More people are watching birds today than ever before; its popularity as a pastime has been growing rapidly over the past few years. Birding’s tremendous ripple effect as a hobby has influenced everything from ecotourism to optics manufacturers. But why do people take up bird watching? When I came to work at Bird Watcher’s Digest, I already loved birds, but I didn’t know much about them and wasn’t really a bird watcher. Now I find that there are as many reasons to watch birds as there are people doing it. Here are what I consider to be the top 10 reasons to become a bird watcher.
10. Birds are all around us. No matter where you live, there are birds around you. Perhaps not a great number of birds, perhaps not many bird species, but they are there. In some places, such as many urban areas, other wildlife is hard to find or nonexistent, but you can always find birds.
9. It’s a connection with nature. Human beings are not alone in the world. But in modern society our contacts with our fellow creatures are artificially constrained. We need to be in some way connected to nature and other living creatures: I’m convinced that it is a real psychological requirement. Birds can be that connection for us, or they can be only the beginning of wider connections with the natural world.
8. Birds get us outside. Yes, outside—in fresh (or otherwise) air, out of the air conditioning or forced-air heat, and perhaps out of our comfort zone. Anything we do, from a demanding hike in the woods to a bird walk with a local bird club to just going out to clean or fill the bird feeders, is beneficial—mentally and physically—because it takes us outside and gets us moving around.
7. It’s a “flexible” pastime. Bird watching is a hobby you tailor to fit yourself; you can be as involved in it as you want to be. You may start watching birds or feeding them in your yard, learn to identify some of your backyard birds and become familiar with their habits—and that’s enough to add a whole new element of interest and enjoyment to your daily life. On the other hand, you may begin to wonder why your backyard birds do what they do. Why do some hummingbirds hog the feeders and drive the others away? Where do those little sparrows go when they disappear in summer? Or, you might begin to wonder about all the other birds out there—the ones in the field guides, the ones you never see. Where do you find them? How do you identify them?
6. It’s economical. Again, because the extent of your involvement is up to you, so is the cost of being involved. No expensive equipment is necessary to enjoy watching birds. All you really need is a good field guide and a decent binocular. Anything more is optional—feeders (how many, what kind, and how expensive), nest boxes, reference books, spotting scopes, bird club memberships, birding tours—as much or as little as you want to spend.
5. You can gain new friends. Bird watchers are, for the most part, the friendliest, most helpful, and most interesting people I’ve ever known. It makes no difference how much you know about birds or even if you know anything at all. If you’re interested in birds and want to learn, you’re one of the group—it’s an instant “in.” Most of the birders I know are never so pleased as when they can help introduce someone else to the joys of bird watching. Having a common interest makes forming friendships remarkably easy. (It certainly solves the what-to-talk-about dilemma.)
4. Birds can be enjoyed year-round. Unlike many interests or hobbies, birding is non-seasonal. It might change with the seasons: Spring is prime migration and nesting-bird time; summer is seeing and hearing young birds, watching our local breeding birds before they’re gone again, and enjoying hummingbirds; fall migration brings its own excitement and changes in bird populations; and in winter we can enjoy feeding birds and watching the birds that over-winter in the area. There is always something interesting to see and something to anticipate. Watching birds year-round keeps us in tune with the seasons, more acutely aware of the whole spectrum of seasonal changes and rhythms than most of us are otherwise, given our truly insulated lifestyles.
3. It often leads down other paths. Watching birds in many cases sparks involvement in other interests. I immediately think of gardening for birds an example of this. You can feed birds by using feeders, but you find out right away that you can attract more birds and keep more birds coming back if you offer the right kinds of habitat to provide what birds need: food, cover, and nesting sites. Once you start with a few plants to attract hummingbirds, who knows where it might lead?
Then there are butterflies. Bird watchers these days are often butterfly watchers, too. Many people develop an interest in wildflowers or dragonflies. An increasing number of bird watchers travel to see birds. There are bird and nature festivals and bird-watching tours to birding hotspots all over the world. Birding, therefore, could turn you into a world traveler! Or not.
2. Bird watching is for life. A friend of mine once said that he’d never met anyone who described himself as a former bird watcher. Neither have I. Once you develop an interest in birds, it doesn’t go away—you’re hooked for good. Your habits might change, and you might bird in different ways than before, but the fascination doesn’t fade. I can’t imagine not noticing birds when I hear or see them, not turning around to see what it was that flew past or saying to myself, upon hearing a particular song, “wood thrush” or “Carolina wren” or “white-crowned sparrow.” Birds are lovely, their songs and calls are the “background music” of our lives, and they engage in complex and fascinating behaviors. They add an element of beauty to our days that doesn’t fade with time.
1. It promotes habitat conservation. Being interested in birds keeps us learning; always wanting to know more and to understand more. The study of birds invariably touches on a number of other subjects, among them biology, history, geography, sociology, and politics.
The more you learn about birds, their needs, and the challenges and even crises many species face, the more concerned and involved you’re likely to become in supporting wildlife habitat conservation and restoration efforts. This involvement can be on many levels, from making sure your own property sustains birds and other wildlife to educating others about the needs of and threats to bird populations to influencing public policy on a local, state, or federal level.
Developing an interest in birds quickly reveals just how intimately connected we are with earth’s other inhabitants. All living creatures are interdependent, but humans need birds in the world much more than they need us. Bird watchers, then, have the power to preserve and improve the planet for generations yet to come.