I was born into a nest of birders, only I wasn’t like the other birds. My mom was an ornithology student and my dad a biologist. They don’t just “like” birds. They know calls and can identify them by sight. They know where birds winter, for how long, and what they eat. They know behaviors and social pecking order. They can identify birds by their calls. They were (and are) serious birders. Me, not so much.
Birding didn’t stop with observation in our family. When I was a kid we spent one weekend every summer at a bird survey. Dozens of birders and their families set up campers and tents in northern Wisconsin to serve as a birding home base. My parents got up at like 3:00 in the morning with the other delusional bird enthusiasts to count birds. When I was old enough to participate, I learned right away that helping with the bird survey meant getting up before dawn to look for birds and listen for bird calls. In the rain, in heavy humidity or in clouds of mosquitoes, it didn’t matter, there were birds to be counted! After participating in my first (and need I say, last?) bird survey, I quickly fell asleep in the back of the car on the way back to camp. I could barely lift my head for the rest of the day. Bird surveys aren’t for the feint of heart. Literally and figuratively, for the birds.
For me, birds were just there, like rocks and little brothers. I didn’t really care about birds, unless it was the first robin and only then because it meant spring, and my birthday, was near. Somehow I was raised by birders, serious birders, and didn’t absorb one drop of information. And now, inspired by my son’s interest in birds, I’m learning to love birds and watching them.
At first, I thought the only birds I could identify on sight were flamingos. It’s pretty hard to misidentify a big pink bird. Once I started thinking about it, it turns out there are quite a few I can identify.
- mallard duck
- bald eagle
- red-tailed hawk
- penguins, in general, specific types, not so much
- Canada goose
- great blue heron
- sandhill crane
- redwing blackbird
Here are the birds I can identify by their song or call:
- cardinal (and only because it sounds like a video game- pew! pew! pew!)
- redwing blackbird
It’s a good start, but I have some work to do.
How we started birding from the couch
This winter our son was inspired by the birdfeeder he made at the Izaac Walton League‘s booth at a local science event. A simple water bottle with a stick poked through it for a perch was all it took to get P excited about bird watching. The same afternoon he made a birdfeeder from a kit with Grandpa’s supervision. Grandma sent us home with one of her extra feeders that attaches right on a window. P convinced me to stop on the way home at Fleet Farm to “look at” birdseed. We walked out with way too much birdseed and a level of excitement I can only describe as fervor.
We filled the feeders and put them out immediately when we got home. Our living room looks out into a wooded area which makes for a pretty great start for a beginner bird watcher. The birds came faster than expected and there were many more birds than we expected. There were a few Hitchcock moments where I questioned the strength and durability of the glass in our patio doors.
Ever since then we’ve been counting, identifying, and just plain observing our feathered friends with great interest. We, and I do mean we, both enthusiastically update my parents on new birds we see at the feeders and on our outings. I try to capture photos when I can be stealthy enough not send them darting off into the woods and P loves shooting jerky video clips shot at an angle.
Ways we bird on and off the couch
- At Grandma and Grandpa’s house- Not everyone has a mom that single-handedly keeps the entire neighborhood’s bird population fat and happy with a buffet of birdfeeders. Certainly, not everyone has parents with a spotting scope set up in the living room window and binoculars always at the ready on the end table (next to the bird guide, natch). With their knowledge and experience, they make James Audubon look like an amateur. We’re fortunate to have them at our disposal.
- In the car- Whether we’re in town on driving across the state, we’re on the lookout, scouring fence posts, electrical wires, farm fields, and rivers. We see everything from turkeys to pelicans on the way to school every day and searching for birds on a road trip can keep us from spiraling into desperate boredom.
- At the Wildlife sanctuary– If keeping bird feeders full and clean isn’t your thing, head for the Bay Beach Wildlife Sanctuary. I really enjoy their bird watching spots in and around the buildings where we can settle in to observe without having to commit to a season of bird care.
- In natural areas- Places like Osprey Point, Voyageur Park, Barkhausen, the Cofrin Arboretum at UWGB, and Baird’s Creek are all perfect places to be still and take in the birds. Find a bench and it’s almost like birding from your couch.
Whether it’s on a boat tour, riding in the car on the way to school, or sitting on our couch, we’re still amateurs and our birding usually happens while we’re sitting down. It’s just my speed. Sitting on the couch with a cup of coffee checking Facebook and observing the pecking order (oh yes I did) of the neighborhood birds is fascinating. With the help of my worn beginning bird book I can identify juncos, finches, and tree sparrows. You won’t find me getting up at 3:00 in the morning to groggily identify birds for the sake of science, but birding sure goes well with a cup of coffee on the seat of my couch.