The Backyard Bird Watcher

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9780671663742: The Backyard Bird Watcher

The Backyard Bird Watcher is the ultimate guide for all who enjoy watching wild birds at their back doors.
Richly anecdotal, The Backyard Bird Watcher provides a wealth of practical information and step-by-step, surefire ways to convert any backyard into a first-rate bird sanctuary. Learn how to:
* set up feeding stations, bird houses, water areas
* solve pest problems
* treat sick and injured birds
* photograph wild birds.
The Backyard Bird Watcher offers a month-by-month planning and preparation calendar to ensure bird-watching enjoyment, as well as lists of organizations, manufacturers, books, and other items of interest to the backyard bird watcher.
Beautifully illustrated with dozens of detailed drawings and more than 200 black-and-white and color photographs, The Backyard Bird Watcher is a must for anyone who wants splendid wild birds to be a rewarding part of his or her everyday life.

"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.

About the Author:

George Harrison and his wife, Kit, live in Hubertus, Wisconsin.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 1

The Sport of Backyard Bird Watching

What is a bird watcher? A person who watches birds? I suspect that most people watch birds, and yet many do not consider themselves bird watchers.

The definition of a bird watcher is changing. Thirty years ago, the "typical" bird watcher was exemplified by magazine cartoons as a nattily dressed, elderly person who, from all outward appearances, was eccentric, if not downright odd. That early image of "the little old lady in tennis shoes" gave the sport a stigma which, to this day, makes some people uneasy about admitting that they enjoy watching birds.

Today, the typical bird watcher, or "birder" as we call ourselves, is male, white, married, above average in education and income, and is either retired or a young professional according to one recent study. This may be the average bird watcher, but the sport attracts all kinds of people from all walks of life, and their numbers are growing at a dramatic rate.

During a recent telephone conversation with Roger Tory Peterson, the dean of bird watching the world over, I asked him to estimate the number of bird watchers in the United States today. "What is your definition of a bird watcher?" he responded. Before I could answer his first question, he went on, "Do you include duck hunters as bird watchers?" We finally settled on the figure of at least twenty million Americans who spend money on bird seed or equipment, or on travel just to see birds.

I believe this is a conservative estimate. A recent study conducted by Richard M. DeGraaf and Brian R. Payne of the U.S. Forest Service Research Unit at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst showed that Americans spend at least $500 million a year to enjoy birds. Of this total, $170 million was spent for bird seed; $187 million for photographic equipment and processing; $115 million for binoculars; $15 million for birdhouses and feeders; and $4 million for bird guides and other books. These figures do not include travel expenditures. Another survey showed that bird watchers and photographers alone accounted for 9,900,600 use-days on National Forest lands in a single year.

So, bird watching may have been the sport of "little old ladies in tennis shoes" at one time, but "you've come a long way, baby" since those days. Bird watching is probably a billion-dollar-a-year industry and may be the fastest growing family sport in America.

Why is it so popular and why is it growing so fast? The answer is simple: The sport of bird watching is easy to get into, inexpensive to maintain, requires little prior knowledge and almost no equipment. Actually, all you need to attract birds to your backyard is a little seed thrown on the ground...then wait for the birds in your neighborhood to find it. But if you really want to attract a variety of interesting and colorful birds on a permanent or at least seasonal basis, there are proven ways of doing it, and that's what this book is all about.

LEARN TO IDENTIFY THE BIRDS

Wild birds are everywhere during all seasons, in all habitats. Bird watchers start out by observing the birds they see in their backyards, on their way to work, around their camping areas, etc. Though you certainly don't have to be an expert to enjoy birding, it helps to be able to identify what you see. By being able to recognize the species, you are more likely to learn something about its characteristics and habits.

We identify birds by spotting certain key field marks, behavior, song, size or shape. Thanks to Roger Tory Peterson, who in 1934 wrote and illustrated his first A Field Guide to the Birds, we know that every species has its own particular identification signs or marks. Before the Peterson Field Guide, bird watching wasn't as much fun. The descriptions of birds were made by scientists who worked largely from study skins in museums. Instead of saying that a robin was a gray-backed bird with a rusty breast, they described it in the minutest detail, including the "white spots around the eye and the streaked throat." Peterson's new system changed the whole concept of bird watching by giving us a simple and exact method of quick field identifications.

During my courtship with my wife, Kit, I taught her how to identify birds. Her experience should give encouragement to anyone starting from zero. Within one year, Kit learned to identify over 100 species from sight and sound. The way she did it was to look at each bird she encountered, often through binoculars, listen to it sing or chip, and then check the illustration of that bird in a field guide and read the description of it. I pointed out to her the salient field marks...white wing bars, red cap, white outer tail feathers, smaller than a robin, larger than a crow. I would impress upon her the habitat in which it was found, how it was acting, the song or alarm note it gave, and the season of the year in which we found it. She is a quick learner, and within three years she was able to identify 300 to 400 birds and was sometimes correcting my errors in identification. Her pinnacle came two years ago when she and Roger Tory Peterson had a serious discussion comparing the differences between a newly hatched coot chick and a newly hatched chick of the European moorhen.

More recently, Kit and I were amazed to find a birder making accurate field identifications without binoculars. We were in Cuba, birding with that country's foremost ornithologist, Orlando Garrido. While most of us were looking for the field marks through binoculars, Garrido was watching for characteristic movements such as tail bobbing, wing flitting, nervousness, head movement, stance, movement in flights. I tried to catch him in error, but he was always correct and more rapid than I in identifying the bird. He is the most extraordinary field ornithologist I have known.

THE GAMES BACKYARD BIRD WATCHERS PLAY

No matter how you look at it, bird watching is a sport. It is a personal challenge to identify the birds you see, learn their habits and how they differ from other species.

The most common game that bird watchers play is the "listing game." Almost all birders, particularly backyard birders, keep records of the species they see in their neighborhood. Kit and I have recorded 142 species in five years seen through our windows and from our property. Using the official checklist published by the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology, we record, each year, the date on which we see the first bird of each species. This gives us a running record of when the first red-winged blackbird appears each spring, the first junco each fall. The dates vary year to year by as much as two weeks, depending on weather conditions. We also note the date each spring when the ice goes out of our lake, which has a direct effect on the waterfowl we see. We mark the date that the lake freezes over each winter as well.

One of the highlights of our listing game is the appearance of our loon each spring. I theorize that any lake that can support a loon, even if for only a few days, is a wild lake. Our lake is located only twenty-six miles northwest of a major metropolitan area. Each spring, our loon spends at least a week with us soon after the ice disappears, and by his appearance declares that our little lake is "wild" for another year. I suspect that there are probably several loons that visit our lake, but we can't differentiate because they all look alike. We did have two at one time several springs ago. Last fall we had a loon headed south in its winter plumage, which was decidedly different from its spring garb. Notes like these are all part of our list.

There are several other kinds of lists, such as the one-day list, which is a record of all the birds seen or heard on a specific day. Some like to keep a trip list or a list of birds seen during a visit to another backyard bird watcher's home. But the most common list is the one that records all those birds seen or heard over a particular year or each of a series of years, like the one we keep.

One backyard birder not only keeps a running list of the birds in her yard but tries to photograph each one as well. She pastes a photographic print on the page of her record book opposite the dates and notes about that particular species. Another backyard birder posts all his records on a large wall chart that is a permanent part of that house's decor. People visiting him can see at a glance the birds he has seen and the dates the sightings were made. It's a great conversation piece.

The most dedicated keep a life list -- all those species seen during a lifetime, not just in the backyard, but for North America or for the world. The most radical of those life listers will go to any length to add just one more species to their list. A classic example is the North American champion, Dr. Joseph Taylor of New York. Dr. Taylor had 720 species on his life list when the Ross's gull was sighted in Massachusetts. Dr. Taylor was in Nairobi at the time. Not wanting to miss a rare opportunity to add that species to his North American list, Dr. Taylor flew from Nairobi to Massachusetts, saw the gull and then returned to his African tour. At this writing, Dr. Taylor still leads the life listers with more than 730 North American species.

TELEPHONE LINE FOR BIRDERS

To help listers see more birds, some larger cities have a "birding hot line." It is a telephone number a birder calls to get a taped recording of the current unusual species being seen in the area. The system also enables the caller to give information on an interesting sighting to be added to the tape.

HELP THE CHRISTMAS BIRD COUNT

Each holiday season, during the two weeks centering around Christmas, the National Audubon Society holds its annual Christmas Bird Counts throughout the world. More than 1,200 approved groups of bird watchers count the numbers of species and the numbers of individuals of each species in a fifteen-mile diameter over one twenty-four-hour period during those two weeks. In the U.S., the current record is 216 species, counted in Freeport, Texas. The record for the world was set in the Canal Zone of Panama, where 344 were recorded.

If there is a Christmas bird count in your area and if your backyard falls within the fifteen-mile diameter, offer to help the group by reporting all the species you see on that day in your yard. It is possible that some of the birds you see will not be found anywhere else in the counting area.

Reports on all the Christmas Bird Counts are printed in the National Audubon Society's publication, American Birds.

SOME PLAY THE LISTENING GAME

Another game bird watchers play is the "listening" game. The challenge is to be able to identify as many species as possible by the songs or call notes they give. There has always been some disagreement among birders as to the validity of a record of a species that is heard but not seen. Personally, I believe that if you hear the bird and are positive of its song, then you are entitled to record it on your own personal list. However, the American Birding Association, the organization that keeps records of the top U.S. life listers, requires that the bird be seen before it can be officially recorded on a life list. Regardless, the ability to identify a species by its song or alarm note is a great accomplishment. No two species make identical sounds except imitators such as the mockingbird and starling. Once you learn the song of a species, identification is much easier and you don't have to spend time searching out the bird among heavy foliage or at the top of a high conifer.

Warblers are particularly hard to see. When Kit and I are birding in one of our favorite haunts, Mount Desert Island, Maine, the listening game is the only way to go. Blackburnian and bay-breasted warblers are nearly impossible to see in tall spruce trees, but their lovely songs are easy to recognize. If we had to spot each singing male to be sure of its identification, it would take all the fun out of birding in Maine. So the listening game is important and fun to play as you become more adept as a bird watcher.

Some backyard bird watchers record bird songs on tapes, then play them back to get interesting responses, particularly from male birds defending territories in spring and summer.

THE SCIENCE OF BIRD BANDING

A much more specialized game is that of banding birds. In fact, those who band (the British say "ring") don't consider it a game at all, but a serious and scientific effort to learn more about bird movements. Records of bandings and recoveries are kept at the Migratory Bird Research Laboratory, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Station, Laurel, Maryland 20811. (See page 230 for what to do when you find a banded bird.)

BREEDING BIRD RECORDS

Another valuable scientific effort is the North American Nest Record Card Program of the Laboratory of Ornithology at Cornell University. Volunteers from all over North America record information about birds' nests they find and send a completed record card to the Cornell Laboratory, where it is fed into computer banks on each species. This information leads to valuable data about population trends and the effects of weather and environmental pollution on certain indicator species. For more information, write The North American Nest Card Program, 150 Sapsucker Woods Road, Ithaca, New York 14853.

THE FLOCKING OF BIRD WATCHERS

The sport of bird watching often leads to social gatherings. When two backyard bird watchers get together for dinner, cocktails, birthdays, other social events or even business meetings, the conversation inevitably turns to birds. An example of this is our relationship with our good friends, the Tom Rosts, who live in the community of Cedarburg, Wisconsin. Tom is a distinguished wildlife artist, and just outside his studio window is a very active bird feeding station. We see the Rosts about once a month, and a great deal of our visiting time is filled with conversation about the new birds we have seen at each of our homes since our last get-together. Our experience with the Rosts is probably typical of many birders.

Other birding friends join bird clubs to enjoy a more involved kind of ornithological socializing. Foremost among the bird clubs are the local chapters of the National Audubon Society. Most states also have ornithological societies and some have statewide or regional bird clubs as well. (See page 273 for names and addresses of organizations of interest to birders.)

The American Birding Association and the Bird Populations Institute are national associations to which many birders belong. More scientifically oriented birders and professional ornithologists join the American Ornithologists' Union, the Wilson Ornithological Society, the Cooper Ornithological Society or the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. The first of these groups, the AOU, concerns itself with, among other endeavors, the taxonomic aspects of ornithology and maintains the official list of both common and scientific names for birds of North America. The AOU has become better known recently for the numerous changes it has made in bird names. For example, there is no longer a Baltimore oriole. It was lumped with the Bullock's oriole and both are now called the northern oriole. The same is true of the myrtle and Audubon warblers. They are now called the yellow-rumped warbler. The AOU made three changes in the name of our common egret, from American to common to great, in the last decade. These changes and many others are based on well-founded scientific study, but some bird watchers get upset, mostly for sentimental...

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