Bird Nerds Unite!

Nearly one in six Americans is a passionate bird-lover. Maybe it’s time to check out this grand (and rapidly growing) national obsession.

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Velvet-Purple Coronet
Velvet-purple coronet: insect gourmand consumes 2,000 bugs per day.
Photo courtesy Luke Seitz/

So, you want to give birding a try? Consider a three-step plan. First, get a good field guide and start reading [see “Bird Nerd Library Essentials”]. Second, buy the best binoculars you can afford [see “How to Pick the Right Binoculars”]. Third, attach yourself to an expert. “Go out with someone who is good, patient, and excited,” Fitzpatrick says, “because they will make you the same.” Or find a group of experts. The Audubon Society has chapters nationwide, and all of them sponsor walks like the one Mosur leads in San Francisco.

What makes a superb birder? Supreme patience, detail orientation, and powers of keen observation are starting points. A good ear helps, though an eagle eye is not required. Curiosity, naturally. Also, “a dreamy quality,” suggests Buechert. If you go out with some seasoned birders, you’ll note how they see more than just the bird’s plumage. Watch how they effortlessly assimilate the details of flight, body shape, behavior, habitat, and season to make instant IDs. Observe, too, how much they rely on their ears (which also explains, in part, why they prefer birding to bird-watching). Some experienced birders will identify species by their vocalizations rather than by their appearance 75 to 90 percent of the time.

You may also want to get yourself a notebook. Many experts recommend keeping field notes, making sketches, and charting songs as effective ways to get to know birds better, faster. Even if you’re not that resolute, a notebook gives you a place to start listing the birds you’ve observed. And many birders, especially the serious ones, are listers. They keep lists of species they’ve seen over the course of their lives or the course of the year, or in a particular city, county, or state. There are more than 900 species to see here in North America and 10,000 worldwide.

It turns out that this careful recording of species, dates, and locations can do a lot more than just scratch the urge to notch. It can help science itself. Science and birds, of course, go way back. Charles Darwin’s theory on natural selection had its roots in observations he made in the Galápagos about how the finches there vary from island to island. Rachel Carson’s seminal book Silent Spring uses bald eagles and brown pelicans to make its most forceful points about the dangers of pesticides. “It’s a central axiom of our attention on birds that they are very sensitive ecological barometers,” says Cornell’s Fitzpatrick.

For 113 years, the Audubon Society has sponsored the Christmas Bird Count, the oldest wildlife survey in the world. More than 60,000 volunteers scatter across the continent from mid-December to early January to record the number and types of birds their teams see in a 24-hour period. Scientists use the data to understand how different species and habitats are faring, and also to track larger issues such as climate change and, in recent years, the emergence of the West Nile virus.

Birders, however, no longer have to wait around until the end of the year to make a contribution to science; a website developed by Cornell ( now allows birders to help ornithologists and other scientists year-round. “It allows people around the planet to input a bird checklist from wherever they are at the time watching birds,” says Fitzpatrick, “whether that’s in your backyard in San Francisco or in a remote place in China.” Though the site collects data for scientific analysis, it is first and foremost a handy tool for birders to organize and track their field observations, currently 3 million sightings each month from more than 200 countries.

For thousands of years, man’s relationship to wild birds was primarily utilitarian. We ate them, used their feathers to clothe ourselves and to write with, and even deployed their waste to nourish our crops. But the current passion for birding seems to change all that, putting birds in a role of diversion and entertainment. Birding has actually elevated our fine-feathered friends to their most utilitarian role yet: as bellwethers of the state of nature, canaries in the global coal mine.

Photos courtesy Luke Seitz/

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