Birdwatching is like a box of chocolates
(first column, published 1-22-04)

Last year I went out of my way to see “Winged Migration” at a theater in Chicago. No regrets, the film was excellent, but turns out I could have saved myself some trouble—a few weeks later it came to Glen Ellyn and stayed for weeks on end. Imagine that, a bird documentary held over.

The popular success of “Winged Migration,” in my view, is just the latest sign that birds are really something special. They can amaze and fascinate people who don’t even think of themselves as birdwatchers. And people are curious about them. I get bird questions all the time from friends and colleagues.

Many of us have taken our curiosity to the next level. We are birdwatchers or “birders” and not afraid to admit it. The hobby is mainstream now, having moved beyond those old stereotypes involving little old ladies in sensible shoes. It’s big business, too. Have you noticed how much space our local hardware stores devote to birdseed, feeders and other supplies? And how about those specialty stores that cater specifically to birders? These are fairly recent developments.

BusinessWeek, in an article titled “Where the Boomers Are Flocking,” reported in 2002 that the American birdwatching population now totals 46 million—up 10 percent from five years before. The U.S. Forest Service rates birding as the fastest growing outdoor activity.

So we know this is big and getting bigger. But why? What makes birdwatching so appealing? It really depends on the person. For some, the best thing about birding may be traveling to new places and adding species to their Life Lists. Others enjoy birding because they can do it from their kitchen window. I like it for each of those reasons, plus a few more:

** Birding is simple. The only essential equipment is a decent pair of binoculars and a field guide to help identify what you see. The cotton vest with 27 pockets can come later.

** Birding is convenient. It’s something you can do almost anywhere at any time. I am always looking and listening for birds. I’m so distracted by birds on golf courses that I should probably stop trying to play. Oh, and in the car. (My wife could tell you about that.)

** Birding is like a box of chocolates. Really, at any place and time, you never know what you might see. This is particularly true during the spring and fall migration seasons, when a lot of non-resident birds are passing through Chicagoland. The more time you spend birding, the more you learn to expect the unexpected. Still, I am constantly being surprised, and that’s part of the fun.

** Birding is challenging. Learning to identify birds by sight and sound is the main thing. Then there are challenges like going on field trips in search of particular birds or the game of adding new species to your yard list (hint: watch for flyovers).

** Birding brings us closer to nature. I think most of us would like to feel more connected with the natural world. Birding satisfies that desire and broadens our horizons as well. In the spring, there’s something cool about spotting a scarlet tanager in your maple tree and knowing that a few weeks before it was probably somewhere in Central America.

I’m not an ornithologist—just a local birder who loves the hobby and wants to share it. If you too have a passion for birds, this column is for you. But it’s also for anybody who has ever hung a feeder or birdhouse in the backyard. Birds can be appreciated and enjoyed in many ways, no matter what your age, fitness level or degree of interest. And thanks to “Winged Migration,” you can even enjoy them with popcorn.

Reiter is a Glen Ellyn, Illinois, resident who became hooked on birding about 10 years ago. He can be reached at jreiter@wordsonbirds.com.

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