If you don't need this thrush and you are working on your world, South American and Brazilian lists, you can try northeastern Brazil, where a single wild Spix's Macaw—an almost extinct species—has been sighted. Everyone needs that bird; hardly anyone has seen it in the wild except the bird-catchers who have trapped it out for the cage bird trade. World listing is only the main event. There are 24-hour "birdathons," a World Series of Birding, breeding bird atlases, Christmas bird counts, big days, big years and, of course, lists, lists, lists. The birds in question have to be "alive, wild and unrestrained," according to ABA rules, and they must be securely identified. "Heard birds" are supposed to count, so that half-crazed combatants won't destroy a bird's habitat by trying to force it into view, but most birders count only birds they have seen. The object is to find as many species as possible and to find rarities. (Paradoxically, if a bird is too rare, it probably doesn't count. Los Angeles and Miami are full of loose parrots, but because they were imported in captivity they are no more countable than if they were still in their cages.)
Although the ABA makes the rules and logs records, verification is another matter. In the old days, if you wanted to get your sighting authenticated, you had to shoot the bird and submit the carcass to the nearest university biology department or a museum's ornithology department. Nowadays, documentation consists of a detailed description and photos. Most states have semiofficial publications or committees that authenticate rarities. Otherwise, there is the honor system.
Serious birders bend over backward not to make claims that they cannot substantiate and historically have been more than willing to share those they can back up. Try to one-up a hot-shot birder ("Did you see that Nimble-crested Popinjay?"), and you can expect a snow job ("Yup. Fourteen this morning. Western subspecies, every one. Notice the Thayer's Gull and Bicknell's Thrush with them?"). Mr. or Ms. Hotshot will then tell you where to locate and how to recognize these rarities, and will phone them in to the local hotline or Rare Bird Alert so others can at least have a cold shot. (There are now 102 Rare Bird Alerts in 42 states and the District of Columbia.)
But these holdovers from classier days may be on the verge of extinction. In some areas competitive birders have begun to withhold information, ostensibly to prevent rare-bird riots and keep devil-may-care birders from damaging habitats and scaring birds away. There may be other motives as well. When a bird shows up on a Rare Bird Alert, there are no more insiders, only hordes of outsiders.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service estimates that in this country there are 25 million people over the age of 16 who, in an average year, travel more than a mile from home to see birds; there are also said to be 65 million occasional or backyard bird-watchers. The ABA, home of the hard-cores, has gone from 6,000 to 16,000 members in only five years.
The economic impact of those increases is substantial. Bird-watchers collect not only numbers and rarities but also checklists, bird books, software, birdsong CDs, CD-ROMs, film and tape, as well as optical equipment and cameras of ever-greater power, refinement and cost. Expenditures add up to millions ($2 million was spent on birdseed alone in the U.S. last year). There are now travel companies that specialize in bird tourism, the fastest-growing and most environmentally conscious segment of ecotourism and the best economic hope for many beleaguered natural areas.
Combat birding is known as twitching in the United Kingdom, and some observers consider the Brits to be the real champs at this game, because unlike most Americans, they scorn birding tours. True to the traditions of Empire, twitchers range the world on their own looking for birds, often quite heedless of discomfort and personal danger. In 1990 two twitchers were killed by Shining Path guerrillas who doubtless had their own interpretation about what non-Latinos with binoculars were doing in backwoods Peru.
The current British champion, Alan Greensmith, is credited with having started the whole twitching craze in 1969, when he birded his way from Britain to India and back on a Lambretta scooter. Between 1970 and 1980, he birded his way around the world with a pack on his back, funding his trip with stints as a shepherd in the Falkland Islands and on a Ford Motor assembly line in Australia. His count is now 6,502, and he is No. 8 on the ABA list.
Adherents of the Find-It-Yourself School of World Birding admit that Snetsinger is serious and knowledgeable, and that as a woman, she could hardly indulge in their go-it-alone approach. But they insist that paying people to take you to rare birds is not true competitive birding; in short, it's not sporting. If the criterion were lowest-cost-per-bird, the backpacking, penny-pinching Brits would win hands down.
The co-champions of do-it-yourself birding in the U.S. are the Kaestner brothers. Baltimore-based Hank, 50, who is 20th in the ABA rankings, is a spice buyer and travels to such places as Sumatra and Madagascar. His 42-year-old brother, Peter, who works for the U.S. Foreign Service and has been assigned to Malaysia, India and New Guinea, has already achieved the ultimate birding fantasy: finding a bird new to science. The Cundinamarca Antpitta, or Grallaria kaestneri, bears his name. He is the ABA's No. 3 birder, with 7,104 species; if he keeps at it, he will be the undisputed champ.