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Birdwatching – Family Fun For All Seasons

Simone Jonker worked in NTD Inspired for two years. She wrote light articles and inspiring stories.
Ila lives in the Garden State with her family and four chickens. She has been growing produce and perennials for 20 years, and recommends gardening for food and fun, but not for fortune.
Published: February 28, 2022
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Vermiculated screech owl perched on a branch in broad daylight. You never know what you will encounter once you begin birdwatching. Image: (Chris Jimenez via Flickr CC BY 2.0)

According to a 2016 survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, about 20 percent of the U.S. population over the age of 16 partakes in birdwatching – that’s over 45 million people in one country alone! What is it about this unobtrusive, largely-passive pastime that makes it so intriguing? 

In terms of visual appeal, birds are some of nature’s most stunning offerings. Their enchanting calls draw us to search them out, and their colorful feathers and elegant beauty catch our eye, enticing us to venture into the natural world. People of all ages can enjoy and benefit from watching birds, and it never gets old. As the seasons change, so do the birds and their visibility.

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Tolerance and understanding are enhanced through birdwatching. All species on Earth, including humans, have distinct abilities and roles, making all forms of life valuable. (Image: MIKI Yoshihito via Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0)

Benefits of birdwatching

By becoming engaged in nature, we become local explorers and adventurers, making the most of life and what it has to offer. As we are captivated by the fascinating lives before us, birdwatching becomes an exercise in “mindfulness,” a key component to cultivating compassion.  

Observing birds’ behavior can be insightful and enriching. A pleasant break from the stress and monotony of everyday life, birdwatching enhances mood, and promotes overall wellbeing. By putting a smile on one’s face, the activity can help to alleviate anxiety and depression, and brighten one’s perspective of the world. 

This pastime can sharpen both eyesight and hearing, as we learn to make keen observations and listen for variations in song. Learning to identify bird songs will help your youngsters enhance their aural sensitivity.

Because the moment is so often fleeting, we must take quick note of many details, thus exercising and improving our memory. Studies have also shown that people with hobbies demonstrate increased productivity and problem solving capabilities.

Introducing children to birdwatching is a gift they will carry throughout their lives. You can begin from your own backyard. If you don’t see birds at home already, there are several ways to entice them to come.

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Carolina chickadee comfortably perched on a section of cattle panel. Image: Patricia Pierce via Flickr CC BY 2.0)

Creating a bird-friendly habitat

One way to attract birds is to erect a bird feeder; but keep it at least 10 feet away from windows. Birds can suffer serious injury from accidentally flying head-on into a closed window. A poorly placed feeder can also make birds easy prey for cats and dogs, as well as natural predators. If you have a cat, hang a bell on its collar to give the birds fair warning.

In selecting a feeder, consider what seed will attract the birds you hope to see.  Sunflower seeds, safflower, thistle, millet, corn, peanuts, sorghum, flax and rapeseed are commonly found in different combinations; and most bird species have their favorite mix.

There are inherent problems with feeders, however; such as the fact that they attract squirrels, and uneaten seeds are likely to germinate and become weeds in your garden. If you want to avoid these issues; consider perennials, bushes and trees that bear fruits, flowers, and seeds. Enlist your children to help select plants for a bird-friendly garden. Use native species to attract both birds and insects.

Layered plants provide food, nesting sites, and protection for our feathered friends. Choose plants that will offer a variety of food at different times of the year. Some shrubs and perennials will hold onto berries and seeds well into the winter, attracting snowbirds of all sorts. Flowering plants and leafy greens attract a wide variety of Insects through the warm seasons, which backyard birds bring back to the nest to feed to their young. 

The Carolina Chickadee, for instance, will feed a single clutch of four to six chicks about 9,000 caterpillars. Insects bring birds, so remember to avoid pesticides, which are harmful even through secondary ingestion. Instead, let spiders take care of the pests that the birds miss. 

Birds are also drawn to water features, and are especially fond of a bird bath. Be sure to keep the water clean, and place some rocks in the water so bees don’t drown when they come for a drink. A larger body of water will attract larger birds. Many gardeners with fish ponds have reported herons coming to steal their fish!

Birdhouses can also be installed to attract specific species, like bluebirds, screech owls and wrens. While ready-made houses are available for purchase, building your own birdhouse can be an engaging family activity that will bring years of enjoyment.

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Get your supplies together, including a good identification guidebook, binoculars, and a journal, to begin your journey as a birdwatcher. (Image: PJeganathan via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 2.0)

How to get started

  • Find a native bird book for your area. If you’re in the Eastern U.S, Peterson’s Field Guide to Eastern Birds is an easy-to-use book for quick identification. Birds are color-coded into eight visual groups based on their appearance. 
  • Binoculars are a must. If possible, get a high-quality pair. Bring them along on all your family walks in local parks and wildlife preserves. You never know when a fine specimen will turn up, and you’ll want to give everyone a good look. 
  • Those who live on or near a farm may want to set up a spotting scope on a tripod to scan the distant surroundings. 
  • A convenient modern way to identify what you’ve seen is to take a picture with your phone and use an ID app. If you prefer a more traditional approach, keep records in a journal or sketchbook so you can look them up later. 
  • The date and time should be recorded for future reference. Some of the birds you encounter may only be seen at certain times of the year and at certain times of the day.
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A female Northern Cardinal perched on a twig. The Cardinal is the official state bird of no fewer than seven eastern states. (Image: Skyler Ewing via Pexels)

Develop observational skills and keep notes

Open the window and listen for your friends. Look outside from time to time to see who is visiting. Aside from size and coloring, pay attention to detail and make note of special features. 

  • Recognizing bird calls is a big step towards identifying birds.Count the number of notes the bird sings, and notice the different types of sounds. Is there a pattern? Is it melodic in nature? 
  • Is the beak of the bird long and slender, or is it big and triangular?
  • How would you describe the tail’s form and length?
  • Do the head feathers form a “tuft,” as exhibited in bluejays and cardinals?
  • What sort of feet do they have? What do they look like? 
  • How would you describe their movement – on land, in the air, in water?
  • Can you estimate the bird’s wingspan? 

Besides being a great exercise in observation and recall, birdwatching can aid in the development of a child’s (and our own) appreciation for the natural world. 

Train yourself and teach your children to slow down, watch and listen. As we learn to recognize different birds and their calls, our appreciation and enjoyment of birdwatching will escalate. Soon we will be able to pick out the distinct conk-la-ree of the Red-winged Blackbird and the trill of the American Goldfinch. 

Listen to the call of a red-winged blackbird.

Birds have the ability to brighten one’s spirits and may be a great source of comfort in difficult circumstances. As one of Mother Nature’s most beautiful aviators, it’s only natural that we find them fascinating and delightful. If you haven’t yet experienced the thrill of spotting a spectacular bird, start tuning in today.