How My Family Took Up Birdwatching

This morning when I woke up I was thinking about how I was introduced to birding. I have a friend who would come to our house when we were homeschooling and do fun things with us. This friend has watched birds for a long time and she taught us. Before I learned from her, I knew there were blue jays, cardinals, mockingbirds and Sonic birds and not much else. I learned the Sonic birds – you know, the ones who hang out at the hamburger joint and eat french fries?– are grackles and there are three different kinds of them. I also learned not all bird watchers are like Miss Jane on “The Beverly Hillbillies.” Have you ever seen her? She looked like she was dressed for a safari with her knobby knees sticking out between her knee socks and her long shorts. Her pith helmet topped off her strange outfit. Oh, and she was always babbling about a Prothonotary Warbler. Sounds like a made-up name, but it’s not. I had one here in my yard several years ago. It made a nest on my neighbors’ front porch. I’ve never seen a bird watcher dressed like Miss Jane, by the way.

There are different levels of involvement with this hobby. Some folks buy or make a feeder and put out black oil sunflower seed and simply watch what comes to dine without ever cracking open a field guide or picking up a pair of binoculars. Others are up before dawn to drive to a particular location so they can participate in a bird count. And still others take trips to exotic places hoping to see a bird they have never seen before. I’m somewhere between the first and second group. It’s hard to convince me to leave a nice warm bed in the dead of winter to go to a Christmas Bird Count. That is the only one I know of around here and maybe one day I’ll go for it. The main thing is this is supposed to be fun. If you are happy watching them eat without knowing ‘who’ they are, then that’s fine. If anyone bugs you about it, just remind them you are feeding the birds and you and they are happy.

I think bird watching is an excellent hobby for children. Even toddlers like to watch birds if you put some seed on the ground outside near a window. Don’t worry about fingerprints on the glass. You will have them! It’s a sign of life in your house. Bird watching teaches children to care for animals and to be observant. Kids usually want to know all they can find out about a thing, so they end up learning about different birds’ feeding habits, migration patterns (a bit of geography gets tossed in there), seasonal plumage, their songs and more.

One day when my youngest son was about 6 or 7, he was showing his two friends, who were brothers about his age, the birds that were in our backyard. All three boys were sitting shoulder to shoulder in front of the screen door, passing the binoculars back and forth, as my son explained the differences in Boat-tailed, Common, and Great-tailed Grackles. He still watches birds when he sits on the front porch and occasionally comes in for the binoculars when he can tell–sometimes by behavior, sometimes by color–something is different from what he usually sees.

My oldest son carries binoculars and a field guide in his car. All the time. When he had a sun roof, he kept it open so he could see birds through the window on top of his car. Out of all of us, he’s the one who has the most complete bird list. He’s been to more places and is the most disciplined about keeping that list. He has also found online groups that watch birds and report to each other what they are seeing and where they are seeing them. He has run across a fellow group member or two this way as they were out in a park in Houston looking for the same bird.

My husband became interested in birds as a result of being exposed to the rest of us. He has been to some classes with me and our oldest son and looks for birds when we hike in the Big Thicket or go to the beach. He also wants to add some feeders to our backyard this year and hopes to draw in an Orchard Oriole that he saw in the woods in back of our house last spring.

If you are not currently feeding and watching birds but want to know where to start, it’s really simple. The easiest and cheapest way to make a bird feeder that I know of is to just cut the sides out of a plastic jug or bottle and hang it in a tree with a wire coat hanger. You can also sprinkle a bit of seed on the ground. Birds usually prefer to feed close to shrubs or trees so they have a place of protection nearby in case of predators, so you might keep that in mind when choosing where to place your seed. Black oil sunflower seed is the most inexpensive feed and draws the widest variety of birds. Plus, it has more meat inside than the plain sunflower seed. If your bird seed draws squirrels and you aren’t thrilled with that, you might as well put some out for them in a different spot. Maybe they will at least eat where you want them to. And maybe they won’t. No promises about the squirrels, but I can tell you that if you try bird watching, you may find it to be a very relaxing and educational hobby.

Addendum, February 13, 2010: I just found out my middle son, who just moved to a new place in Canada, now lives in a bird sanctuary. He’s looking forward to seeing the eagles that live there. How exciting!