Saturday, March 23, 2019

Why People Watch Birds

I don't spend a lot of time watching birds, or least not as much as I used to spend. I do watch the Wrens and Sparrows(?) that spend a lot time eating pears and berries that have fallen from the neighborhood trees. I keep an eye out when I park my truck near or under a tree. 

And though I utterly despise them I keep a careful watch on the loud and aggressive Canadian Geese who have evidently decided to stay in Michigan year round, gracing us with their hisses, honks and incredible waste production. The geese keep their beady little eyes focused on humans. They will attack any human who gets too close to their nesting areas. And they keep expanding their nesting areas. As I've written before if it were up to me I would happily greenlight Order 66 on those Canadian Geese. Still, I do enjoy watching some of the increased activity of birds as they either return to Michigan or simply become more noticeable. A lot of people also like watching birds.

Earlier this month I gave a talk titled “Backyard Bergen Birds” to the Demarest Garden Club. While I was putting the presentation together, I came up with all sorts of cool photos and information about the birds that visit our yards here in North Jersey. I even included a section on a variety of bird feeders that you can use to attract everything from hummingbirds to cardinals. 

But something was missing, and I couldn’t think of what. The morning of the talk, it occurred to me: I had not addressed the most important question: Why do we watch birds in the first place? 

Then I remembered an hour-long, 2012 HBO documentary called “Birders: The Central Park Effect.” The film charmingly listed dozens of urban birds as the stars of the show, but it was the segments with some of the park’s regular birders that made the film meaningful.

Best-selling novelist Jonathan Franzen, for instance, called birding “one of the rare experiences in an adult’s life where you find the world more magical instead of less.” But what stuck in my head was a segment in which birder Chris Cooper described what he called “the seven pleasures of birding”:

1. “The beauty of the birds.”
2. “The joy of being in a natural setting.”
3. “The joy of scientific discovery.”
4. “The joys of hunting without the bloodshed. You’ve got to kind of stalk the bird very often without killing the bird.”
5. “The joy of puzzle-solving” (trying to figure out what kind of bird it is).
6. “The joy of collecting” (keeping lists of what you see). “When you get a new bird, it’s one more you can add to the collection,” says Cooper.
7. “The Unicorn Effect” (the joy of finally seeing in real life a bird you’ve only seen in books).

Now that spring is here again, I thought this would be a perfect time to expand that list. After all, birds of all sizes are the perfect gateway into nature — a gateway as near as the bird feeders in our backyards. Entering that gateway often provides an appreciation and understanding of the natural beauty that’s under our noses if only we take the time to look.


It is indeed useful to humans to step out of the artificial world that we have created and try to enjoy and experience nature simply for itself.
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