The majority of birds unfortunately have become extinct due to human efforts, human interaction. And I think in today’s world it’s increasingly of concern when we look at human induced global warming. Habitat is a major, major concern.

We have 100 bird species in North America that are in serious decline. The problem with them is that some of them are migrant species, so they’re not only facing challenges with their habitat in North America. When they go to South America or to the Caribbean, they’re facing similar pressures down there.

Add to that hunting, and issues like that and of course it’s affecting birds in a really, really serious way.

The Great Courses: How does hunting affect birds?

James Curie: Well not so much today, because hunting is strictly controlled in places like North America, but certainly in South America and other parts where it’s not as strictly controlled, it can have a devastating affect. The passenger pigeon’s a great example.

The Great Courses: What happened to the passenger pigeon?

James Currie: Passenger pigeon was one of the most numerous birds if not in North America but on the planet. I remember you read early texts of seeing birds that would actually blacken out the sky.

I mean flocks that would pass over an area for three, four days at a time, where they wouldn’t see sunlight. I mean that’s how thick these birds were.

So it’s amazing to think that a bird that can be that numerous can actually become extinct. And basically passenger pigeons were designed to breed in huge numbers, and not in smaller numbers.  When the population fell below a certain critical mass, they couldn’t recover, and they couldn’t breed in their large numbers that they require.

The Great Courses: How can the average birder help with conservation efforts? Is birding itself an act of conservation do you think?

James Currie: Not in itself. I encourage all birders to purchase a duck stamp, which is a stamp that hunters have to buy, and it contributes to bird habitat in North America. There’s been talk about introducing a birders stamp, which would be really nice, that people could buy that would contribute to our national wildlife refuge systems.

I think as an average birder you can just join a nonprofit like Audubon or American Birding Association, or there’s quite a couple of organizations. Even the Nature Conservancy does a lot of great work with birds.

Learn More: Birding Ethics and Conservation

The Great Courses: You’ve led birding tours to all kinds of places, right? Talk about some of the places that you’ve been and some of your favorites.

James Currie: Yeah, you know I’ve been all over the world. Colombia’s an excellent birding destination. Its become a lot safer to visit in recent years. And its got the most number of bird species on Earth.

The Great Courses: Is that right? Is it because of the Amazon? Or no, just those habitats?

James Currie: No, it’s almost like it’s a bridge between North America and South America because it’s right at the north of the continent. But it’s also got a lot of different habitats, from the Andes down to tropical Amazonian rain forest. So a lot of different habitats. It’s got coast as well.

All these contribute to a massive diversity of birds. Twenty percent of the world’s birds are found in Colombia.  And then there’s other areas, I really love Mexico, like San Blas area in Mexico is incredible for birding. Of course North America, Florida. What an excellent birding location in itself.

The Great Courses: Beautiful exotic looking birds in Florida.

James Currie: Absolutely.

The Great Courses: All right so what bird are you on? Have you seen every bird?

James Currie: Oh no. Far from it.

The Great Courses: So which one are you still looking to find?

James Currie: So many. But probably my bucket list birds are birds of paradise. I haven’t been to Papua New Guinea yet, and that’s certainly right at the top of my list. Any hot blooded birder will tell you that the birds of paradise are right up there in terms of birds you have to see.

From the Lecture Series: The National Geographic Guide to Birding in North America
Taught by Professor James Currie