Why I watch birds

A newspaper columnist where I live, in an attempt at humor, once complained in print that birds are noisy, flying nuisances that wake him at dawn and dirty his car.

He suggested that birds be eliminated. He ridiculed birders like me as naturalistic oddballs who parade around the woods in paramilitary get-ups. A golfer, he proclaimed that birding has about as much sport as watching the grass grow.

In observance of Earth Day, I offer the following explanation of why birds deserve our respect, and why we birders watch them.

Birds are important for a simple reason: They are here. Yes, they control insects, but their benefit to humanity is no more the measure of their worth than the pharmacy shelf is the measure of the tropical rain forest. Wildlife has a right to exist for its own sake. The height of "speciesism" would be to suggest that nature's profound creations must justify their presence to humans. As if it were our place to grant birds permission to live!

Birders are not frail, bookish fanatics in pith helmets and safari jackets. We dress like other people who frequent the woods, adding binoculars and perhaps a field guide. When I go birding, I usually hike for miles, and I bird several times a week year-round, regardless of the weather. Watching birds, I have learned about them and about me, and I have gained admittance to the secret society of the wild.

Like the best sports, birding challenges the physique, the senses, and the intellect. To see birds in all their wondrous forms, you would have to visit the wetland, the coast, the open ocean, the mountaintop, the desert, the prairie, the jungle, the river rapids, the tundra, and the polar regions.

When millions of birds migrate across North America – returning to northern breeding areas in spring and departing in fall for winter homes as far away as South America – birders around the country go afield to witness the mysterious and inspiring spectacle.

Why do people go out of their way to find birds? Birds are beautiful to look at, they make an incredible variety of sounds, and they exhibit fascinating behavior. A rare bird is as thrilling as the most precious gem. Birds come in all colors, and in the United States they range in size from the 3-inch-long calliope hummingbird to the California condor, with a wingspan that exceeds 9 feet. Whether a bird's song is short and sweet or long and musical, virtually all bird songs are memorable and stirring.

Birds, in short, show nature's diversity in all its glory. But I think the real fascination is that, more than any other creature, they embody the freedom and wildness about which we humans can only dream.

These colorful, almost mythical feathered sprites defy gravity at will. They go wherever they want, whenever they choose, some at lightning speed. They are more beautiful and exotic than any extraterrestrial being Hollywood could concoct, and yet they are here, at our doorsteps, for us to enjoy.

Birds are a living fantasy. I watch in disbelief as they fly. They decorate the trees with their nests.

Living in humanity's overpopulated, paved-over world – with all its rules, regulations, and traffic jams – I think we envy the birds' wild freedom. We want that freedom and wildness for ourselves. And so we birders watch, listen to, identify, count, list, house, feed, and photograph birds.

Admittedly, it's a vicarious experience, but it satisfies a deep natural urge within us. This is the same urge that drives people who hunt. Yet birders can possess nature's freedom and wildness without snapping the chain that joins us to all living things.

People who have cut themselves off from nature are, at best, indifferent to birds; at worst, they view birds, birders, and wildlife as bothersome and unnecessary. They don't really care if so-called land developers gobble up wildlife habitat, if pollution poisons the water and air, if birds decline and disappear.

Roger Tory Peterson, famed author of bird guides, once remarked after a visit to China that vast areas of the country were almost devoid of birds, which have been crowded out by unchecked human development. Could the rest of the world's birds suffer the same fate? The morning chorus of bird song is ushering in another spring, but each year it seems there are fewer choir members.

• Robert Winkler, a Connecticut nature writer, is writing a book on his adventures with birds in the 'suburban wilderness.'

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