It is 4:42 am. My favourite light of the day starts to highlight the curves of the cordillera in the distance, hidden by darkness but five minutes before. And with that light comes the first dawn songs.
Tinkling notes of the Tropical Kingbird, like soft bells excited to wake the world to a unique sunrise.
Ping-ponging notes of the Black-striped Sparrow, like quickening drips of coffee caffeinating a new day.
Lyrical descending notes of the Gray-crowned Yellowthroat, like sunshine coming up from the ground to meet the increasing rays coming down from above.
When I first moved to Costa Rica, I could hardly name any of these birds around me in any language (English, Spanish… forget Latin!), never mind identify any of their overwhelming plethora of songs or calls. But their music and magic filled me as much then as it does now, just over two years later, despite having worked hard to expand my mental catalogue of local bird names and audios.
I’m proud of my new ability to pick out a sparrow or a yellowthroat by ear alone, and add it to my morning eBird list using its scientific name, thank you very much. But is this blog just an excuse for me to brag about my advances in bird identification? No, I promise.
Shakespeare wrote that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” to express that things are what they are, no matter what name we give them. My personal reflection reminds me that we can be equally moved and inspired by all the flora and fauna around us—from roses to birds—whether we know their name (or song, natural history, etc.) or not. And I think it’s interesting to unpack this reality from various environmental education angles.
Some studies suggest that knowing species’ names can enhance our connection to them and nature in general. Environmental connection, in turn, can be a predictor of environmentally responsible behaviours. Although environmental education has countless goals, one of the most important objectives is to improve environmental quality by engaging participants in activities that help biodiversity.
One such activity is citizen science. Citizen science projects involve a collaboration between scientists and the general public, allowing us to collect data about a particular species or natural phenomena, using simple scientific protocols, at scales that would not otherwise be possible. Armed with this rich knowledge we can develop more strategic conservation programs and robust natural resource management plans to help safeguard ecosystems and species at local, regional and global levels.
Above I mentioned my morning bird lists in eBird, which is a citizen science project run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. In fact it is the largest citizen science project in the world, allowing anyone, anywhere, anytime to observe birds and submit these observations to an open access database the collates all of it. My ability to identify far more birds now compared to when I first moved to Costa Rica (oops, I promised this blog wasn’t an excuse to brag!) means that I can enter more complete lists in eBird, thus making more meaningful contributions to the enormous body of global bird data that greatly enhances our scientific understanding of birds and thus our capacity to protect them.
On the other hand, as an environmental educator I can also analyze my experience from an entirely different angle: I see it as reminder of why knowledge alone is not always enough to foster environmental connection or inspire conservation action. My love for birds and desire to help them has not “increased” just because I can now name more of them. Likewise, environmental education participants new to observing birds are not necessarily going to become enthralled just from learning what each bird is called. It is the bright colours, beautiful songs, or interesting behaviours of birds that enchant people, and it wouldn’t matter if a particular species were called something as unsexy as a “Dung Bird” (which as far as I know does not exist) or as glamorous as a “Resplendent Quetzal” (which most certainly does exist though it seems almost too fairytale-like to be true).
I of course think building knowledge is valuable. Learning about any subject is a fun challenge, and I particularly enjoy adding new knowledge to the mental bird catalogue. Further, there is evidence that continued interaction with nature and different species helps foster the connection that can motivate action, and participation in citizen science projects is one pathway for such interaction. Nonetheless, I believe we need to focus equally if not more on cultivating an intrinsic emotional appreciation for our natural surroundings, not just an intellectual one.
Yes, it is intellectually satisfying to fill my eBird list each morning as quickly as the dawn songs fill a previously silent soundscape. As a citizen scientist I can contribute more the more I learn. But I also like to take a moment to pause my brain, so that I can be emotionally filled with the pure love and joy that comes from standing in the presence of all the beautiful birds and upon this incredibly diverse planet that sustains everything from birds to us humans alike. Because that is where my most enduring motivation comes from to keep building Finca Cántaros Environmental Association into an organization that does more and more to help people learn, connect and act—creating community and inspiring action through environmental education.