If you were to look outside your window right now, what is the first wild animal you would see? Whether your backyard is a lush forest, a concrete balcony, or somewhere between, your wildlife sightseeing will vary. However, regardless of your location, there is one animal group that you are likely to see within mere seconds of looking outside – birds. Birds are one of the most diverse and abundant species taxa on Earth. In addition to being leisurely to spot, birds provide our senses with rare instances of natural color and song. Bird-watching is a readily available activity that can bring us closer to nature and provide us with fascinating natural phenomena to witness.
Dr. Angela Wiley, a professor at Auburn University and birder for eight years, described why she enjoys bird-watching and how birding helps her connect with nature. Bird-watching offers a contrasting activity to calm her mind compared to her career, which keeps her brain busy and acutely focused. “Birding for me is a place where I can have soft focus,” she explains. Before she began bird watching, Dr. Wiley viewed nature as a context for activities. As an adept runner for many years, she would frequently run the lightly beaten trails of Meadowbrook Park in Urbana, Illinois. “It wasn’t really until I started birding that I started thinking of nature more as an object of fascination, something I could really engage with and learn deeply about.” Although Dr. Wiley frequently spent time in nature and valued it as a pleasant backdrop for her outdoor hobbies, birding is an activity that centralizes nature as a hobby in and of itself, which deepened her fascination for it.
In an interview with Dr. Robert Kanter, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and avid birder for over 35 years, I gained insight into why birding is much more approachable than I thought. During our interview, Dr. Kanter emphasized how effortless bird watching can be. He described bird-watching as an ever-present activity that he does and one that others can easily do as well. “As soon as I walk out the door, I’m birding,” he said, “but you don’t even have to go out.” The gift of flight makes birds particularly noticeable. All it takes is a little effort to observe them – oftentimes, just looking up at the sky from the window is enough. The essence of bird-watching is appreciating nature, which doesn’t require anything other than your awareness. “People put so much pressure on themselves,” said Dr. Kanter, “think of [bird-watching] as something that you can do anytime, though it’s more fun if you connect a little bit and allow yourself to get out among people.”
If you decide to bird-watch, there is a world of natural wonders to witness. Dr. Kanter told of a once-in-a-lifetime experience where he and his wife saw a pair of endangered Whooping Cranes at a Champaign, Illinois county forest preserve. He explained that roughly 600 Whooping Cranes are alive today, but only 24 of them existed at their lowest point. “This is a bird that people almost extinguished from the face of the Earth, from the universe,” Dr. Kanter said.
Dr. Wiley described a trip to the Gulf Coast with her husband, where they witnessed a Bald Eagle taking a bath on the distant shore of an inland. “It felt like I was staring at this very intimate moment that this bird was having,” Dr. Wiley explained, “it was the most amazing thing to watch.” Bird-watching is an activity with endless learning opportunities and rarities to witness. “I’ve never gotten tired of it,” expressed Dr. Kanter.
If you are interested in birding as a hobby, here are some steps.
- Join a bird-watching group. The Audubon Society in Champaign, Illinois hosts bird walks every Sunday morning from 7:30 AM – 9:00 AM.
- If you live outside of Champaign, Illinois, refer to the National Audubon Society website for information about bird walks within your community!
- Invest in a good pair of binoculars. Dr. Wiley says this helps “pull the birds to you” so you can see their subtle characteristics.
- Download a birding app. eBird, iNaturalist, and Merlin Bird ID are great places to start.
If you want to learn more about birds or birding, I encourage you to check out Dr. Robert Kanter’s Environmental Almanac podcast in partnership with NPR!
Additionally, attached below is a three-page bird coloring book with common bird species in the United States. Its goal is to provide you with a relaxing pass time that encourages appreciation for various birds.