Dear Bird Folks,
When I was young I never thought much about birds and eventually they even became an annoyance (waking me up in the morning, etc.). But as I age (currently in my early 60s) I can’t stop watching them. I don’t dare share this with my friends who will think I’ve totally lost it. My question is: Is this the beginning of the end? If so, how much time do I have left?
– Tom, Brewster, MA
It’s over, Tom,
You have no time left at all. Watching birds is one thing, but if you are in your 60s you might as well start digging the hole now. What’s it like to be that old? Are you in the new Jurassic Park movie? Which dinosaur are you? Oh, I’m just kidding. Being in your 60s isn’t bad and becoming a birder is not a sign you have “totally lost it.” However, if you suddenly feel the need to eat dinner at 4:30pm, or think that driving a Buick is cool or you start carrying your change in one of those squeezy rubbery coin thingies, I’d be worried.
Regardless of what stereotypes you’ve heard about birders, it’s not necessarily an old person’s hobby. Actually, in many ways birding suits younger people better. Fanatical birders sometimes wear the same clothes several days in a row, sleep in their cars, eat bad food and pee on the side of the road. Only young people are tough enough – and stupid – enough to do those things. A friend of mine was just telling me how he somehow hooked up with a group of twenty-something birders who wanted to do a “big day.” A big day is when a group of psycho birders try to see how many different species of birds they can find in a twenty-four-hour period. That means getting up long before sunrise, driving hundreds of miles, hiking through bug infested habitats and finishing well after dark…and never once taking a nap. Not a single nap. The twenty-somethings were like broncos in a rodeo – raring to go. Meanwhile, my friend was worried that the arduous event might kill him. Come to think of it, it’s been two weeks and I’ve yet to hear from my friend. Hmm.
The most noted birders of the past century all started when they were kids. The godfather of birding, John James Audubon (who was perhaps a classmate of yours), was a teenager when his love of nature began. Roger Tory Peterson published his famous field guide to birds when he was the ripe old age of twenty-six. David Sibley, of the famed Sibley Guides, first started drawing birds when he was seven years old. But the most obsessed birder that I know of was future bird book author, Kenn Kaufman, who quit high school at sixteen and spent a year hitchhiking (yes, hitchhiking) around the country looking for birds. Of course, people like Sibley, Kaufman and those twenty-somethings who dragged my friend around on a big day, are extreme birders and most of us don’t fit into that category. The vast majority of the people who buy birdseed are “backyard bird watchers” and this is perhaps where you are headed, Tom.
It is estimated that there are over 60 million bird watchers in this country and many of them do the bulk of their birding in their own yards (and rarely do any hitchhiking). While I’ll admit that most of these backyard bird watchers are up in years, I don’t believe age is the key factor. I think it’s more the time of life. We spend the first few decades of adulthood building a career, going to endless soccer games and waiting up all night for the kids to come home. We don’t have time to fill birdfeeders. And even if we did, we’d never be home long enough to see any birds that may or may not visit these feeders. Eventually, however, there comes a time when we have fewer commitments, our jobs become less demanding and the kids finally move out (at least in theory). More free time means folks can try new activities such as painting, gardening or learning to play the accordion (oh, please don’t let it be that).
Fortunately for people like me, who have birding stores (which I started when I was twenty-nine, BTW), another one of these free time activities also happens to be watching birds. But unlike the accordion, which is hard to learn (and even harder to listen to), learning about the birds just sort of happens over time. Slowly you’ll discover that you know when the hummingbirds will be arriving in the spring and when bluebirds will be building their nests. Without realizing it, or making a concerted effort, you’ll gradually develop a greater knowledge of the birds in your yard. (Although, for some reason, no one can ever, ever, ever, ever remember that, because of all the little worms, birdfeeders are quiet in June. I think I need to print that information on bumper stickers and put them on every Buick in town.)
No, Moses, I mean Tom, enjoying birds isn’t a sign of old age. It’s a sign of having more free time to do what you like and because you live on Cape Cod, there are tons of good birding places for you to explore. So, after you conquer the birds in your backyard, you can head to the local ponds to look for ducks, then to the marshes to see herons or to the dunes to check for sparrows and passing hawks. Then after that, it’s only a matter of time before you’ll be wearing the same clothes for several days in a row, eating bad food and peeing along the side of the road…although that may or may not have anything to do with birding.