Feed (and Count) the Birds
First published on garden.org 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
Get the Kids Involved
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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