Among hunters and anglers a trophy is the mount that hangs on the wall. It is the memory of a conquest.
It can also be a source of controversy. To kill something just to put its head on the wall or its pelt on the floor seems wasteful and unsporting. That’s why the ethics of hunting include an implication that the meat will be eaten and why catch-and-release has almost become the rule among anglers.
I talk to many people who do not hunt or fish. Often, they look upon wildlife trophies with disdain. However, as long as the trophy meat is consumed, most can accept the trophy concept. Visit a Cabela’s store, and it’s hard not to admire the many trophies on display.
I also give a pass to hunters of big game species. Whether in the U.S., Africa, or Asia, these hunters pay thousands of dollars in licenses and fees, and these funds pay for conservation in those countries.
On my recent birding trip to Ecuador, I encountered several groups of birders and photographers led by professional guides. I noticed some striking parallels to trophy hunters.
Trophy hunters often travel great distances at great expense. Many eastern hunters, for example, routinely travel to Colorado, Montana, Alaska, and other western states to hunt mule deer, elk, and other big game. Others travel to exotic locations all around the world for a chance to hunt exotic big game. Such trips cost thousands of dollars, sometimes many thousands.
And then there’s the gear. High powered big game rifles are expensive. Again, visit Cabela’s for confirmation.
But when you think about it, birders and wildlife photographers do the same thing. We may not hang actual mounts on the wall, but we collect trophies, nevertheless. And we spend a lot of money on travel and equipment — $1,000 binoculars, for example.
As a birder, I collect two types of trophy. One is a life bird. When I see a bird for the first time in my life, I check it off on my life list.
Every birder has his own standards for counting a life bird. Mine is that I must see it well enough to identify it on my own. Just seeing a bird fly by and having a guide name it doesn’t count for me. And just hearing it doesn’t work for me either. I must see it well.
When I do, it becomes a trophy that hangs in my mind. Just this year I saw my first Philadelphia vireo and mourning warbler. I can re-imagine the moments I spent with those birds at any time. And I’ll never forget my first Swainson’s warbler in southern West Virginia, my first scissor-tiled flycatcher in Oklahoma, or my first golden eagle in Utah. Those memories are my trophies.
The second trophy birders collect is the accumulated total of life birds — the life list. It is a measure of, among other things, how widely a birder has traveled.
I was more interested in my life list when I was younger. In fact, I can’t even tell you how many U.S. birds I’ve seen to date. I know it’s more than 500, but I don’t keep track anymore. For me, the individual life birds are the better trophies.
It’s difficult to speak for wildlife photographers because a camera always plays second fiddle to my binoculars. But after spending a few days with a group of photographers in Ecuador, I learned a simple way to recognize serious bird photographers. They don’t carry binoculars.
In the group of 10, I spent time with not one had binoculars. But they had very expensive cameras and very long lenses. I guess they could always identify the birds in their photos after the fact.
For photographers, the image was all that mattered. The image was the trophy. And they can even hang it on a wall. And if it’s really good, they can sell it to a magazine or book publisher and perhaps finance their next photo tour.
Hunters, anglers, birders, and wildlife photographers are disparate groups in many ways, but we share one important quality. We are all trophy hunters.