Bird books and magazines are bursting with advice on how to become a better birder. It seems like everywhere you turn, someone is printing tips on how to identify birds in flight, how to distinguish drab first-year gulls from older gulls or how to differentiate between look-alike female ducks. There are even workbooks designed to "upgrade" your birding skills.
Workbooks? Wait a minute. This is starting to sound like work.
Watching these agile creatures as they go about their busy lives is fascinating to me. If I were only looking for a particular feather pattern in order to nail down an identification, I'd miss so much. That's why I'm spending less time trying to identify birds and going back to good, old-fashioned bird watching, where the focus is less about the subtleties of a bird's appearance and more with what it's doing.
Some of the most rewarding birds to watch are the year-rounders -- the birds you can see any day of the week.
The neighborhood crows are among my favorites. Big and easy to spot, they're demonstrably smart and always up to something. American crows are members of a big-brained bird family whose intelligence allows them to zip through each day's survival chores, leaving them with time for mischief. It seems to me that crows just want to have fun. You can watch them cavorting in springtime's wind currents or sliding down snowy slopes in winter. In fact, I've seen crows playing what looks like a game of tag with a batch of newly fledged kestrels.
Chickadee watching is tons of fun. Among the busiest of birds, chickadees always are dashing about, hanging upside down under branches and flitting through treetops. Watch a chickadee grab a seed from your feeder, then fly to a nearby perch to peck open the shell and extract bits of seed. And if you whistle the familiar "feebee" song to the neighborhood chickadees, they might just reply.
RDA of birds
Instead of buying bird workbooks or starting a competitive bird list, consider giving yourself a Recommended Daily Allowance of birds. It's an idea I adopted from Rob Fergus of the National Audubon Society. Fergus says we'd be better off if we met a daily RDA of 20 bird species -- a number you could easily meet during a 3-mile walk.
Whatever your level of interest, whether you're content to observe birds out the window or like to hike around parks and woodlands to find them, the point is to enjoy -- not necessarily to excel at -- watching these wondrous creatures.
Val Cunningham, a St. Paul nature writer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.