I really enjoy watching birds. When I began watching birds about 25 years ago, I would walk the three or four blocks to Walsh Lake on the northeast border of Lauderdale and the Midland Hills Golf Course. I’d go early on a Saturday morning, sit down under a big cottonwood tree and watch to see what would show up.
It was there that I learned to identify eastern kingbirds. A pair had a nest on a limb that reached out over the lake. They were feisty, chasing away any bird that came too close. I could see why they were called kingbirds.
And there I learned to watch pied-billed grebes and to keep watching them. They’re a small, duck-like bird when seen at a distance, but keep watching. They can adjust their buoyancy so that they float with just their head sticking out of the water. And sometimes, after diving for food, they’ll come up under some pond weeds and peer out from under their impromptu disguise.
In my life, I’ve been on many field trips around Minnesota and to the East and West Coasts, as well as some expeditions to far-off places like Nova Scotia, Costa Rica, the Amazon and Ecuador. Those trips built up my life list, and it was fun to be in a totally different habitat seeing birds we’d never see here in the upper Midwest. But I began to feel like I was just a stenographer, writing down what the trip leader called out and not taking the time to try to identify the birds myself.
In fact, if I’d been challenged to do the identification myself, my list would have been dramatically shorter. There wasn’t any time to really observe the bird for more than a few moments at a time.
I haven’t traveled after birds for about 10 years now. And I’m OK with that. What I have done is changed how I look at birds. Rather than just ticking them off my list, I’m learning to pay attention to the birds I do see.
The other morning I saw three newly fledged chipping sparrows sitting on the front sidewalk. I walked toward them to get the newspaper, and they looked at each other as if to say, “What’s this big thing coming? Mom never told us about this.” And they took off.
The special thing about seeing three young chipping sparrows is that it means the parents were able to get three of their eggs to hatch and fledge—no small task, it turns out. Chipping sparrows are a favorite host parent for brown-headed cowbirds. The female cowbird lays its egg in the chipping sparrow’s nest and when the egg hatches, the chipping sparrow parents spend all their time stuffing food into that big cowbird chick. So these three chippers made it up and out of the nest. Hooray for success!
We’re fortunate that our kitchen is in the front of our house. I can sit at the table with my morning coffee and the paper and look out at the bird activity at the feeders in the front yard. (It also helps that I’m retired.) That’s a great way to get to know birds. Put up some feeders and add a bird bath if you can. You’ll get to recognize “frequent fliers,” birds that favor a certain feeder. You can experiment with feeder types, feeder placement and seed choices to see what works for the birds in your neighborhood. The proprietor of your wild bird store will be very willing to offer suggestions.
Over the past two summers, we’ve had great attention at our grape jelly feeder. We’ve seen more orioles than we’ve ever had before. And, beyond feeding those returning migrants in the spring, we’ve watched as they bring their youngsters to the grape jelly later in the summer. That means that somewhere nearby, a pair of orioles (or more) have successfully built that hanging basket nest and raised a couple of kids. Another success.
Feeding birds can benefit more than just the birds. In June, I gave a talk on neighborhood birds at the Woman’s Club of Minneapolis. Afterwards, as I was signing copies of my book, a woman asked me to dedicate it to her husband. She said, “Write: ‘To Steve, who feeds the birds.’
“He’s out there every morning, filling up all the feeders,” she said. “Every morning … since the dog died.”
Feeding the birds had offered some solace to him after he lost his morning ritual of walking his dog. I wrote out the dedication, autographed it and handed the book to her.
She leaned toward me and said softly, “We’re going to get another dog.”
Feeding the birds might bring you unexpected benefits as well.
Clay Christensen’s book, The Birdman of Lauderdale, is available from local bookstores and bird stores as well as online from BirdmanBook.com.