Dear Bird Folks,
My brother has suddenly taken an interest in bird watching (don’t ask me why) and I’d like to get him a bird watching related gift for Christmas. What do you suggest?
– Alyssa, Mashpee, MA
I know why, Alyssa,
I know why your brother has become interested in bird watching. It’s because birding is an awesome hobby. It’s one of America’s most popular activities, second only to gardening. But unlike gardening, you can watch birds while comfortably standing straight up, not bent over or on your hands and knees. To me, gardening sounds like a backbreaking hobby and was probably invented by a chiropractor. Also, bird watchers simply observe nature, while gardeners try to control it with fertilizers, pesticides and an infinite amount of hatred towards woodchucks. Of course, backyard birders also have a creature they have issues with; i.e., the “S” word.
Speaking of squirrels, I think a squirrel-proof feeder would be an excellent Christmas gift. A squirrel-proof feeder not only attracts birds, but it will also save your brother from doing a lot of swearing, banging on the windows and generally acting like an idiot. In recent years, Brome, a Canadian company, has produced a series of feeders called “Squirrel Busters.” Squirrel Busters come in assorted sizes and prices, and all of them have done a great job of defeating squirrels, while at the same time keeping many of us from acting like idiots.
The next item on your list should be a good field guide. Even though the debate as to which guide is the best rages on, I recommend either a Peterson or Sibley guide. Other folks, including my own son, prefer the National Geographic guide, but those people are nitwits. (See what I mean about the debate?) But no matter which guide you choose, please avoid the urge to buy a stripped-down beginners bird book or one of those laminated folding guides. Those smaller guides are just too incomplete. I know full-sized “adult” bird books can be overwhelming at first, but identifying birds can be tricky and rookies need all the information they can get, not less. So there.
I don’t know how much you like your brother, but what a budding bird watcher really needs is a nice pair of binoculars. Novices and non-birders typically don’t know how to shop for binoculars or what all of those numbers mean, so let me ‘splain it to you, Lucy…I mean, Alyssa. A pair of 8X40 binoculars means that they magnify the bird eight times (i.e. 8X). Most people think that if 8X is good, 100X would be better, but this is not the case. A magnification above 8X is hard to hold steady. The bird is larger, but blurry. This is why spotting scopes, telescopes and fancy cameras are placed on tripods. A small number of folks are able to handle a 10X, and a few stubborn, macho types think they can hold a 12X steady, but they are kidding themselves. In fact, the Binocular Institute of America claims that 87.6% of all binoculars sold are 8X. (FYI: The Binocular Institute of America is not really a thing, but if it was that’s what they would say.)
The second number, or the “40” in the case of 8X40, refers to the 40mm objective lenses (the front lenses, not the eye pieces). The larger the number, the more light the binoculars will be able to gather. However, there is a tradeoff. Large objective lenses mean bigger and heavier binoculars. What is the best number? The majority of men seem to prefer 40mm or 50mm binoculars (they fit their larger hands better), while women tend to gravitate towards the smaller, say 8X25, compact binoculars. I know that sounds sexist, but it’s true. If you disagree, take it up with the Binocular Institute of America.
There is one more number that is important when choosing binoculars and that number is the one that begins with “$.” My rule of thumb is: For backyard and very casual bird watching, $100-ish is all you need to spend on binoculars. But if your brother plans to go on weekly bird walks or regular birding trips, then you should think about spending $200-300. Keep in mind, spending more money doesn’t make the bird larger, but it does make it clearer and sharper. Of course, you could even spend much more than that, but calm down…he’s only your brother.
Another item you may want to get for your beginning birder, especially at Christmas, is a heated birdbath. Many odd and exciting birds are seen on heated baths each winter. For example, during last week’s freeze up I had three, very late and very confused orioles on my bath. Finally, the Cape Cod Bird Club once wrote a book that described the best places to find birds on the Cape. Unfortunately, that book is out of print, but there is a decent alternative. It’s entitled, Walking the Cape and Islands. While this book doesn’t always mention birds specifically, it does provide information and maps to some wonderful places to go birding in our area, so check it out.
Putting birding items on your Christmas list is a nice way to support your bro’s new hobby, Alyssa. I think he’ll be thrilled with a new feeder or bird book. Also, if you have a little extra money, then perhaps spring for new binoculars as well. And if you have a lot of extra money, put my name on your list, too.