"Birders get off on mating and predatory action," biologist Fiona McNair tells me. Sex and violence in the winged world? Who'd have thought? Not me—or at least not until recently. Of all the dozens of outdoorsy things I could have written about for this first column, there are none that fly so close, and so regularly, to my backyard. Birding doesn't mean getting up at dawn to crouch behind a camouflaged blind with an expensive scope, nor does it involve spending big bucks for tickets or learning a bunch of information ahead of time. It's a quiet, simple, and affordable pursuit. Call it outdoor meditation. Which is where I come in: This column will take you to any number of different places—provided, of course, they're out of doors.
As for the birds, they're everywhere: Baby chickadees shriek from under our (or at least my) eaves at 4 a.m.; the proverbial early bird really does get the worm; rock doves (a pretty name for your typical dirty street pigeon) strut and coo along urban sidewalks; and the Roadrunner transcends death every Saturday morning. A birder is born when "your average Joe looks out in his backyard and says, 'Huh, I've never seen that bird before,'" says McNair, who has watched a lot of birds in the past 15 years, including on the job with the Department of Natural Resources counting the endangered and rarely seen marbled murrelet. "The next step is watching the behavior of birds."
I used to be that average Joe, glancing out my window at blue jays, until I picked up a pair of garage-sale binoculars. That's how I moved beyond the jays at home to spot red-winged blackbirds, spotted flickers, and three peregrine falcon chicks, all up close and personal.
Yes, birding is a sport. (Ever tried a 24-hour bird-a-thon?) And yes, you too can watch peregrine falcons dive-bombing into unsuspecting sea birds at speeds over 100 miles an hour; sparrows learning how to balance upside down on one wing to outwit backyard feeders; bald eagles at Seward Park angrily fending off gangs of crows from their fresh-caught fish; horned owls hooting softly after dark before swooping down on their prey. There are hundreds of bird species out there mating, hunting, nest building, and singing, each with its own idiosyncrasies. It's an aviary show worth watching.
So get going, and keep quiet. Birds are most active in the hours around dawn and dusk. Areas of high vegetation—parks or vacant lots—or along water often host many bird species. Seward Park alone (home to bats, parakeets, owls, eagles, woodpeckers, and great blue herons) will keep your head spinning. No Gore-Tex or tickets required.