When my oldest daughter was four year’s old she informed us that she wanted to be an ornithologist when she grew up. I’m not sure where she learned that word, probably from her favorite television show at the time, Blue’s Clues, but I do know that she loved birds from early on. Soon her little sister caught the passion too. Rather than collecting American Girl or Barbie dolls, it was the Audubon toy birds that filled our house.
You’ve probably seen these stuffed birds in a variety of stores. My girls loved to squeeze each bird’s belly to hear its individual song. As parents, we never minded the girls saving their funds in order to add the next bird to add to their collection. At least they were learning about nature while playing. More than this, the reward came when walking outdoors together. When we heard a sound like birdie birdie birdie, our girls would turn their heads, invariably one of them saying “Mama, there’s the Cardinal.”
Thinking about it, this love of birds runs deep in our family. In my own childhood, I remember regular walks with my Auntie Babe on a farm in Connecticut. With our mucks on and binoculars in hand, we’d stop in the middle of the field, and wait. Often Auntie Babe would place her hand on my shoulder, and place her finger on her lips for quiet. I have a distinct memory of catching sight of a Gray Jay, instead of the run of the mill Blue Jay. The date of that sighting is marked in my aunt’s Bird Guide by Chester A. Reed that I still own. One of my saddest memories is the day that we moved my aunt into a nursing home. Her dementia had been progressing and yet, when I peeked inside her field guide, I saw a question mark above the Summer Tanager. She had marked it several months before this transition in her life. When I visited her at the home, I’d always find her in the parlor, looking out at the bird feeder. Once a birder, always a birder.
And that brings the question to mind. . .Who is a birder? Certainly, my aunt fit the definition but, as it turns out, you might be considered a birder too? According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2006 survey, there were 48 million birdwatchers or birders, 16 years of age and older, in the United States—about 21 percent of the population. Holy crow! That’s a lot of birders. As the survey states: “To be counted as a birder, an individual must have either taken a trip one mile or more from home for the primary purpose of observing birds and/or closely observed or tried to identify birds around the home. Thus, people who happened to notice birds while they were mowing the lawn or picnicking at the beach were not counted as birders. Trips to zoos and observing captive birds also did not count.” Turns out there’s a whole lot of birding going on.
What is it about our fine feathered friends that can make our heart beat faster, or the movement of wings that stops us in our tracks? For some it’s the sheer fascination with creation, for others it’s the love of the “hunt” or the search for the next bird on the list. Recently I was at my in-law’s home in San Francisco. I’ve always been fascinated by the backyard which abuts the guest room window where I stay. Previously this was a well-loved yard. While the property is no bigger than a postage stamp, the older man who lived there was meticulous at pruning his fruit trees, and tending his rose bushes. Even now, if the wind blows just right, I can catch the intoxicating aroma of his white roses and yet, the man is long gone. Instead the yard is unkempt and the grass is as dry as straw. Still, when I looked into his yard this summer, I caught sight of a chartreuse-colored hummingbird with a grayish underpining. Upon returning home, I took out our library’s handy book Hummingbirds: a Life-size Guide to Every Species by Michael Fogden, Marianne Taylor and Sheri L. Williamson (foreward by Pete Dunne). After flipping through the pages, I discovered the more common Anna’s Hummingbird was the very creature I’d caught sight of in that rundown yard.
I also discovered some helpful websites regarding hummingbirds and birds in general. http://www.hummingbirds.net is a good resource, but if you want to join a group of like-minded observers, the bird forum (http://www.birdforum.net) provides blogs and gallery and a forum. It’s the net’s largest birding community, dedicated to wild birds and birding, and it’s free. To view more fantastic photographs online, check out 10,000 Birds (http://10000birds.com). On this site, you can view other people’s lists of bird sightings, plus there’s a fabulous category called “Trips” where you can browse to see vacation plans for bird lovers. Likewise, don’t forget www.birds.cornell.edu for photos and detailed descriptions of birds and their habitats.
When I checked out the section in our library for birding (598), I was pleasantly surprised as well. There isn’t any shortage on books regarding this subject. Of course we have the classics like Birds of North American by Kenn Kaufman and David Allen Sibley’s resource called Sibley’s Birding Basics. However, there are some different takes on the topic as well. For example, if you don’t think that you will be traveling much but you still want to observe bird life, a great resource is a book called the Audubon North American Birdfeeder Guide. As the book flap says this is “the perfect companion for all enthusiastic home birdwatchers.” While profiles of many birds are included, there are also practical tips for having backyard success, like which type of food and plant works best for attracting the type of bird that you’re hoping to spy in your area.
Then again, if this whole birding thing seems a bit overwhelming, How to Be a (Bad) Birdwatcher by Simon Barnes may be your cup of tea. Told in a funny and irreverent way, Barnes details his early failings as a novice birdwatcher. He says “That’s the trouble with birds: they very rarely stand still while you count their feathers and thumb through your field guide.” Isn’t that the truth! And, as he points out, “You get resentful. What business have these birds in being so ludicrously numerous? Why are there so many different species? What’s the point, other than to confuse people who want to become bad birdwatchers?” On the positive side, Barnes reassures the reader, if you can tell the difference between a swan and a duck, you are off to a good start.
Really, that’s the beauty of birding. One can begin at any point, even while having a lunch outside on a park bench. Like my now-teenaged daughters, you, too, may have heard the call, and caught the bug. After all it’s next to impossible to remain indifferent to a bird song. Wouldn’t you agree?