There are two species of bird-watcher - one that puts on its binoculars and boots and heads into the wilds and one that sits at the kitchen window waiting for the woodpeckers to show up.
This story's about the second breed - the backyard birders, the people who think watching a bluebird through a picture window is more entertaining than television."We're selling a lot of bird feeders," says Jami Morris of Bird World in Bountiful. "Even in the wintertime now, people come in to buy them."
"Utah has a lot of birds," adds Kathy Petrie, a specialist in wild birds who spends her days rehabilitating broken wings and other injuries. "Most people don't have a clue what birds they're seeing, however. When they call me about an injured bird, I'll ask if it is one of the common ones - starling, sparrow, robin. They don't know. But once they start in, they really enjoy learning more."
For beginners, the American Bird Conservancy publishes compact guides for birders in each section of the country. And "All the Backyard Birds" for the West has a checklist of almost 100 birds - ranging from Brewer's blackbirds to common yellowthroats - that may put in an appearance. The book also lists ways of attracting birds to your yard. (Food and water is the obvious way, "habitat enhancement" - as in letting a small corner of your property grow wild, putting in fruit-bearing trees and even hauling in a pile of sticks and brush - will reward you with some of the more exotic breeds.)
But along with the joys, there are dangers. Especially in Utah.
"Utah has lots of cats," says Petrie. "There may be some neighborhood that doesn't have at least one, but I don't know where that would be. And since cats were bred by human beings as domestic pets, they sometimes kill when they're not really hungry."
To compound the problem, birds are very attracted to commercial cat food. In fact, if you find an injured or lost baby bird, feeding it cat food soaked in water is not a bad idea.
Still, careful monitoring may be needed to keep local cats at bay.
And once the goldfinches and grosbeaks begin showing up, it's a good idea to learn how to look at them.
The American Bird Conservancy offers the following:
"The way birds feed and their adaptations for feeding are the most important points to recognize in identifying and understanding a bird. . . . Seed-crushers have strong, conical bills for cracking seeds. The shape of a bug-eater's bill varies with the way it catches bugs. Most bug-eaters have slender straight bills used to probe in trees, brush, ground litter and rock crevices. . . . Sparrows (seed-crushers) don't flit among the branches of a tree searching for bugs, and warblers (bug-catchers) won't be seen on the ground picking at seeds."
In the end - as in activities from golf to goat roping - bird watching can become just about as involving as you care to make it. For novices, however, here are five things to keep in mind as you set out your feeders:
- "Don't just give the birds sunflower seeds," says Petrie. "For a bird, sunflower seeds are like potato chips - good tasting but not especially healthy."
You can mix your own seeds or buy wild bird seed at pet stores. Suet, fruit and nectar are also main courses for birds - as well as cat and dog food.
- Sometimes large birds will drive the smaller birds away from a feeder. In that case, it's often a good idea to have two feeders, one especially made for smaller birds.
- If you have trouble with birds flying into your picture window, keep them at bay by putting the figure of an owl or some other bird of prey in your window. Many pet stores sell special cardboard cut-outs of owls to keep birds from bashing into the glass.
- If you find a baby bird on the ground, leave it where it is unless it's in danger. "It's very rare that parent birds will abandon their babies," says Petrie. "So when humans take the baby bird home, the parent comes by and can't find the baby. The parent was probably just out looking for food."
- There are hundreds of books about birding. And most local bookstores have a full stack of them. For "window watchers," however, one book that Petrie suggests is "A Guide to the Behavior of Common Birds" by Donald W. Stokes (Little Brown and Co.)