6 Reasons Birding Is Cool
For birdwatchers like me, one of the highlights of the holiday season is the National Audubon Society's annual Christmas Bird Count. It's a chance for experienced birders to monitor the health of their local avian community, but it's also an opportunity for would-be birdwatchers to get a taste of a fascinating hobby while participating in one of the world's oldest "crowd science" efforts.
In this 112-year-old tradition -- started as an alternative to Christmas bird-shooting competitions -- groups of bird lovers head out one day between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5 to record the number of species and the number of birds they see. Last year more than 60,000 people tallied more than 61 million birds, according to the Audubon Society.
You don't have to be an experienced birdwatcher to join the annual count. Anyone can help fill out a tally sheet. Local Audubon chapters can tell you when and where the count will be in your community.
Taking part in a Christmas Bird Count is one way to get into birding. You can also join walks offered by the Audubon Society or other nature groups, or take classes offered through community colleges and adult education programs. It's a great hobby that requires only a good pair of walking shoes, some decent binoculars and a field guide to help identify the birds you see. Kenn Kaufman's Field Guide to Birds of North America and National Geographic's Field Guide to the Birds of North America are good portable guides. There are also smartphone apps to help with bird identification. Ibird Explorer Pro is a popular one.
Why birdwatching? It's fun, mentally challenging, a chance to meet new people and gets you out into nature. Here are my top six reasons why birding is a cool pursuit for everyone:
1. It's moderate exercise.
You can watch birds from your back porch, but to see a lot of birds, you have to cover some ground -- parks, forest paths, around ponds and lakes. It's not as strenuous as hiking or jogging; birders tend to amble in order to see and hear their prey. But you can easily spend three or four hours and cover several miles on a bird walk.
2. It challenges your mind.
Finding and identifying birds isn't as easy as you might think. It can be maddening to walk among a stand of trees and hear the melodic call of a bird that you can't find in your binoculars. Experienced birders can identify many species by their songs, but in the beginning you'll want to see the bird. Once you do, you'll have to gather visual clues and sort through a mental list of possible suspects to determine exactly which species that small gray-and-white bird belongs to. It's a thinking exercise and a constant learning experience.
3. It's social.
There's a large community of avid birders. Many people go out alone or in pairs, but many others participate in group excursions, where a dozen people head to a specific destination and walk together. Conversation is limited, as a quiet environment makes it easier to hear birds and not scare them away, but people tend to visit and chat as they wander from one viewing area to another, and before or after the walk. Groups of birders also gather for lectures, discussions and conservation-related activities.
4. It crosses generations.
Some local bird groups and nature preserves offer classes and camps for kids. But finding and identifying birds can be a rewarding outing for any family group, and it's something grandparents, parents and children can do together.
5. It enhances your travel experiences.
Many dedicated birders travel around the U.S. and the world in pursuit of new species for their life lists. Companies such as VENT and Elderhostel offer trips dedicated to birdwatching. But once your interest is kindled, any trip to a new place can include some time in a forest or park in pursuit of birds you can't see at home. You can use the web to find a birding group at your destination. Most birders are proud to share their knowledge and show off their local birds to a visitor.
6. And, my favorite reason: You don't have to get dressed up.
From Kenn Kaufmann's field guide: "Birding gives you an excuse to put on beat-up old clothes and just be comfortable. The other birders don't care what you look like, and neither do the birds."
Read more: My Vacation: Birdwatching Across America
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