The Joys and Benefits of Birding

Perhaps you've been on one end or the other of this type of conversation:

Casual acquaintance: "So, what's your favorite hobby?"

Me: "Birding."

Long pause.  Slight nod.  Quizzical expression.  And then finally...

"What's birding?"

I begin to explain, note the glazed-over expression or blank stares I am invariably met with, backpedal slightly and say with a shrug of resignation, "Bird watching."

The light dawns and my partner in conversation seems more or less satisfied to think of me as a mildly odd personage, an old lady long before her time, who creeps around with binoculars, scattering breadcrumbs and spying on backyard birds.  The crazy bird lady.  Sure.

But of course, I am far from satisfied with this assumption!  Birding is much more than passively watching birds at the backyard feeder (though I do enjoy that as well).

Birding is an active pursuit whereby participants study their quarry in detail, track its movements and behavioral patterns, then take up binoculars, field guide and notebook to trek into the wilds (or a neighborhood park), braving the elements in order to observe, count and record birds.  It encompasses all the action and adventure of outdoor activities, coupled with the precision and detail of a scientific endeavor.  It is thrilling, fascinating, captivating, consuming, addicting.  And it is entirely foreign to most people.

It is, in fact, birding.

Birding at Grand Canyon in June, where being "that tourist with binoculars" paid off when we spotted a majestic California Condor soaring below!

Eric and I recently watched a documentary on birding titled, Birders: The Central Park Effect.  (It's charming, it's heartfelt, it's quirky... and it's short.  I recommend it!)  When asked by his friends why he birds, one of the birders featured in the film, Chris Cooper, came up with a list of seven reasons he loves birding.  And I found myself nodding along as he explained each reason, my nods growing more and more emphatic as he went on.

And so, I would like to share my own list with you.  The first seven "joys" noted here are based heavily on Chris Cooper's list; I have added three more of my own to bring my total number of reasons to love birding to ten.

Hopefully, this list will go beyond describing what birding is and explain to any questioning folks out there why birders do what we do, and why we love it so much.

Seven Ten Joys of Birding:

1.  Simply the sheer beauty of the birds.

It's not actually true that there are more brightly colored (i.e. "beautiful") birds in the tropics than there are in temperate North America.  The tropics have more species overall, so there are also more plain or drab colored birds there as well that often go unnoticed.  Photographers and film-makers probably capture and publicize the brightest species most frequently, simply because those images sell.  North America has its own abundance of dazzlingly bright and beautiful birds.  Just take a look at any male hummingbird shimmering in the sunlight, or a Painted Bunting, Yellow Warbler, or Northern Cardinal.

A striking male Vermilion Flycatcher

And of course, the plain birds are beautiful too!  Just look at the delicate intricacy of this dove's feathers.

An Inca Dove sporting its delicately beautiful plumage and doe eyes.


2.  The opportunity to be in nature.

The facts are there: humans are meant to live in harmony with nature.  We know this intuitively, yet many choose to forget it.  In paved worlds of cities and cars, where roofs shelter us, climate control pampers us and windows separate us, we often look on nature as something remote, distant, strange.  Something to be planned for and squeezed into one or two weekends a year.  Maybe some wouldn't know what to do in nature when they got there!  Birding gives us an excuse to go outside and just be, listening, observing, feeling.

A walk in nature is certainly enhanced when a bird as lovely as this Blue Grosbeak lands in your path!


3.  The satisfaction of contributing to scientific discovery and data collection.

Birders and other citizen scientists are responsible for collecting a wealth of information, compiling not just species lists for locations across the world, but detailing population trends, the timing of migration, breeding success rates and so much more!  While birders of old (or, you know, twenty years ago) used to record their findings in private journals, today with the help of the internet, birders around the world can upload their findings into data bases like those of Cornell University's popular site, eBird and the California Academy of Sciences' iNaturalist.

The endangered Western Snowy Plover is just one of many special species of concern to keep an eye out for.  Information collected by birders helps give scientists a more accurate picture of population trends by expanding their database.


4.  The thrill of the hunt (without the violence and bloodshed of killing).

Birders and other naturalists are, in a sense, hunters of the gentlest kind.  With binoculars and scopes in hand, we walk quietly and stealthily, approaching birds with the hopes of getting a good look at our quarry and studying it before it senses us and flees.  Birding encapsulates all the fun of targeting, stalking, sneaking, spying, and capturing a sighting.  Making it your goal to not just see but also photograph birds adds immensely to this aspect of the pursuit.

A dozing owl is a content owl.  Eyes closed is a sign that we have been quiet enough, and have stayed far enough away to avoid disturbing this nocturnal Western Screech-owl.


5.  The mind exercise of memorization and puzzle-solving.

As we have all heard, our brain needs exercise and puzzles are a great way to do that.  Identifying a bird is a combination of recalling field marks previously memorized from a field guide, coupled with puzzling through a number of variables.  Questions that run through the birder's mind upon spotting a bird may include:  What species is it?  It is a male or female?  Juvenile?  Breeding pair?  A migrant or resident?  What is its song?  What are its field marks?  What is likely in this region and habitat at this time of year?  What would be a rare find?  On top of that, you might only have a fleeting glimpse of a bird to work with, or snatches of song.  Identification can be a real puzzle, but that's the fun of it!

A male Red-winged Blackbird, singing in the spring, is unmistakable.  Unless of course, it sounds a little different and the red looks a little darker... then, could it be a Tri-colored Blackbird instead?  And, cryptically colored brown female blackbirds are so often a puzzle!


6.  The fun of collecting without the clutter.

A life list of species seen and a collection of digital photos takes up far less space than a curio cabinet of dusty bird knick-knacks!  Enough said!

"Collecting" this Long-eared Owl for my life list was a real treat!


7.  "The Unicorn Effect."

As you study field guides, certain rare (or common) species begin to take on almost mythical qualities.  You know what they look like based on dozens of photos and illustrations, but you've never actually seen one in real life.  You may even begin to doubt their existence!  Some of these "unicorns" gradually become "nemesis birds," birds that you should have seen by now, yet try as you might, they evade you.  (I'm looking at you, Short-eared Owl!)  Then suddenly, you're in the right place at the right time, and the bird seems to magically appear in front of you.  That is the Unicorn Effect, and boy what a rush it is to add that bird to your life list!

A quintessential unicorn bird: the Elegant Trogon 


8. Reconnecting with the rhythms of the natural world.

Birds closely follow the rhythms of nature: dawn to dusk, spring to fall, north to south; insects hatching, seed heads ripening, snow melting; migration, breeding, molting, etc.  As humans living in our artificially constructed world, we are quite disconnected from all but the most obvious of these rhythms.  Start to feel the natural cycles and rhythms for yourself and I'm willing to bet you'll begin to feel more alive.  And, hey, you might even impress your friends.  While they're talking about the upcoming swimsuit season, you'll be thinking of spring migration.  While they're buying pumpkin-spiced anything-they-can, you'll be dreaming of the Cedar Waxwings' arrival.  Next time you're at a dinner party, try casually throwing out something like, "It's just about time for the warblers to be passing through," or "The Snow Geese should be coming back any day now."  Okay, if they're not impressed, per say, they might at least be curious as to what you're talking about!

One of my favorite harbingers of autumn: Cedar Waxwings!


9. Finding or renewing a sense of place.

Think where you live is boring?  I did for many years!  The trick is to learn something about the rhythms and characteristics of the natural world in your immediate area and let yourself be amazed.  Most of the region in which I live, California's Great Central Valley, is quite flat, rather dumpy, hot, dusty and miserably dry for much of the year, and almost entirely plowed under or paved over.  Yet, it is located along the Pacific Flyway, and a few remnants of ancient California's beauty remain in patches of preserved wetlands and grasslands, where literally millions of waterfowl return each year to spend the winter.  There is nothing quite like the sight and sound of a flock of thousands of geese taking to the skies in one great body to cause pride and a sense of place to swell in the heart of a Central Californian.

Like being inside a giant snow globe: large flocks of geese rise from the wetlands in a fluttering mass and fill the air with their white wings.


10.  The love of the game.

I know I called it a scientific pursuit.  And it is.  But birding is also a game.  A big game, played over a massive playing field, with innumerable competitors.  (I mean really, aren't scientists and competitors really one in the same?)  My dad and I play a game every year to see which of us can see the most species in a year, and each New Year's Day we have a time of reckoning.  It's great fun!  We try to be in the "Top 10" birders for our county, or get so many species in each county or state, etc.  We count how many species we see in one day, or in one place, and always, always try to beat our record (or the record of another birder).  For some birders, the game gets seriously intense!  But as I have a natural aversion to anything sports-related, birding is, for me, as good as it gets!

The Black Phoebe is almost a given any time we go out birding in our area, but they are still fun birds to watch!


11.  (I know I said 10 - but hear me out)  The enumerable benefits!

In addition to the joys to be derived from birding are a handful of tangible and intangible benefits.  Here are a few I can think of off the top of my head:

Birding...

- Teaches patience.  Because birds operate on their own schedule, beholden to none.  That long-sought bird, that unicorn or nemesis, may perch for a fleeting second and fly away again in an instant.  Patience.

- Cultivates peace.  There's nothing like a quiet stroll through woods filled with birdsong to help sooth the soul.

- Encourages introspection and contemplation.  Likewise, time in nature, observing the lives of animals which are simultaneously carefree and fraught with danger and toil, has a way of putting us back into our little humble place in this great world.

- Builds friendship and camaraderie.  Because birding is always better with a buddy!

- Promotes physical health.  It may not be an aerobic activity, but birding encourages fresh air and exercise by giving us incentive to get out of the house and moving.  Plus, there will always, always be that bird you'll have to hike for!

- Contributes to good mental healthStudies show links between exposure to nature and reduced levels of stress, depression, and anxiety.  And watching birds provides an excellent opportunity for refocusing the mind, taking a mini-retreat, and briefly escaping from daily pressures.

- Puts us face to face with the state of the environment (be it good or bad).  We are forced to see the plastic pollution, the air pollution, the water pollution... but we also see the great measures people have taken and are taking to restore and preserve natural areas.

- Provides an excuse to travel. (If you need another one!)  This year alone, birding adventures have taken me from the rocky Pacific Coast to sandy Atlantic shores, from mountains to valleys, from arid deserts to sultry swamps.  Would I have gone to all of those places anyway?  Yes, of course.  But birding certainly enhances the experience!

- Broadens the mind and develops curiosity (my humble way of saying it makes you smarter!)  Birding encourages study and memorization as we learn not just the names of species and their characteristics, but their habits as well.  And the quest for knowledge is never-ending!

So, why do I bird?  Why not??

For all the scientific-sounding reasons listed above, simply put, birding is immense fun!

What do you love most about birding?  Let me know! 

Comments

  1. This is marvelous. Your "love of the game" aspect recalled something I realized the other day while looking for warblers on the Tuolumne River Trail. With video games, one has to master some basic skills, and the challenge is to get further along each time before losing. With practice one gets better, and eventually one becomes a master with the highest scores. It occurred to me that birding (with the recording of counts on eBird, for instance) is a real-world video game with different levels of mastery, and rebooting the game each January. There's even a world-wide competition on Oct. 16! And no game designer has determined the final outcome. That's up to Mother Nature whether something incredible happens (like, say, a Rose-breasted Grosbeak!).

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    Replies
    1. Thank you! That's a great analogy! And... I'm still envious of your Rose-breasted Grosbeak sighting!! ;)

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