My introduction to Swarthmore Bird Club came several weeks ago during the beginning-of-year activity fair. Wearing a full bird mask, Ben Schmidt ’18 writhed on his back, propelling himself in circles in front of Parrish Hall like the frontman of AC/DC. While Schmidt was clearly fueled by a passion for birds so intense as to be impossible to manufacture, this exuberant piece of performance art was also part of a well-honed marketing strategy (which included a number of hand-drawn signs extolling the virtues of owls) that left the Bird Club with over 100 names to add to their already considerable listserv.
Curious about Bird Club’s appeal, I reached out to Sayed Malawi ’18, the club’s founder — who also spent a significant portion of the fair disguised as a bird, albeit a slightly more reserved one — and he agreed to let me join the club for one of their bird walks.
I met Schmidt and Malawi at 9 a.m. on the steps of the Martin Biology Lab on a clear Saturday morning, the first day of the year that felt like fall.
Malawi, a competitive birder before coming to Swarthmore, has observed over 500 species. He introduced Schmidt to birds and it stuck, and Schmidt now serves as second-in-command (officially speaking, he used to be treasurer, but admitted that these days he mostly has “soft power” in the group). The pair of friends are a study in contrasts — Malawi, with an affect that alternates between the comforting calm of a nature guide and a cutting deadpan, generally serves as the straight man to Schmidt, who has the ebullient and genteel manners of a man born to the wrong era.
Christine Lee ’18 and Richard Mobley ’20, two staunch regulars, were also in attendance, bringing the day’s group to a fairly average size, according to Malawi. Despite the club’s large email following it can be difficult to roust the casual bird enthusiast out of bed early on the weekend. Malawi is also not a natural early riser, and when no club members show up for walks he generally heads back to sleep.
But today, we grabbed several pairs of binoculars and descended into the Crum, Malawi leading the way and identifying the calls of blue jays as Schmidt kept up a constant stream of bird puns, which were generally met with mingled amusement and horror. We came to a thicket of rhododendrons and Malawi paused for a moment, making a “pishing” noise towards the underbrush.
“He doesn’t actually have a reason for doing that,” said Schmidt. “It’s just when he gets stressed out.”
Malawi paused wearily before explaining, “The real reason I’m doing this is to mimic a harassing call that birds make to alert each other about predators.” Nothing happened except a soft rustling of wind among leaves.
“That’s slightly embarrassing,” Malawi said.
After spotting several chickadees, we reached the Crum Creek, which prompted general reminiscences about the time the group forged the water to hunt for owls. On this day, the area by the creek was short on birds, the stillness only disturbed by yellow leaves falling into the low water and a nearby grey squirrel. However, the group was unfazed, clearly enjoying being in the woods and each other’s company.
Schmidt mused, “If an owl saw another owl at 10 a.m., do you think he would say, ‘hey, you’re a real day owl?’” Mobley attempted to push him into the creek.
We continued on, passing a small stream, and Malawi identified an oven bird, which excited him. He explained that it is unusual because it resembles a warbler although it is actually a thrush, and that while it breeds here it will soon head to South America for the winter. He described it as a “personable bird.” Over the course of the walk I picked up a number of bird facts from Malawi. I learned that blue jays appear blue because their feathers refract light from the sky, and on overcast days they appear grayer. I also learned that birds are strongly drawn to water, and the backyard birdwatcher may attract more birds by setting out a birdbath than a feeder. I learned that hummingbirds, amazingly and adorably, make small, cup-shaped nests out of spiders’ silk and lichen. I managed to spot a female cardinal through my binoculars.
We headed back to civilization around 10 a.m. to talk and fill out the day’s bird journal, Malawi noting that in the old days of bird club they would stay out much longer.
“You have a bad habit of saying everything used to be great,” said Schmidt. “Don’t sell yourself short.”
“Everything is great,” said Malawi. “I saw an oven bird. I’m happy.”
Sitting in the lounge in Martin, Malawi and Schmidt discussed why they’ve stuck with Bird Club throughout their time at Swarthmore.
Schmidt touted the benefits of spending time outdoors. “It’s really important for me to get out into the Crum,” he said. “It’s a great way to deal with Swarthmore at the end of the day, and that’s probably true for more people than realize it. Two thumbs up.”
Malawi said that while he used to be driven by a desire to increase his life list of birds identified, these days he is more interested in sharing birds with other people, and takes pride in the complete bird novices that he’s been able to convert to regulars.
The competitive aspect of birding has always confused me a little — collecting bird sightings can seem like a somewhat acquisitive way to interact with nature — so I asked Malawi how he feels about it.
“I used to be more into that,” said Malawi, “and listing is a lot of fun. You make a game out of it. It can get to the point where maybe you’re sort of missing the point, where you’re just seeing birds for the sake of adding them to your list rather than actually watching them and getting to know them, but at the end of the day it’s still just a great excuse to go out and look at birds.”
Schmidt took a more philosophical approach. “I’ve heard that if you want to find somebody happy, find someone who collects things. If listing is like collecting without even holding the things or hoarding them, it seems like a pretty healthy way to be happy. There’s certainly different ways to think about birding, and listing is not the only way to think about it, but it’s valid.”
My reservations resolved, I asked Malawi and Schmidt how they would describe the culture of Bird Club.
“Lowbrow,” said Schmidt.
“Yeah, that’s about it,” Malawi agreed.
Schmidt got serious: “The culture of bird club is very enthusiastic, and it’s very interactive.” He described a number of activities that the club offers its members apart from bird walks, including screening movies and documentaries, bringing speakers to campus, birding in various nature preserves, and, the highlight, banding tiny saw-whet owls at the nearby Rushton Farms. But there’s also a distinct Bird Club attitude.
“There’s a real aspect of fun, a sense of humor, and that’s present in the way we communicate with our membership and the way we behave on bird walks — it’s a pretty chill atmosphere,” Schmidt said.
This aspect of fun was vividly displayed for me when I asked what Schmidt’s favorite bird is. He explained his love for the cassowary, which is “just a very, very interesting bird” around the size of an emu that occasionally attacks people by stabbing them with “a long, deadly middle toe.” He stood and began performing what I can only imagine was an extremely accurate cassowary impression, which involved holding a hand to his head to imitate a crest, wiggling his entire body, and occasionally flying through the air on one foot. At that precise moment a tour group walked by, and Schmidt, with a devilish gleam in his eye, increased the intensity of his performance.
“Huh. Look at that,” said the guide, somewhat uncomfortably.
“It’s great because they don’t know you’re a cassowary,” said Malawi once they passed. “You just look like a psychopath. Yeah, that’s Bird Club in a nutshell.”
However, over the course of the interview it became clear that while this wackiness is an important part of bird club’s ethos, equally central is a deep, serious love of birds and of bringing people together around them.
Reflecting on his bird antics at the fair, Schmidt said, “I think the reason we’re able to be that way at activity fairs is because we all legitimately want everyone to feel comfortable being a part of this club, to come on bird walks with us, to chat with us about birds.”
Malawi said that he was happy about their success at the fair, but he seemed personally pained by each person who signed up and wouldn’t ultimately participate, viewing it as a missed opportunity to give them something important.
“I don’t run around with the bird mask just because I think it’ll be fun to run around with the bird mask, though it kind of is,” he said. “Every person that I get on the email list, I wish I could just mind meld with them for them to understand how much I really want them to come to bird club.”
The room reacted with surprise to the evangelical fervor of this comment, but Malawi continued.
“I honestly think everyone in the world should be a bird watcher,” he said. “I think it’s for everyone. Birds are just the coolest thing, dude. They can fly! There’s all these kinds of them, they all look different, they all have names. I love putting names to things. Everything about it’s fantastic.”