family is story

How to Watch Birds

178444370From an early age, I was a birdwatcher by divine association. The divine being God’s will and the association being my mother, Nancy.

My mom loved birds. She loved them to the extent that she documented three generations of Wood Duck families that made our front yard home. She was known for pulling over the school bus she drove just so she could identify birds in roadside marshlands. Those of us on the bus didn’t mind a delay in reaching school one bit!

Early mornings, late nights (for roosting birds), side trips, vacations—all saturated with sightings. In the window sills around our home were binoculars, bird books, bird lists and spotting scopes. Someone might’ve thought our home was a really nice bird blind, sans the guns and camo.

Well, I take that back. There were guns. In fact, my mom took a 16-gauge shotgun and killed a squirrel that was robbing the eggs from bird nests. Another time, she took the same gun and killed a snake that was threatening the Wood Ducks. So, I guess our house was a really nice bird blind with guns, minus the camo.

Living in the country and being around mom, bird watching rubbed off on me. Driving with friends, I’d sometimes look out the car window and identify a random bird. Tufted Titmouse, Rufus-sided Towhee, Summer Tanager, Kestrel, Killdeer, Great Blue Heron. My friends marveled. “How do you know what that is?” I just knew. Identifying birds was like a language I learned.

Thinking on all the adventures I went on with my mom to watch birds, I started thinking about all that goes into bird watching. Here are just a few things I learned, and that can translate into daily life.

1.    If you want to see the rare, elusive bird, get up before dawn and go to where it roosts. On more than one occasion. My mom and I stealthily readied ourselves (so as not to wake my brothers or dad), and drove to a park or marsh in the hours before the hour before dawn to hunt roosting birds. Our efforts always paid off and we were able to mark off one more unique bird from our bird lists. How does this translate to life? If you want the rare, unique life or experience or story, then you’ve got to make the effort to achieve it.

2.    Yelling, “HEY, over here!!!” is not the way to alert anyone that the elusive bird you seek has been found. Be quiet, and move slowly. You want to observe the bird being itself. You don’t want to observe the bird fleeing from you. Translation? Being at peace with yourself—at peace enough to be quiet and move slowly—may gain greater rewards than rushing in.

3.    Bird watching is about more than just identifying a bird, it’s about observing their behavior. That means that even once the bird you seek is spotted, your watching isn’t over. What’s it doing? Is it eating? Is it singing? Is it grooming? Or sleeping? Is it nesting or interacting with other birds? I’ve spent hours watching Eagles’ nests, Osprey nests, Stork roosts, and Wood Duck boxes. I once spent about an hour watching a Great Blue Heron hunt. It eventually caught a four-foot long snake. In its beak, the snake wrapped around the Heron’s neck. Swallowing and moving methodically, the Heron maneuvered the snake down his long skinny neck. I watched as the snake continued writhing as it passed through the Heron’s neck, eventually to be lost in his stomach. Fascinating. Translation: Patience pays off—sometimes in unexpected ways.

4.    But bird watching is about identifying the bird, too. So, yes, watch their behavior. But also, there is so much to see and learn about the markings of a bird. The length of its legs, body, beak. The shape of its beak, or the shape its wings make in silhouette while flying. The color on its head, under its chin, back, breast, over and under its wings. The tail markings and shape of the tail. Birds are marvelous paintings. Identifying birds is a great way to renew your sense of wonder. Translation to life: Find wonder in the things around you. Marvel at creation. Our world is a treasure. Drink it in.

5.    Listen. Birds make different sounds for different reasons. And each songbird has its own tune. This past spring, a Wren couple made their nest in a box we’d left on our back porch. By their song, or change in song, I could tell when the Wren parents were upset, alarmed or perfectly happy. Most often, there songs of alarm were due to a 113-pound German Shepherd passing by their box on her way to the back yard. On the day the Wren babies left the nest, I’ve never heard such chatter and songful emotion as the parents encouraged (or was it berated) them to move away from home. Translation: Plug in and listen to the people around you. They have meaningful things to say.

©2013 Jennifer Wilder. All rights reserved. For permission to reprint or publish this content elsewhere, please contact me through this blog.