Reasons To Become a Bird Watcher

Here, in no particular order, are some of our myriad reasons to become a birder:

1. No Batteries Required
The Core Team was among the 50 million souls inconvenienced by the (caps added by the news media) GREAT BLACKOUT OF 2003. This regrettable event brought to mind a virtue of bird watching I hadn’t previously considered. Birding is extremely low-tech.

All you really need to go bird watching are eyes and birds. If you want to get fancy, even the best scopes don’t need to be plugged in. A good field guide is also free of electricity demands. Blackout or not, you can bird to your heart’s content.

Of course, bird watching is more fun with a camera and a bit of gas in the car. I’d also love to try out some sophisticated birding software on a high-powered PDA. Regardless, the point remains…maintaining a birding blog is high tech, but spotting the birds is not.

2. Birds Are Everywhere You Are
One thing you cannot help in this world is seeing birds. They’re everywhere. Look up, look down, go to the ocean, the mountains, the desert, or the forest and it doesn’t matter; you will see birds.

The result of this avian abundance is the sheer diversity of even the most common species in your area. Start writing down the birds you see in an average month and you will easily identify twenty or more species. Because of migratory patterns, many locales may see hundreds of different types in a year. All you have to do is pay attention.

Beautiful, fascinating birds are everywhere in startling numbers. You see them everyday. Once you decide that you would like to be able to identify them, it happens — you’re a birder!

3. No Regrets!
In the two years before we took up bird watching, Sara and I traveled to Hong Kong, Toronto, Quebec, Alaska, Virginia, Vermont, and all over New York and Pennsylvania. Undoubtedly, I am leaving out a bunch of key places. Just think of all the birding opportunities that we missed. We are chagrined to look back and wonder who was gliding overhead or pecking the ground about our feet.

In fact, for three whole decades we have been walking around, going places, seeing sights, driving back and forth across the country, paying no attention at all to our feathered friends. Don’t let it happen to you. Don’t be like we were: clueless to our surroundings, thinking all birds pretty much looked and acted alike. Time’s a-wasting; get yourself a field guide and binoculars and enjoy the fascinations of nature. If you don’t, you’ll regret it later. Someday, you will be sorry you didn’t start sooner.

4. Birding Gets You Out Of The House
No matter how you slice it, bird watching is an outdoor activity. If you sit on your porch and look up for long enough, you may spot something interesting flying overhead. More than likely, though, all you’ll get for your trouble is a neck cramp. If you want to see birds, you need to meet them in their element.

This is a good thing. Few things are as nourishing to the body, mind, and soul as a direct experience of the natural world. We all need wild places. Part of the beauty of these birding excursions is the guaranteed variety of your surroundings. If you want to see waterfowl, explore a marsh or wetland. For shorebirds, hit the beach. Warblers and tree-clingers love trees, so plan a trip to the nearest forest. And when migration season rolls around, and the valleys are rich with raptors, you would be wise to climb a mountain and enjoy the view.

Birding does not have to be an extreme sport. There are plenty of low-impact opportunities to spot birds in parks and sanctuaries in nearly every community. However, for those of you that are willing to work up a sweat, the deeper you get into the wilderness, the closer you will be to the places that many rare birds dwell. The added bonus of observing a bird in its natural setting, far from the chaos of the modern world, is priceless.

This is not to say that interested parties cannot watch birds from the comfort of their sofas. Backyard birding is very popular and affords birders a chance to enjoy their hobby even when they cannot escape domestic responsibilities. But for most of us, the view from our windows is not enough. That’s when it’s time to pack up the birding gear and go. Have you noticed how, after the field guides and optics, birding equipment is very similar to hiking equipment? So grab your sunscreen and bug spray, put on your best boots and get out there. The fresh air will do you good.

5. The Thrill Of The Hunt
Some people believe that nothing worth having comes easily. These contrary individuals are undoubtedly birders at heart. Many bird watchers, especially members of the lister and twitcher branches of the avian observation family, place a value on their sightings in direct proportion to the challenge of laying eyes on the prize.

Virtually everyone can be seduced by the thrill of the hunt. In the hunt, one’s quarry is not really the issue. The ideal companion, a great parking spot, the flea market find of the century…we all want something desperately. Rather than call this feeling greed, I’ll label it as intense desire. The more intense this desire is, the more exhilarating its fulfillment.

Birding encourages that kind of desire and commands the effort needed to satisfy this desire. That’s why birders enter the field knowing what birds to look for. They check the lists, cross-reference the season, comb the Rare Bird Alerts for good measure, and read up on the habits of their quarry. Birders eagerly study species habitat, diet, song, markings, migration, nesting, and breeding. If this isn’t hunting, what is?

As an exercise in perception, birding is much tougher than hunting. Yes, most birds sing prettier than game mammals, but they also fly and weigh a whole lot less too. They certainly don’t leave the same kind of tracks. Animals like deer aren’t that hard to find; we stumble upon them quite often while hiking or birding. In the woods, one has to get a lot closer to most birds for a positive ID than one needs to be to take a shot at a large mammal.

The two activities are most similar when it comes to stalking the quarry. The act of trying to sneak up on a creature with a far greater perceptual range than you’ll ever have feels truly primeval. Your life doesn’t depend on it, but the stakes are still high. One wrong step and the bird will fly, and you may never see that bird again. Terrifying!

Of course, the fundamental difference between hunting and birding is one of the latter’s most compelling features. You get to experience the thrill of the hunt, but in the end, you have a check on your list rather than blood on your hands, assuming, that is, you do it right!

6. 81,000,000 Birders Can’t Be Wrong
Are you the type of person who will take up a hobby (or dress funny or jump off a bridge) just because everyone else is doing it? If so, have we got a proposition for you! Did you know that birding is the fastest growing outdoor recreational activity in the United States? It is absolutely mind boggling how many bird watchers are allegedly out there. “Just how many?” you ask. According to the National Survey on Recreation and the Environment, there were 84 million U.S. birders in 2000, up from an equally astonishing 54 million in 1995. This is out of the 207.3 million (non-institutionalized) people in the U. S. at that time aged 16 and over. One suspects that the numbers would be even more impressive if they had polled the institutionalized folks as well.

The design of the research may be questionable, and I’ve seen the 2000 count widely quoted as 71 million, but that’s still a lot of field guides! This study doesn’t even take into account the many millions of birders in Canada, Europe, and beyond. If the numbers are accurate, there are more people birding than there are people golfing, hunting, or fishing. We all know the passions those activities can inspire. Yet birding is more popular.

The birding community encompasses a broad spectrum of backyard birders, opportunist oglers, weekend watchers, and hardcore twitchers. There’s room for everyone under this big tent. While levels of passion and activity may vary, every member of this friendly mob is interested in avians enough to call him- or herself a birder. This is significant when you think about it. There is a substantial difference between someone who looks at the woodpecker on the tree in back only to idly wonder what type of bird it is, and the neighbor who sees the same woodpecker and is intrigued enough to purchase a bird guide in order to make an identification. Once curiosity takes hold and you make that positive step towards discovery, you join the rapidly swelling ranks of the BIRDING COMMUNITY.

There is a flock of better reasons to become a birder, some of which have already addressed and others still to explore. Many of these are personal, often intensely so. But birding is not necessarily a solitary endeavor. This thrilling activity comes with its own built-in community of ardent, knowledgeable, friendly, nature-loving types. If that’s the sort of group you would like to associate, by all means, come for the camaraderie. You’ll surely stay for the birds.

7. Cheep Cheep
One of the biggest draws of bird watching as a hobby is its costs, or lack thereof. In addition to being low-tech, birding is extremely inexpensive. After all, the main attraction is free! You simply cannot pay a rare warbler to fly over head, no matter how well-connected you are. Birds come and go as they please, and if it pleases you to watch them do it, you may do so gratis.

Filthy rich enthusiasts can find plenty of outlets for their discretionary income, if they’re so inclined. Optics are the main cash drain; the best spotting scopes cost nearly $2000, and everyone wishes they had them. Even decent binoculars will set you back a few hundred dollars. Any leftover money can (and probably will) be funneled into world travel. You didn’t think that toucans and motmots were just going to fly over your South Jersey home, did you?

But optics and globetrotting are luxuries that can be ignored. The best birding sites, like National Wildlife Refuges, are usually free or charge a nominal fee. Field guides or even larger books like the Sibley Guide to Birds present a small, one-time expense that will be recouped many times over in time. If even books are too expensive for you, look up unfamiliar birds online. There is an abundance of birding resources on the Internet. Ultimately, money should never present an obstacle to those interested in birding. Like all of the best things in life, it’s free!

8. The Element Of Surprise
One lesson any observer of the natural world learns quickly is to take nothing for granted. Nature loves to defy all expectations. Nobody expects snow in April or earthquakes in New York, but who can really be shocked if these things arise? We cannot predict the movements of the natural world with certainty, but we can watch the mysteries unfold.

True birders, consciously or intuitively, give themselves over to the capricious willfulness of nature. After all, the experts out there, the birders who have added thousands of species to their lists and identified all the local birds with their eyes closed, still visit the same haunts. They scan the flocks of seabirds and waders and warblers intently, because they know that, in the midst of a thousand common birds, there may be one rare bird hitching a ride. Usually, a bunch of egrets is just a bunch of egrets, all just like the ones you’ve seen before. But every once in a while, someone exciting, something many thousands of miles from home, shows up. Birders enter every wood and wetland with the promise of seeing something altogether new and unexpected.

Chances are that you do this too. All birders, from the enthusiasts who comb the shores after a hurricane looking for migrants blown off course to the backyarders who glance at their feeders anticipating more than sparrows and jays, are looking for it. They’re looking for a surprise. Chances are that they’re going to get it.

9. An Invitation To Abundance
Last week, in our meanderings throughout our neighborhood, Sara and I were stunned by a sudden realization. We had casually spotted over twenty bird species, all relatively common, in a span of a day. Last year at this time, we would have been lucky if we noticed half that number.

To become a birder is to invite abundance into one’s life. The internal transformation that occurs influences perception of the external, turning a world of scarcity to one of variety. Where one formerly saw a sparrow now appears a Chipping or a House or a Song Sparrow. Random birds gliding overhead resolve themselves as Red-tailed Hawks, Turkey Vultures, or maybe even Bald Eagles. A modest duck pond becomes exciting when one realizes that not all waterfowl are Mallards and Canada Geese.

After a short time watching birds, the metaphorical scales fall from one’s eyes. The dazzling diversity of life becomes obvious. It’s almost as if none of these species exist until you learn about them. After seeing a Northern Mockingbird or a Gray Catbird once, we couldn’t stop seeing them. They were here all along, of course, but were not part of our worldview. Once we added them to our vocabulary, so to speak, our world became richer.

Perhaps you feel that there’s not enough room in your life for more knowledge or more birds. Don’t worry. The more you learn about your world, the bigger your world gets.

10. Meet The Myths
There are many birds that hold a special place in humanity’s collective unconscious. No doubt, this has much to do with the way they defy gravity and fly effortlessly overhead, while we can only look up and dream. Birds are well-represented in mythology and superstition, and none more than the owl.

Culturally, the owl is more than a bird; it is symbolic of wisdom, the familiar of Athena and eater of Tootsie Pops, the one avian we expect to see wearing an academic’s mortarboard. The owl is also an ominous creature of the night, a dweller in darkness and companion to witches. The Owl Pages, a site devoted exclusively to owls, states that in many cultures, owls signal an underworld or serve to represent human spirits after death. Owls can also represent supportive spirit helpers and allow humans (often shamans) to connect with or utilize their supernatural powers. Throughout India, owls are construed as bad omens, messengers of ill luck, or servants of the dead, but in other cultures and religions, such as ancient Greece, they bore the role of supernatural protector.

Clearly, owls have captured our cultural imagination, and they are not alone. Eagles, vultures, penguins, ravens, crows, doves, and ostriches are just a few of the birds that do double time as species and symbols. In fact, for most people, these birds exist in stories only, divorced from their natural setting. To a city dweller, spotting an owl in the woods seems as likely as seeing a unicorn. Yet birders do see these magical birds, and many more like them. We go out to observe then in their natural settings, where their powers are greatest and their virtues most pronounced.

Become a birder and you will come face to face with the fantastic. When myth meets reality, the real thing is much sweeter.

11. Same, But Different
Imagine yourself at a generic executive hotel in a nameless suburb of a major American city. Business travelers know the type, a place of lodging specifically engineered to eliminate all sense of place. Stand outside such a building and you’re likely to see more of the same, a collection of restaurants, hotels, and businesses that cluster together in symbiotic clusters from coast to coast. Even the landscaping hides more than it reveals; they plant the same trees in executive parks in Philadelphia as they do Peoria, the same tropical flowers from Orlando to Anaheim. The only clues to your location are probably your plane tickets and the specials in the overpriced hotel eatery.

While you’re outside marveling at how many variations on the T.G.I. Friday’s formula exist in this exotic ecosystem, you might spot a grackle. If you’re an American, grackles are probably common where you live, so seeing one is hardly a surprise. Although you may not usually give a trash bird a second glance, you take a closer look at this one. Instead of the variegated rainbow iridescence, that oil on water effect, that you’re accustomed to, this fellow has a bronze glow to him. Aha, a clue! If you could read the signs, you’d know that you’re not even on the East Coast. This one bird tells you that you are more likely in the Midwest. Who knows what the next one will reveal?

Westernization is standardization. Everyplace is looking more and more like everyplace else. Buildings aren’t the only features changing. Pigeons and starlings have followed McDonald’s into the most intimate crevices of this great nation. But while we can change the appearance of a place, we can’t completely change the place itself. Climate and environment are still beyond our control and where nature reigns, diversity is the only true constant.

In North America, ecological niches are filled by many of the same birds from coast to coast. Grackles, for example, are successful almost everywhere. Yet, the interior subspecies of of the Common Grackle can be distinguished from the coastal subspecies, and the Floridian population is even more distinct. Great-tailed and Boat-tailed Grackle species chip in to make sure that no one is denied the grackle influence.

We share the same birds, but they are often different. My blackbirds have red wing bars while yours may have yellow heads. The common doves here are the Mourning types, but you may also contend with those of the White-winged or Eurasian Collared extraction. Common species abound in exquisite variety. Sparrows, swallows, and songbirds tell the story of a place. If you’re a birder, you can read along.

12. Familiarity Breeds Respect
Visiting new locales inspires one to look at even the most common birds in a different light. Visit virtually any city in the world and you’ll probably encounter representatives of the common avian supercompetitors. You’ll spot pigeons and sparrows, but they may not be the Rock Pigeon and House Sparrow you’re used to. Keep looking, though. You can develop a deeper respect for your local species by getting to know their distant relatives.

The world’s 10,000 or so bird species are divided unevenly into a mere 205 families. Each member of a family is more alike its cousins than different, but as your own genealogy may illustrate, every family tree has a few twisted branches. By observing new birds in the context of their families, remaining sensitive to the differences each one displays, you’ll ultimately know your local birds better.

For example, if you meet one Ostrich, you’ve met the entire Struthionidae family. But Ramphastidae boasts 37 terrific types of toucans. Considering how exquisitely beautiful each species of toucan is, how could one be satisfied with just a few. Each one has its own peculiarities, boasts different adaptations, and exemplifies the role of toucan in its own special way. One who is fortunate enough to encounter each different toucan in its own environment will ultimately enjoy a deeper knowledge of all of them.

Perhaps, like me, you have neither ostriches nor toucans in your neighborhood. Fortunately, you undoubtedly live amongst at least one of the 63 known species of Falconidae. Falcons and kestrels can be found almost everywhere and capture the imagination wherever they soar. Most of these birds share a striking family resemblance, but were they to come together for photos at reunions, certain kin would certainly stand out. Until you spot a long-limbed, regal caracara or a cute, little falconet, you haven’t met the whole Falconidae family.

In your travels, whether you’re looking or not, you’re bound to meet unfamiliar cousins of familiar species. You may want to pay attention. One sparrow is like any other, except where it is not. That’s where birding gets interesting.

13. Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!
One of the most compelling reasons to take up bird watching doesn’t include birds at all. You see, no bird is an island. Every avian exists as part of a rich ecosystem teeming with all manner of flora and fauna. Keep your eyes open for birds and you’ll be amazed at what else you see.

Since Sara and I took up birding three years ago, we’ve also spotted, among other things, both White-tailed and Black-tailed Deer, Gray and Red Foxes, Coyotes, Black Bears, Porcupines, rabbits, jackrabbits, raccoons, chipmunks, squirrels, mice, rats, muskrats, bats, and all kinds of cool reptiles, amphibians, and fish. We’ve also encountered a myriad of magnificent whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals, and other marine mammals. These are just our U.S. sightings; travels throughout the Americas have also added exotic critters like Agouti and Coatimundi as well as Howler and Spider Monkeys to our list! And don’t even get me started on the invertebrates…

Birding offers the perfect value proposition. Go to where the birds and you’ve got a good shot at seeing anything and everything else. What could be better?