by Kate Tufts
IN THE UNITED STATES, MORE THAN 47 MILLION PEOPLE CONSIDER BIRDING OR BIRD-WATCHING THEIR HOBBY OR AVOCATION. BIRD-WATCHERS FALL INTO ALL DEMOGRAPHIC CATEGORIES AND SEGMENTS OF THE SOCIO-ECONOMIC SPECTRUM. ACCORDING TO THE U.S. FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE, BIRDS HAVE THE LARGEST FOLLOWING OF ALL WILDLIFE IN THE UNITED STATES.
A distinction may in be order. Not all bird-watchers are birders. The main difference is in the level of dedication or intensity.
Bird-watching is considered a more sedate pastime. It’s usually practiced around backyard feeders or in local parks, and it’s a wonderful way to enjoy birds without getting sunburn or frostbite.
Birders seek out and study birds. Our ardent devotion may lead to poison ivy rashes, sunburn, frozen fingers, chigger bites, and ticks. But do we have fun!
WHAT BIRDERS SEEK
A birder’s interest in birds often becomes a lifelong pastime, passion, and even an obsession. The reasons are varied. Naturally, a love of birds, nature, and the out-of-doors draws many individuals to birding.
Consider the pure beauty of our avian subjects. The primary colors were never better represented than on the feathers of the northern cardinal, American goldfinch, or eastern bluebird. Good views of a vermillion flycatcher or western tanager are jaw-dropping.
Bird vocalizations are beautiful. The forlorn call of a common loon on a chilly morning over a fog-shrouded lake can send shivers down one’s spine. The clear, high notes of the wood thrush are enough to thrill the most enthusiastic of symphony attendees. The high-pitched whooping of a formation of tundra swans will turn heads skyward.
Birding and bird-watching are grand excuses to just get outside. Even when birds are scarce, nature has surprises around every bend. Early morning birders may discover the joys of watching the sun at a low angle glimmer off dew-covered spider webs, turning them into miniature crystal chandeliers. A bright orange sunrise may remind us of temperatures to expect in the day to come. Fields bereft of birds may be aflutter with butterflies or dragonflies. A quiet woodland may produce animal tracks, amphibians, interesting lichen, and mushrooms – just a few of nature’s wonders. Families with young children find that a walk in the woods will keep kids occupied for hours with new discoveries everywhere.
In addition, birding might take us anywhere. When starting, birding lures us to trails and parks near our homes where previously we have never ventured. After a while, these treks may become too familiar, and we find ourselves driving to new parks, the shore, or the mountains. Then we might hear that there are dazzling birds in southeastern Arizona; rarities around the Salton Sea in southern California; spectacular shore birds in Chincoteague, Virginia; an almost extinct warbler in Michigan; or an unusually heavy hawk flight at Hawk Mountain, Pennsylvania. These call for road trips! Then, beyond North America, international travel promises even more.
Birding ResourcesOnline resources are countless. One, available to all levels of bird-watchers, is the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at www.birds.cornell.edu. The lab’s mission is “... to interpret and conserve the earth’s biological diversity through research, education, and citizen science focused on birds.” Some of its surveys, in which anyone may participate, are Pigeon Watch, House Finch Disease Survey, Project Feeder Watch, and the Great Backyard Bird Count.
ALONE OR WITH OTHERS
Certainly, birding may be practiced solo, and with a great deal of pleasure. But birding is also for those looking for companionship and camaraderie. Most states have local bird clubs. Two good resources are the American Birding Association, www.aba.org and the National Audubon Society, www.audubon.org. Both list chapters and bird clubs by state.
There are numerous advantages to joining a bird club. Naturally, when birding in a group, many sets of eyes try to spot birds, which provides higher odds of success. Additionally, members of a group are likely to have a wealth of experience to consult to help identify the subjects.
Group dynamics being what they are, disputes or “lively discussions” (as we prefer to think of them) can take place. One person says the bird is an Alder flycatcher while another says it’s a willow flycatcher. In fall, both birds are just little brown jobs (LBJs), and neither is singing. That discussion could go on for hours.
Birders tend to be very generous with their knowledge and gladly help novices. Also, while many beginners may not have invested in spotting scopes, scope owners are usually glad to share.
Finally, a good reason to bird with a group is simply that there is safety in numbers.
LIST YOUR PREFERENCE
Something strange happens to birders once they’ve been in the field for a while. They start keeping lists – all sorts of lists.
The degree of this affliction varies from birder to birder, but it is fairly widespread. Watching birds, chasing after birds, and determining how many can be seen applies to birding just as it does to any other collection. Birders just don’t have specimens to put on a shelf!
So birders and bird-watchers keep lists. Birds seen in the backyard, in the county, state, North America, lifetime, and current year are just a few possible types of lists. One woman keeps a list of female birds seen, and another keeps a list of birds seen from her office window. One keeps a list of birds heard while lying in bed in the morning. The possibilities are endless.
THE CONSERVATION OF BIRDS
Keeping lists often leads to an interest in the science and conservation of birds. Are the birds healthy? Is there a noticeable decline or increase in their populations? Are they migrating at the same time of year?
More chemicals are used on farms, lawns, and parks as well as by industry, affecting our environment. Habitat is lost to development, and global warming is influencing the seasons. What is the effect?
These issues and others often interest birders and bird-watchers. Many bird clubs take stands on these issues and get involved in the processes of local, state, and federal policy making. Opportunities for involvement in conservation and wildlife advocacy abound.
BIRDING FOR ALL, AND FOR ALL SEASONS
It’s easy to see why so many people from all walks of life fall in love with bird-watching and birding. They provide many opportunities for involvement, whether watching a backyard feeder or traveling to Kazakhstan to add more birds to a personal list. Birding opens the prospect for observation and beauty, camaraderie and discussion, travel and exploration, and participation in conservation and scientific issues.
Every season has its highlights. Spring brings the northward migration when most birds don their breeding plumage to dazzle prospective mates and bird-watchers as well. Summer provides an excuse to head for the beach and wetland areas and even local parks to find shorebirds. Fall conveys many birds southward again. Lovers of waterfowl delight in the winter season with a whole new assortment of birds to find.
Birding and bird-watching have something for everyone. It’s no wonder birds have the largest following of wildlife observers in the United States.
Kate Tufts is a freelance writer and State Director of the Maryland Ornithological Society.
Internet Resources for Armchair Bird-watchers – Kate Tufts
Want to watch birds without leaving the comfort of home? Tired of those heavy binoculars around your neck or lugging a spotting scope? The Internet provides a comfortable alternative. (Some of these sites might be seasonal.)
More Birding Resources – Diana Hierlmeier
Quick List of Bird and Birding Guides
The following guides are available through online book stores, where a search for "bird guides" lists more than 4,000 items.
Alderfer, Jonathan, National Geographic Complete Birds of North America, November 2005
Clark, William S., Field Guide to Hawks of North America, Peterson Field Guide Series, November 2001
Elliott, Lang, Common Birds and Their Songs (book and CD), October 1998
Field Guide to Birds, National Wildlife Federation, May 2007
A Field Guide to Birds of Eastern and Central North America, Peterson Field Guide Series, April 2002
Field Guide to North America Birds, Eastern Region, National Audubon Society, October 2000
Field Guide to North American Birds, Western Region, National Audubon Society, September 1994
Kaufman, Kenn, Kaufmann Field Guide to Birds of North America, April 2005
Mahnken, Jan; Wiberg, Hugh; Laubach, Rene; Laubach, Christyna; The Bird Lover’s Backyard Handbook: Attracting, Nesting and Feeding, April 2003
National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, November 2006
Peterson, Roger Tory, A Field Guide to Feeder Birds: Eastern and Central North America, April 2002
Peterson, Roger Tory, A Field Guide to Western Birds (a guide to field marks of all species found in North America west of the 100th Meridian and north of Mexico), April 2001
Peterson, Roger Tory, Peterson’s First Guide to Birds of North America, February 1998
Santella, Chris, Fifty Places to go Birding Before You Die: Birding Experts Share the World’s Greatest Destinations, November 2007
Sibley, David Allen, The Sibley Guide to Birds of Eastern North America, April 2003
The Sibley Guide to Birds, National Audubon Society, October 2000
Stokes, Donald and Lillian, Stokes Beginner’s Guide to Birds: Eastern Region, October 1996
Stokes, Donald and Lillian, Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs: Eastern Region (three-CD set), April 1997
Stokes, Donald and Lillian, Stokes Field Guide to Birds: Eastern Region, October 1996
Audubon, National Audubon Society, www.audubon.org
The Auk, The American Ornithologists Union, www.aou.org/auk
Bird Watcher’s Digest, www.birdwatchersdigest.com
Birder’s World, www.birdersworld.com
Birding, American Birding Association, www.americanbirding.org
Birds & Blooms, www.birdsandblooms.com
Living Bird, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, www.livingbird.org
The Wilson Journal of Ornithology, the Wilson Ornithological Society, www.wilsonsociety.org
States with Birding Trails – Diana Hierlmeier
Alabama Coastal Birding Trail
Southeastern Arizona Birding Trail
Central Coast Birding Trail
Eastern Sierra Birding Trail
Great Pikes Peak Birding Trail
Connecticut Coastal Birding Trail
Connecticut River Birding Trail
Great Florida Birding Trail
Georgia’s Colonial Coast Birding Trail
Kansas Birding and Prairie Flora Trails
John James Audubon Birding Trail
Grand Isle Birding Trail
Pine to Prairie Birding Trail
Minnesota River Valley Birding Trail
MINNESOTA, IOWA, and WISCONSIN
Great River Birding Trail
Great Montana Birding and Wildlife Trail
NEW HAMPSHIRE and VERMONT
Connecticut River Birding Trail
New Jersey Birding & Wildlife Trails
Southwest New Mexico Birding Trail
Audubon Niagara Birding Trails
North Carolina Birding Trail
Steele Birding Trail
Bismarck-Mandan Birding Drive
Central Dakota Birding Drive
Southern Ohio Birding and Heritage Trail
Oregon Cascade Birding Trail
Susquehanna River Birding and Wildlife Trail
The Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail
Great Salt Lake Birding Trails
Lake Champlain Birding Trail
Virginia Birding and Wildlife Trail
The Great Washington Birding Trail
Coulee Corridor Scenic Byway
The Great Wisconsin Birding Trail
Banded Birds – Diana Hierlmeier
If you find a banded bird:
Contributor Diana Hierlmeier is an ardent birder. She has volunteered as a field researcher and bird bander for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and as a naturalist for the Nature Conservancy of Washington and the Washington State Department of Natural Resources.