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A cardinal perches in the safety of a dense shrub
before venturing to the feeder.

Feed (and Count) the Birds

First published on on January 18, 2007, by Suzanne DeJohn

I was watching birds at our feeder the other day, and one of our Bed and Breakfast guests joined me. A woodpecker perched on the feeder but neither of us could remember what type it was. Pileated? Red-headed? Downy? That evening he returned with a gift -- a field guide to birds of the Carolinas. I'm keeping the guide by the window so the next time that woodpecker visits, I'll be able to look it up.

Like many gardeners, avid bird-watchers are sticklers when it comes to identifying species. To the uninitiated, whether it's a downy or a pileated woodpecker is meaningless. Who cares? Those same people might think we're being fussy when we want to know if our new hibiscus is H. syriacus or H. rosa-sinensis. But one hibiscus is hardy in temperate regions, the other is tropical and we need to bring it indoors in the winter. Of course we need to know!

Knowing what bird species you're watching helps you discover the nuances of its behavior and determine if what you're seeing is rare or commonplace. It helps you provide the appropriate habitat or the right type of bird feeder. And it lets you communicate with other bird watchers. As you begin to appreciate the difference between a bluebird and a bluejay, or a cowbird and a catbird, a stroll through the woods takes on a whole new meaning -- it becomes a treasure hunt of sorts. Ooh, did you see that indigo bunting? Was that really a blue grosbeak?

For many of us, it's not about being able to rattle off the names of birds, or plants, or anything else for that matter. It's about honing observation skills. It's about stepping outside the routine of day-to-day responsibilities and finding joy and amusement in the simplest of things -- the antics of chickadees, the impossibly bright colors of cardinals and bluebirds, the gymnastics of a squirrel trying to raid the feeder. It's about stopping for a moment to see -- really see -- the life that surrounds us, from the commonest song sparrow to the most majestic hawk.

Like any other study of the natural world, bird-watching gives you a glimpse of the dramas being played out in nature -- dramas that occur whether we're watching or not. Last summer I watched a mother bird boot her babies out of the nest she'd made in our hanging fern. She squawked relentlessly until, one by one, each baby bird climbed the wire hanger, plopped with a tiny thud onto the porch floor, got up a little dazed, and scurried away to find shelter. This half hour was far more amusing than any TV sitcom. Curious, I did some research and learned that many species of birds typically evict their young before they are able to fly. Who knew?

The Great Backyard Bird Count
If you've been bitten by the bird-watching bug, consider taking part in the annual Great Backyard Bird Count. Anyone can participate -- you don't need to be an expert at identifying birds. All you have to do is commit to counting birds for at least 15 minutes sometime between February 16 and 19, 2007. You can count the birds in your backyard, make a special trip to a natural area, or join a bird walk. Groups across the country organize events around the Bird Count. Submit your tallies to the Web site and you'll see your entry, as well as the entries from the tens of thousands of other people who participate.

Get the Kids Involved
Invite your children to join you in the Bird Count. Children, like, adults, who are curious about nature are never bored. Like butterflies, birds are a perfect lure to get kids outdoors. They're colorful, they're fun to watch, and they're everywhere. Set up a feeder or two and you're sure to attract birds -- often within a few hours. Kids will learn to sit quietly, observe, and do research to answer questions. These skills will serve them well throughout their lives.

Beware, though: Bird-watching can be addictive. You may find yourself stocking up on field guides, bird feeders, and seed, and taking more walks in the woods. The good news is that some addictions are good for you!

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