What I Love About Birding (or Why I Bird)

I’ve always had a natural curiosity about birds for as long as I can remember, but I didn’t really get hooked into birding until I learned more about it in undergrad. When I took ornithology lab, I learned how to learn bird song, and I learned more about my local birds (including seasonality of occurrence). “Learning by ear” doesn’t come that naturally to me; I had to meta-learn in order to know how to listen to songs. I’ve never had a musical proclivity, so it took some hard studying and perseverance in observation to get a handle on things.

Once I invested the time, though, and learned more about the birds around me, it has brought some neat benefits to my everyday life. This is now more or less my typical day, full of attention to the local birds. So, these are some examples of why it’s worth putting in the time to learn about birds, and what you could gain from it!

  • automatic awareness: I open my window in the morning and hear birds outside, and without really thinking much about it, I recognize the species (in that particular case, because I’m especially familiar with what’s in my backyard). I crack my window and doze back off until an eastern kingbird abruptly wakes me with its buzzing calls. I gradually wake up and open all my windows, listening to the dawn chorus I typically hear, identifying the birds singing as I go without any additional effort or time spent. I get to freely enjoy knowing what’s around me at this point, helping return my awareness to the present moment as I think about what’s going on outside.
  • knowing when a neat wildlife moment is occurring: I hear the bold chatter of the merlins nesting near my apartment, and I quickly go to my window to see what the commotion is all about, only to watch a “hand off” of a freshly killed bird from the hunter to the female, which leads me to…
  • being able to interpret said observation: in this case, the merlins likely have chicks in the nest, and the mom is bringing back the food to growing nestlings!
  • the ability to process information quickly: if you really study birds, your senses can become keen, which may help you with other types of identification and related skills. Even just as far as birding goes, though, as you gain expertise, a flash of feathers in front of your car can take on a recognizable form and add some excitement to the otherwise uneventful parts of your day.
  • enhanced enjoyment of the outdoors: this goes along with all the above points, but if you already love hiking, you’ll take in so much more if you learn how to listen for bird songs! Maybe you won’t find yourself so annoyed by the early birds at your campsite if you can appreciate who’s making the noise. 🙂
  • appreciating when something unusual is happening: the common hummingbird to most of my friends (being easterners) is the ruby-throated, but there’s a possibility of individuals moving around more after the breeding season, sometimes accidentally to far-flung places as they begin to migrate depending on the prevailing winds. If you know what you’re looking at, you may be able to identify a rare visitor, which is an added benefit of knowing what’s typical for your area!
  • understanding the possibilities (and probabilities): as you get more into birding, you start to get a handle on how often you see certain species, and thus how often “rare” really occurs (i.e. not often, hence the term). Nonetheless, there are degrees of “rare,” and you’ll get to learn which species are more likely to show up in your area and when (though on the whole, they’re unlikely). This can bring excitement to seasonal birding (e.g. as fall approaches, maybe I’ll finally get to see that Pacific loon I’ve been wanting to see on Lake Superior if I go out enough and look hard). On that note, it helps you plan where to go and when to look for birds, which leads me to…
  • otherwise ordinary places become interesting, or you go where you never thought you’d go just for fun: your weekend just around your neighborhood may become more fun than you thought it could be! Nondescript outdoor spots might become places you add as a destination. At the very least, you might become curious about a location you’ve never noticed before, such as the ball field on your way home that’s now flooded in the fall and is full of shorebirds on their way south. I can’t resist to list the weird places birders go to find birds at this juncture, and this is just for starters:
    • the landfill
    • cemeteries
    • airports
    • parking lots
  • making some great friends with common interests, that you may see all at once whenever a rare bird pops up: if you get into birding enough to want to travel to see a rare bird in your area, you’re likely to run into a lot of buddies there too! On any given day, you’re also likely to run into your local birding friends at the “good spots.”
  • contributing to science: walking your dog can now be simultaneous with adding observations to a database that bird researchers are digging into evermore! With the advent of eBird, if you learn your local birds well, you can use an app to enter all the birds you saw and heard along your stroll, which then can be used for all kinds of research.
    • the opportunity to become specially involved in local efforts: my current focal birding hobby is contributing to the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas, where I’m primarily responsible for a survey block. This means I go out to my area and at this time of year, look for baby birds being fed by adults (or other signs that they have an active nest), and report them to eBird using a specialized protocol. It’s really fun to pay fine attention to these phenomena around you, and adds to an overall appreciation of your local outdoors.
    • scheduling events that contribute to long-term monitoring efforts: this year, I ran my 1st ever North American Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) route, which in my case meant a special trip up north to kick off the early morning of 4th of July. Of course, this is optional and this particular effort requires a degree of expertise. If you find it enjoyable, though, it could be something you look forward to in your early summer.

Ending on that note, birding could be something new for you to geek out about, that actually can help inform conservation decisions and help us better understand avian ecology. In other words, we need your eyes and ears if you’re willing! In short, though, if you study bird identification, it can become an “automatic” part of your day that enhances your experience of your environment.

If you’re already a birder, what benefits have you seen to your life that I didn’t cover? What do you love about birding?

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