Floyd Murdoch: Dialogue with an Adventist birdwatcher

Spend an hour with Floyd Murdoch and you’ll walk away a convert—to the joys of bird watching. Even if you’ve never ever looked for a bird, he’ll have you convinced it’s the most exciting thing in the world. For Floyd, bird watching goes beyond a mere hobby. It’s a passion that opens up doors to bigger issues: creation, camaraderie, conservation, a God of love who creates beauty. It means a personal library of 1,500 books on birds. It means constantly taking groups of people on birding expeditions—both in the United States and overseas. It means establishing, raising money for, and volunteering hundreds of hours for a million-dollar nature center in Hagerstown, Maryland.

Floyd’s interest in birds began in the fifth grade, when his Scottish father was principal of what is now known as Avondale College in Australia. His mother, an American, had always enjoyed birds and nurtured that interest in young Floyd. His passion for birding was re-ignited by the local school principal, and later a college lecturer.

His 1975 Ph.D. dissertation, “For the Birds: A History of Bird Protection in the United States,” married Floyd’s twin interests of history and biology. As part of his research he visited many national wildlife refuges, and at the same time spotted 678 bird species and broke the record for most bird species seen in North America in one year.

In his varied and distinguished career, Floyd has mainly focused on education. He has worked as a conference education director, high school principal, director of international planning for Adventist Development and Relief Agency, and a teacher at both college and high school levels. He currently teaches environmental science at Takoma Academy, near Washington, D.C.

Floyd has also served in many non-profit organizations such as the Audubon Naturalist Society and the American Birding Association—of which he’s a founding and life-member. He has also volunteered his expertise in many public- interest arenas including the Smithsonian Institute.

Floyd loves to share his excitement about nature with young people. His wife, Lynetta, works in the North American Division office. They have two grown children, Michael and Jennifer.

Floyd, let’s begin at the beginning. Do you have a favorite bird?

Yes and no. Actually, the kookaburra [Australian kingfisher] is one of my favorite birds. Some birds are so beautiful you want to see them time and time again. There’s a certain excitement in going to look for a specific bird.

I remember when I was young, the local school principal in Australia took me out one Sabbath. He had a monocular —he couldn’t afford binoculars—and he let me look at one of the egrets, a white egret. And I saw its beautiful, beautiful eye. I could actually see a little blue ring around the yellow eye. I was hooked from that day on. I had to have a pair of binoculars, and I had to chase birds.

What is the rarest bird you have seen?

I’ve seen some that are now extinct, but the rarest I’ve seen is the Hawaiian crow. Some years ago, my wife, Lynetta, and I went looking for this bird with several Hawaiian Adventist pastors. We came to a mountain where it was supposed to be, and Lynetta decided to wait at the bottom while the rest of us spent several hours going up and down the mountain. We never saw the bird.

When we returned, Lynetta said, “Well, I saw a crow.” She took us to where she had seen it, and sure enough the crow showed up. At that point there were 13 crows in the wild. Today there are none that survive outside of captivity. They have some in captivity they’re trying to breed, but that’s basically the end of that species.

Do you have a favorite place to go birding?

The tropical rainforest.

You do some photography as well?

Yes, I’ve taken many pictures, [see color insert], but it’s hard to mix really hard-core birding and excellent photography. With photography you’ve got to sit and wait to get the right photo. Meanwhile, you’re losing 20 birds you’ve never seen before because you’re concentrating on the one.

So how much time would you spend on your hobby?

It goes in fits and spurts. About 20 years ago I said I’m going to spend at least two weeks a year in the rainforest jungles of the world—and I’ve done that. And there’s a thrill in showing other people. Bird watching is a communal sport. It’s no fun to go out by yourself.

Someone reading this may say, “That sounds like fun.” How do they start?

The best thing is to find someone who’s an avid bird watcher—they’ll always be happy to take you out. Get a bird book, a pair of binoculars and go out with them. You’ll be hooked—there are no former birders!

In the United States you can get in touch with the Audubon Society. In other parts of the world you should try checking on the Internet. Usually in almost every place in the world you can find people who are birders. If you can’t find anyone, call the British Embassy. There’s always somebody in the British Embassy who’s a birder. And they’re there for that reason, you know—they work in the embassy and have some title, but we all know they’re really there to look for birds!

So once you’ve built a network, what do you need?

I would start off with a $50 or $60 pair of binoculars. It can be a little harder to get them in some parts of the world, but there are exchanges worked out where people with excess binoculars in America and Europe donate them. So if, say, you live in a developing country and are interested in birding but can’t afford binoculars, you can probably join a bird club and check out a pair of binoculars like a book in a lending library.

Do you think conservation is an issue Adventists should be concerned about?

I’m amazed, really, that we don’t do more than we do. I think Adventists should be at the forefront of enjoying the natural world—and protecting God’s environment. The command to Adam and Eve was to tend the garden. Not only is that an enjoyable experience, it also protects God’s creation. If you protect a piece of forest that protects the watershed, you assure clean and reliable water all year, and also protect the birds.

The planet can’t sustain the destruction that’s been going on. In many countries of the world there’s no real old forest left. I hope the Lord will return before all the forests are gone.

I hear reports that birds fly all the way from South America to North America without stopping.

They do fly that distance, but not without stopping. The arctic tern travels around 20,000 to 22,000 miles—all the way from the southern tip of Punta Arenas in Argentina/Chile to Alaska and the Arctic Circle. And it does that twice—once up, once back. Of course it stops along the way a lot.

Probably the greatest distance they would fly without stopping would be from Venezuela across to Florida or Texas. Even the miniature hummingbirds— the small ruby-throated hummingbirds —will fly 500 miles without stopping. You can imagine how many wing beats that is.

That’s phenomenal. How do they do it?

They eat a lot of insects before they leave. That fattens them up, and when they reach their destination they’re very weak, and then they switch to nectar— mainly for the summer.

Some people say to keep bird-feeders is not good for birds.

I have no problem with bird-feeding. We’ve cut down all their natural source of food, so in a sense we’re just replenishing what would have been there before. It’s great to assist birds, and it helps people enjoy them as well.

At the nature center in Hagerstown we have two windows with one-way glass and bird-feeders outside. It’s amazing to see little kids go wild when they see the birds. They’re all curious: “What is that?” “What’s its name?” “Where can I see it?” It’s a natural curiosity. If we can develop that in children, rather than have them sit in front of their video games day and night, it’s more wholesome. It spreads a greater interest in a knowledge of the world, and maybe the children will pass it on to the next generation.

Are many Adventists interested in bird watching?

Yes. In fact, proportionately there may be more avid bird watchers among Seventh-day Adventists than any other segment in the general population. The number one birder list-wise is an Adventist, and the person who started the American Birding Association was an Adventist.

Why so many Adventist birders?

Because of our belief in creation, and the Sabbath as a memorial of Creation— a time to stop work, worship God, get out into nature, and look to eternity. Ellen White’s writings are also very strong on nature, conservation, and the garden of Eden concept. Plus I think Adventists simply enjoy the natural world.

Is bird watching a spiritual experience for you?

Even though the world is marred by sin, I never look at a beautiful bird without marveling at God’s creation. There are so many magnificent, colorful birds around us. Watching them leads one to a better understanding and deeper appreciation of God’s creation and its inherent beauty.

There are more than 10,000 different birds in the world. Although some of these are of the same species as the Genesis kind, “devolution,” as I call it, has made them all undergo some change. But I don’t see too many gaps. The more I study about birds the more I’m convinced about the truth of God’s creation. What we see around us couldn’t have just evolved. There had to be a Master Designer.

Interview by Gary Krause. Gary Krause is the communication director for Global Mission at the General Conference. As a boy, growing up in Australia, he enjoyed feeding kookaburras by hand. His email address: GaryKrause@compuserve.com Dr. Floyd Murdoch may be contacted at fmurdoch@ta.edu