Bird-watching as Sport, Science and Sanctuary

By Cathy Elcik

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0in 0in 0pt">There’s a beautiful bird in your shrubbery this morning, but it’s taken flight in a whirlwind of fluttering wings before you can even begin to wonder what it was. If you’re noticing the feathered creatures flying about, you’re not alone. The love of nature, curiosity and even the simple desire for a bit of calm in a hectic schedule are luring birders out in droves. And whether they’ve been birding most of their lives or are curious novices, many midlife adults are enjoying bird-watching.

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“Very often, it’s the sport of trying to see who can see the most different species” that attracts people to bird-watching, says ornithologist Simon Perkins. “To some it’s sport, to others it’s really spiritualistic. To others it’s just entertainment and recreation.”

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Doug Faulkner, director of the Monitoring Division at the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory in Brighton, attributes the growing popularity of bird-watching, particularly among baby boomers, to their curiosity and intellectual interest.

“They’re a generation that always wants to learn,” he says.

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For birdwatcher Bill Marland, birding is a social activity, as well as a chance to get back to nature. “It’s like any hobby,” Marland says. “It’s a chance to get with people who have the same interests as you. It’s really like fishing, where you go out on the lake or into the stream and look around. If you catch a fish that’s great. It’s a big bonus. If not, you’re with your friends looking at nature and there’s no stress.”

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Naturalist Becky Suomala says a childlike wonder is the common denominator among the birders she encounters. “Birds capture people,” she says. “They can fly, they come in colors and they’re very beautiful – very appealing. They each have their own songs. I got interested in birds because I like wildlife, and birds were what I could most easily see and study.”

Many birding enthusiasts keep returning because they’re drawn to the peacefulness of the activity. Soheil Zendeh says he relishes the opportunity to spend long afternoons with only the birds for company. During hawk season Zendeh has been known to trek out into the wild, set up a low-back chair and drift in and out of sleep while trying to spot a hawk silhouette soaring above.

“It doesn’t matter where you go,” says birder Glenn d’Entremont. “It’s just a calming way to collect your thoughts. At least temporarily you can get away from the hubbub of human life.”

Whether birders are out there for relaxation, conservation or just plain fun, they’re coming to the sport in record numbers, says Perkins.

Technological advances have played a part in this growing popularity. The quality of binoculars and spotting scopes has improved tremendously and prices have dropped, so catching a good view of the birds is easier than ever. Likewise, field guides are better and more accessible. Now, even supermarkets sell birdseed and feeders.


Getting In On the Action

Whether you want to be a lone birder or go out with a crowd, there’s an activity for you. Many people who have been involved in birding for a while are beginning to get involved in bird counts to help increase data on species.

The National Audubon Society (NAS) has sponsored a Christmas Bird Count for more than 100 years. Today, some 50,000 people help gather information on early-winter bird populations. The NAS also sponsors feeder counts in which bird enthusiasts spend an hour or a morning monitoring their feeders one winter day and then report the information. Similarly, the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology conducts a national feeder count in which participants monitor their feeders once a week.

In addition to the national counts, several local organizations conduct counts and birding events. Faulkner recommends that beginners start with the Audubon Society of Greater Denver, where they can find basic information and nature hikes to introduce them to ornithology. The Denver Field Ornithologists also provide a community for birders, with regular lectures and field trips.

Experienced birders note that simply feeding birds in the back yard can be a rewarding way to bird during the fall and winter months.

“Some people enjoy just watching chickadees,” d’Entremont says. “The most diligent can get them to feed off their hand, which is fascinating because they weigh virtually nothing. You feel a small clasp as they land and then they grab from your hand and they’re gone.”

While some birders don’t venture much beyond their back yards, others go great distances to view rare species. The Audubon Society and eco-tourism outfits conduct birding excursions to exotic locales like Costa Rica, Tanzania and Alaska.

On a simpler scale, most birders maintain a list of all of the birds they have seen in their lifetimes. Whether this becomes a checklist or a detailed bird log is up to the individual.

“Listing is different things to different people,” Perkins says. “Some take it more seriously than others. I keep records of birds I’ve seen on a daily basis, so I can compare from year to year and review patterns.”

Above all, beginners should not be afraid to get involved, Suomala says. “Sometimes beginners get intimidated because they think everyone else knows more than they do. People say, ‘Only experts go on the Audubon trips. They’re not for me – they’re for people who already know about this stuff.’ I think that is the biggest missed opportunity.”

Responsible Birding


If you’re aching to get out in the field, it’s time to make sure your enthusiasm won’t be detrimental to the birds you’re trying so hard to observe. The American Birding Association (ABA) has written guidelines of the do’s and don’ts of responsible bird-watching. The ABA’s Code of Birding Ethics call for the respect of wildlife, the environment and the rights of other people. “In any conflict of interest between birds and birders, the welfare of the birds and their environment comes first,” according to the ABA.

The ABA instructs birders to:

Steer clear of nests, nesting colonies, roosts and known feeding sites.

• Avoid exposing birds to harsh flashes or artificial light when filming or taking photos.

Use birdcalls sparingly because they frighten birds of other species.

Follow posted rules regarding public areas.

Never go onto private property without the permission of the owner.

Keep your bird feeders clean and full. Birds who have identified a feeder as a food source will depend on it all winter long.

If you do provide bird feeders, be sure to set them up in such a way that birds who stop to feed don’t become targets for predators.





To the beginner, it may seem like veteran birders can quote field guides from cover to cover. Here are just a few interesting terms to help you talk birds with the most enthusiastic hobbyist.

• Casque:
 A hard, hornlike structure located on either the bird’s head or bill.

• Facial disks:
 The semicircle of feathers around the eyes of most owls.

• Introduced:
 A species of birds humans brought to an area of the world it would not otherwise have populated. Introduced species include the swan and the European starling. Introduced species compete fiercely with native species. The European starlings are cave dwellers that force other species like woodpeckers from their homes.

• Listing:
 The lifelong process of documenting a species that a hobbyist has seen. A list often includes the date and location each species was spotted.

• Migration:
 The movement from one area of the country to another due to seasonal shifts in the availability of food. Nearly half of the birds in the world split their homes between two locations.

• Mobbing: 
Alerting other birds to the presence of a predator by noisily calling and pretending to attack.

• Passerine: 
A name that refers to the broad group of birds usually referred to as songbirds.

• Plumage: 
The name for all of the feathers on a bird’s body.

• Preening: 
Self-cleaning of the plumage with the use of bills and claws.

• Roost: 
The place where birds sleep either alone or in large numbers.





, by Joseph Forshaw, Steve Howell, Terence Lindsey and Rich Stallcup, A Nature Company Guide published by Time-Life Books, 1995.

Birding the Front Range: A Guide to Seasonal Highlights, by Robert Folzenlogen, Willow Press, 1995.

Birdwatcher’s Bible, by George Laycock, Broadway Books, 1996.

Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 4th Ed.
, The National Geographic Society, 2002.

Sibley’s Birding Basics
, by David Sibley, Knopf, 2002.

The Sibley Guide to Birds
, by David Sibley, Knopf, 2000.



The Internet is teaming with Web sites for birders.

American Birding AssociationColorado Springs, 719-578-9703,  – Covers a wide range of birding interests for beginners and veterans alike.

• Bird Source   – This partnership between citizens and scientists is managed by the National Audubon Society and the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. The site provides information on various bird counts.

Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology – 607-254-BIRD,  – This nonprofit membership institution provides research and education, working with citizen scientists and birding enthusiasts of all skill levels. The Web site provides birding information and resources.

• Denver Field Ornithologists  – Promotes interest in the study and preservation of birds and their habitats. Newsletter and monthly meetings for members at the Museum of Nature and Science.

• National Audubon Society  The Colorado state office of the NAS is in Boulder at 303-415-0130.