Why You Should Take Up Birding

Six Reasons to Gain a New Appreciation of Our Feathered Friends

A Great Horned Owl I recently spotted at a local nature center. These are the kinds of sights that take your breath away when birding.

Perhaps you've seen them down at the park, at a nature reserve, or at a lake. People peering up into the trees with binoculars, or finding an ordinary-looking bush very fascinating for some reason. Maybe they're on the shoreline of a reservoir, gawking through what appears to be a small telescope. Before you assume that they're all creepy peeping toms, ask one of them what they're doing. You should do this, first of all, so you can rest assured that they are actually looking at birds. Second, birders are often giddy to share with passersby what they're looking at. Such is the joy of natural discovery.

I'm an amateur birder. I've only been doing it since January, when I took an Ornithology class in college. Birding has become such a passion of mine that every time my wife and I discuss going on vacation somewhere, I immediately hop online and look for "birding hotspots" in the vicinity of our vacation spot (a "birding hotspot" is a place with an exceptionally high number of bird sightings). And in case you wondered, looking for birds is kind of like Pokémon Go, only it's fun, and completely grounded in reality. Beautiful glorious reality!

In case you like birds and want to give birding a try, I've put together a list of six reasons why this is a delightful and rewarding hobby.

Birds are likely the most common animal you see every day.

Why not learn to identify all the little hummers that visit your bird feeders, or all the little songbirds that serenade each other in the park? There are over 10,000 species of birds in the world, and they live in just about every single habitat imaginable.

It's great exercise.

It may not get your blood pumping like a strenuous run or a bike ride, but it will get you outside and moving around. Is that still considered exercise? I don't know. I don't really care.

It is richly rewarding.

As I mentioned before, nothing beats the thrill of discovering something in nature that you've never seen, and then being able to attach identity and meaning to it. What I mean by that: Recently, I found a bird I had been searching for called a Brown-Headed Cowbird. Compared to something richly exotic and striking like a beautiful shimmering hummingbird, the Brown-Headed Cowbird, physically, is not much to write home about. Then I learned something interesting about it. This bird actually parasitizes other bird nests (it's a type of bird called a brood parasite). In other words, it lays its eggs in other nests, forcing other birds to raise their young. These other birds often don't know they're raising someone else's kids (and there are some species that do know the difference and can't be tricked).

Learning these kinds of things adds to the thrill of birding. It's not just about seeing birds and checking them off a list (although many people find that to be fun), but actually learning about what you're seeing. You're seeing how evolution has shaped these beautiful creatures and the myriad ways in which they have adapted to survival and passing on DNA.

If that's too heavy, then you can just check them off a list. :)

A female Cooper's Hawk in a nearby park. My friend and I kept an eye on this bird and her mate from the time they nested together to when their five kids left the nest a few months later.B

You don't have to go at it alone.

There are birding clubs everywhere, Audubon chapters that take birding trips, and bird festivals nationwide. With not much effort, you can find others to go peep at birds with. If you end up in southern Utah for some reason, I'll go birding with you.

It doesn't cost much.

Unless you're like Jack Black and company from The Big Year, chances are you won't be flying cross country just to see one elusive bird (not yet anyway). So rest easy. My field guide Sibley Birds West was $20. Others are cheaper, some more expensive. Check in your local bookstores for field guides specific to your area. There are also free field guide apps like the Audubon app and Merlin for iPhone and Android, which will probably serve you perfectly well starting out. I use the Audubon app, which contains hundreds of bird photos, songs and calls, descriptions of bird habitat, behavior, and appearance, and a Bird ID tool so you can use a few features (colors, size, behavior, habitat) to help you identify. Even with the app, I still love my Sibley guide, as flipping through it occasionally and getting familiar with local birds has helped me to identify species quickly when first coming across them in the field. Also get yourself a pair of binoculars, and don't be afraid to pay a little more for higher quality. If money's tight, borrow a pair from someone, then purchase some if you feel like this is something you can get serious about. Optional: A notebook for recording observations and sketching. I don't sketch (my animal pictures are terrible enough to induce nightmares), but I do keep track of what I see on my phone's Notes app.

My birding equipment: a camera with a zoom-lens (optional), binocs, and a field guide

It teaches you patience.

This kind of sounds like a turnoff, because it implies that there's a lot of waiting, a lot of frustration, and a lot of just sitting still and taking time to listen and look around. Ideally, we'd like to get out in the field and immediately see 50 species of birds dancing around and singing right in front of us. Fortunately, birding is thrilling because it is a challenge. But we can all use some patience. Our society is fast-paced. People want what they want, and they want it right now. Push back against that tendency. Fight it. Go birding.

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