In the Garden:
New England
January, 2008
Regional Report

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With their bright plumage, cardinals are one of the easiest birds to spot during a bird count.

Count the Feeding Birds

I recently put up bird feeders again after a hiatus during which our neighborhood was forbidden to feed the birds for fear of attracting bears. I was excited to see a woodpecker inching up the trunk of a tree toward the suet, but I couldn't tell for sure what kind it was. A field guide came to the rescue and helped me identify it as a pileated. I like to know what I'm looking at, whether it be birds or plants.

Knowing what bird species we're watching helps us discover the nuances of its behavior and determine if what we're seeing is unusual or commonplace. With global warming, it's likely we will be seeing birds in our region that used to live elsewhere. As we begin to appreciate the difference between a cowbird and a catbird, a stroll through the woods takes on a whole new meaning -- it becomes a treasure hunt of sorts. Ooh, did you see that indigo bunting? Did you see the tail markings on that hawk?

For many of us, it's not about being able to rattle off the names of birds, or plants, or anything else for that matter. It's about honing observation skills. It's about stepping outside the routine of day-to-day responsibilities and finding joy and amusement in the simplest of things -- the antics of chickadees, the impossibly bright colors of cardinals and bluebirds, the gymnastics of a squirrel trying to raid the feeder. It's about stopping for a moment to see -- really see -- the life that surrounds us, from the most common song sparrow to the most majestic hawk.

Like any other study of the natural world, bird-watching gives you a glimpse of the dramas being played out in nature -- dramas that occur whether we're watching or not. Last summer I watched a mother robin boot her babies out of the nest she'd made in our hanging fern. She squawked relentlessly until, one by one, each baby bird climbed the wire hanger, plopped with a tiny thud onto the porch floor, got up a little dazed, and scurried away to find shelter. This half hour was far more amusing than any TV sitcom. Curious, I did some research and learned that many species of birds typically evict their young before they are able to fly.

Years ago when I lived in Colorado I spent what I remember as a long day tromping through snow searching for and counting birds for an Audubon Society Christmas bird count. There was lots of good-natured bragging going among the bird watchers present, such as about how fast each person could drive on the highway and still recognize a species.

If you don't have a day to devote but still might find it enjoyable to count birds near where you live, the Great Backyard Bird Count offers a chance to get involved and contribute to the bird inventory and have some fun with friends and neighbors. Anyone can participate -- you don't need to be an expert at identifying birds. All you have to do is commit to counting birds for at least 15 minutes sometime between February 15 and 18, 2008. You can count the birds in your backyard, make a special trip to a natural area, or join a bird walk. Groups across the country organize events around the bird count. Submit your tallies to the Web site (http://www.birdsource.org/gbbc/whycount.html) and you'll see your entry, as well as the entries from the tens of thousands of other people who participate.

Get the Kids Involved
Invite some young people to join you in the count. Children, like, adults, who are curious about nature are never bored. Like butterflies, birds are a perfect lure to get kids outdoors. They're colorful, they're fun to watch, and they're everywhere. Set up a feeder or two and you're sure to attract birds -- often within a few hours. Kids will learn to sit quietly, observe, and do research to answer questions. These skills will serve them well throughout their lives.

Beware, though: Bird-watching can be addictive. You may find yourself stocking up on field guides, bird feeders, and seed, and taking more walks in the woods. At least this addiction is good for you!


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