"I have observed the most beautiful birds in the world"

“I have observed the most beautiful birds in the world”

The planet is shaken by multiple crises, France is in political turmoil, and you continue to organize weekly outings introducing novices to the birds of cities and fields…

Current events often evoke the environment in an anguished and existential way. During a birdwatching outing, lasting two or three hours, I just want the people I accompany to be in joy and wonder. Most of them are shocked and say to me: “There was all this richness of life, right there, next to me, and I didn’t know it. How could I have missed these beauties for twenty, thirty, forty years?” They discover the aesthetic pleasure of seeing and recognizing birds in their diversity. Seeing an animal that looks like a chicken doing a wheel with its tail is one thing. But when you learn that its name is “capercaillie”, another story begins! The pleasure of the senses is increased by the pleasure of naming. A new part of existence then opens up. It is similar to a moult that takes place and changes the way you look at the world. I had this change as a child, and it made me what I am: eternally devoted to wonder.

Where and how did this profound change occur?

I was between 6 and 8 years old, my parents, American, had just bought a house to spend all our weekends in the state of Vermont, in the United States. Vermont, as its name suggests, is “green mountains”, covered with lush forests very rich in biodiversity. On the property, there was a meadow, a stream, a small marsh. The place exploded with butterflies, insects, squirrels, salamanders… and birds. Everything interested me, fascinated me. My grandfather and my parents had many nature guides. They even had a nest identification guide, to recognize them in winter when we walked in the forest! In the ornithological books, I had a few favorite boards: I gave myself the goal of seeing all the species drawn on them. It can take a lifetime! The proof (he takes out an old Peterson guide inherited from his grandfather) : I finally observed this red-necked nightjar this year in Spain.

How did you manage to turn this passion into a career?

When my parents arrived in Aix-en-Provence (Bouches-du-Rhône), I was 11 years old and I turned to birds to survive a move that I didn’t want, so far from my friends and my Vermont forest. I discovered a completely different climate and other birds, from the Camargue to the Alpilles via the Durance Valley. Later, I tried to study biology, but in vain: the French university system didn’t suit me. I read books on my own, then I got my first job at the Center for the Study of Ecosystems in Provence. One thing led to another, by studying and working a lot, I found myself a nature journalist at the magazine Wildernessbased in Paris. But I dreamed of immersing myself in the Amazon jungle where I was born. My father had worked in Guyana, near the bauxite mines, for a company manufacturing aluminum. I kept the incredible soundscape of this forest engraved in me. According to family legend, my first words were: “Be quiet, little birds!”

And you were able to go back there?

Yes, I have carried out several missions to inventory birds in Venezuela, then in Peru, in the Caribbean, in Africa. I then did fundamental research on the secretions of birds produced by the uropygial gland located on the rump. They use it to smooth their feathers and I wondered what their main role was. To make the feathers hydrophobic? To resist insect attacks? To produce pheromones for reproduction? In reality, the functions of this gland vary from one species to another. A bird’s plumage is an extraordinary device: it has a high maintenance cost, requiring complex biochemistry.

After observing the most beautiful birds in the world, how did you end up as an ornithologist in Paris?

From 2008 until the Covid-19 pandemic, I devoted myself to another passion: music. With the lockdown, the possibilities of playing in public were over! During the hour of authorized outing less than a kilometer from home, I took out the binoculars again, and I stuck to the gates of the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, – which I had snubbed for years because it was not the Amazon -, to try to catch a glimpse of a bird. With my partner Anne-Lisbet, we marveled at familiar birds: “Oh! there, a chaffinch!” It must also be said that in the spring of 2020, the city offered phenomenal acoustics: it was the mating season, there was no more car noise, the songs of blackbirds or dunnocks resonated between the buildings as in an amphitheater. Anne-Lisbet’s friends called me to ask me to help them identify what they saw from their windows. And when the lockdown was lifted, they asked me to accompany them on nature outings: the desire to discover what existed just outside their home was born.

Aren’t you tired of always seeing the same species when you go out in France?

First, I learned to love common birds that I had previously neglected, such as sparrows, gulls, pigeons, and starlings. How? By discovering things about them that would increase my capacity for empathy: their behavior, their biology, and the way they evolved through natural selection. For example, the gray or black color of the upper side of gulls’ wings reduces aerodynamic drag and allows them to glide better through the air. The heat produced by dark surfaces warms the air and makes it circulate more freely. Then, and most importantly, I learned by becoming a guide that the best way to avoid becoming jaded at the sight of a robin is to show it to someone who has never seen one before. And to hear them marvel. An American ornithologist said: “There is much better than seeing a bird for the first time… it is to show it to someone else.”

Do you have a favorite bird?

The answer is impossible, it changes every day. Yesterday, it was the little saw-whet owl of the North American forests, with the eyes of a bewildered child. Another day, the orange-legged redshank running on the ice in Norway. Last year, the elegant avocets dancing and mating in the Bay of Somme. When I stop to think about it, an endless list of jewels scrolls through my head, spread across exotic or familiar lands that I have had the great fortune to explore. My life as a naturalist is incredibly rich. More than a wealth, in fact: a second life. An afterlife lived here below.

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