Bird Watching 101

BIRD WATCHER'S /ANDY THOMPSON - June, 2007, CBS Early Show segment CBS/EARLY SHOW

Right off the bat, you should know that this story is for the birds — actually, for bird watchers and especially would-be bird watchers!

One out of every five Americans is a bird watcher. Some people even call it the nation's No. 1 spectator sport — even exceeding NASCAR!

Andy Thompson, whose family has been publishing Bird Watcher's Digest (www.birdwatchersdigest.com/site/index.aspx) for almost 30 years, stopped by The Early Show Friday with some backyard bird watching basics.

Thompson, who's the digest's publisher, says bird Watching is a hobby, a pastime and a spectator sport that can be enjoyed anywhere. It can provide people with a needed escape from the daily bombardment of e-mail, phone calls, job concerns, etc. It also enables them to divert their attention to nature, to a positive encounter with wildlife.

When the digest was founded, Thompson points out, there were no specialty store chains devoted to feeding and attracting birds. There were some good bird feeders, but not the wonderful array now available. Getting good birdseed was a challenge. There were a couple of bird tour companies, few if any bird watching festivals, and certainly no state birding trails.

Today, there are two major franchises devoted to serving bird feeding enthusiasts: Wild Birds Unlimited (www.wbu.com) and Wild Bird Centers (www.wildbirdcenter.com), as well as several thousand other independent outlets catering to this audience. There are more bird feeder designs than anyone can count, as well as more food types. There are more than 400 birding festivals and several dozen state birding trails. The Internet and cell phones assist in communicating the latest rare bird sightings, not to mention birding blogs and e-newsletters, as well as more magazines taking note of the growth of the pastime.

Thirty years ago, CBS Sunday Morning with Charles Kuralt began wrapping its program every week with nature sights and sounds, often involving birds in some form. We don't have any kind of regular birding "show," but that may be because it's hard to translate the excitement and unpredictability of the pastime.

Birds don't appear on command, on schedule, but that, too, is part of the fascination. Birds don't read field guides, so something rare or unusual can, and often does, show up at a feeder somewhere. Storms can blow birds thousands of miles off course. After Katrina, there was a bevy of interesting reports. During migration, it's bad weather that bird watchers on the Texas coast hope for, because it can mean a fallout (an unusually high number) of incredible birds.

HOW TO ATTRACT BACKYARD BIRDS

Create a backyard that will appeal to birds. Planting trees and shrubs of different heights will accommodate the preferences of different birds. Check with your local gardening center on which plantings work best to create a bird friendly yard in your area. And keep in mind chemically treated lawns will make a less interesting and healthy environment for birds.

THE FOUR BASICS: Water, food, shelter and a place to nest

BIRD BATHS are one of the easiest ways to bring birds up close, where you can get a really good look at them.

They provide fresh clean water to drink and bathe in, which can sometimes be the hardest necessity for birds to come by.

When selecting a bird bath, choose one with a running water feature (or shop for an add-on unit) to help keep it free of algae and other contaminants, including mosquito larvae. The sound of moving water will also attract birds from afar. Another feature to consider is either a heated bird bath or a separate heater to put into the bathe. This will keep the water from freezing in winter, when open water is scarce. Also, keep in mind, the water shouldn't be more than a couple of inches in deep. If it's too deep, birds won't feel comfortable and will avoid the water feature. To limit the depth, add rocks for birds to perch on.

Wingspan Copper Bath with "Bird Friendly" stamped copper dish; MSRP:$149.95.

Allied Precision Water Wiggler, add-on battery-operated device to create moving water, MSRP:$24.95.

FEEDING STATIONS

SEED FEEDERS:

PLATFORM FEEDER:
A platform feeder is a simple tray-like system that accommodates a wide variety of backyard feeder birds, both small and large, from sparrows to blue jays to mourning doves. To attract all sorts of birds, fill the tray with mixed seed.

Tip: Be careful of seed mixes off the shelf, which can be mostly waste. For good seed, look for a mix of black oil or striped sunflower seeds, white millet and cracked corn.

Songbird Cedar Hanging Platform Feeder, MSRP:$24.95.

HOPPER FEEDER:
As the name implies, a hopper feeder has a box-like storage (with two plexi-glass sides) and a dispensing system through a slot that not only makes seed available for birds on demand, but usually has a roof to help keep seed dry, too. This feeder type attracts a wide range of birds, but excludes certain unwanted ones.

Songbird Cedar Plantation Hopper Feeder, MSRP:$39.95.

TUBE FEEDERS
Tubular feeders are long, slender (usually plastic) containers with multiple feeding ports/perches usually suspended from a tree or hung from a pole. They are more selective, excluding larger birds such as pigeons and starlings by allowing the perch sizes to be controlled. These feeders filled with black oil sunflower seeds attract birds such as chickadees, cardinals and house finches.

Droll Yankees Seed Tube Feeder, MSRP:$29.95.

Black oil sunflower seed or mixed seed are two types of seed that feed a variety of backyard birds. While the black oil sunflower seed has a more universal appeal, mixed seed provides different blends to target different types of birds.

THISTLE SOCK FEEDERS
Mesh net feeders specially designed to hold thistle seed, also known as nijer (ny-jer) seed, which is the preferred food for finches. These small black seeds are imported from abroad, and do not originate from the ever-loathed purple weed prevalent in American lawns. And although they spoil easily, they are wildly popular with finches, SUCH AS the American Gold Finch, which have a particularly bill that can crack the nijer seeds.

Songbird Essentials Thistle Sack, MSRP:$3.99

NECTAR FEEDERS:

Other specialized feeders include nectar feeders (filled with one part sugar and four parts water) targeting birds that like nectar or fruit. Examples include the hummingbird feeder, typically constructed of glass or plastic without perches, containing nectar (sugar-water) to attract these tiny birds.

Aspects Hummingbird Feeder, MSRP:$17.45.

Another is an oriole feeder, a modified version of the hummingbird feeder, usually colored orange with perches.

Oriole Nectar Feeder from Bird Company, MSRP:$17.95.

BIRD HOUSES or NEST BOXES:

Bird houses provide a habit for cavity-nesting birds such as chickadees, bluebirds, wrens, and tree swallows. Other birds, such as starlings and house sparrows, often out-compete these native birds for their natural cavities, creating a shortage of habitats. One of the more common bird houses is the bluebird box. Originally designed to help recover the declining population of the less aggressive bluebird, it can also house a variety of other birds.

When choosing a bird house, look for three features: a predator guard, vents or holes for ventilation and drainage, and access for cleaning and monitoring.

Ultimate Bluebird House by Songbird Cedar, MSRP:$39.95.

The birding products above were provided to The early Show by www.songbirdstation.com; 888-985-2473

BIRD WATCHING TOOLS:

BINOCULARS:

When choosing binoculars, it's best to try them out in person. They must be light enough to carry all day, easy to hold steady, and focus quickly.

  • The Eagle Optics Triumph 8x25 binoculars provides an extra bright, sharp view of birds, flowers, and much more in a small package. Lightweight and small in size (about 10 ounces), the 8x25 Triumph is easy to carry along. The new twist and lock eyecups adjust quickly, offering ample eye relief and a comfortable, full field of view for eyeglass and sunglass wearers. The reverse porro prism design allows your hands to easily wrap around the binocular, and the well-placed, smooth-action center focus wheel enables quick focusing from infinity down to a mere 8.2 feet away. Price: $69.99; www.eagleoptics.com, 1-800-289-1132

  • Zeiss Conquest 8x40 BT Binoculars deliver a sharp view on overcast days, as well as at dawn and dusk. When you need magnification and a wide field of view, these portable binoculars provide premium performance. Ergonomic handling makes for effortless viewing of scenery filled with fascinating birds, insects and other wildlife. Twist-in eyecups lock in place after adjustments for viewing comfort. Zeiss features include T multi-layered optics and phase corrected Pechan prisms. Also, waterproofing to prevent damage by water or dust, nitrogen purging to prevents internal fogging, temperature-proof casing, and solid rubber armor for easy grip. Comes with carrying case, rain guard, and neck strap. Price: $949; www.eagleoptics.com

    FIELD GUIDES help you understand how distinguish among the different birds, and typically include an image of the bird and its markings, a range map of where they can be found seasonally, and information on their song and call, as well as their behavior. Some examples include The Sibley Field Guides, Peterson Field Guides (first guide to be published in 1934), and Kaufman Field Guides. There's also "Identify Yourself" for advanced bird watching and "Bird Watching for Dummies" — a general reference to bird watching.

    MOBILE FIELD GUIDES:

  • BIRDSONG IDENTIFLYER: Master the world of bird songs with this simple tool! The BirdSong IdentiFlyer plays back digital bird song recordings from interchangeable SongCards to help you learn to identify birds by their songs. Just slide a card into the player and press the button next to the bird's picture. You will hear the birds' song clearly and you can play it as often as you wish. The IdentiFlyer Kit is complete with 2 songcards, batteries, guidebook and earpiece. Price: $34.95 (additional cards are $10.50 each); www.identiflyer.com

  • NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC'S HANDHELD BIRDS: National Geographic's Handheld Birds from PullUIn (pull you in) is a software program to empower birders of all levels with easy-to-use, mobile and interactive capabilities via a PDA. It is based on the best-selling National Geographic Field Guide to Birds in North America and includes more than 1,600 bird images and 650-plus range maps, plus other detailed bird information such as family, features, plumage, similar species, habitat, and more. Birders can search through 867 North American birds by location, size and color, and swiftly transition from one bird to the next to easily compare and contrast unique characteristics. In addition, National Geographic Handheld Birds includes nearly 4 hours of birdsong and call playback from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, for listening enjoyment and to assist with rapid identification in the field. Handheld Birds can be purchased as an all in one device that includes a Tungsten E2 Palm Pilot or as separate SD (secure Digital) card software. MSRP(PDA & SD card): $449.95, SD card only $199.95; www.handheldbirds.com or 1-866-447-7696.

  • BIRDJAM MAKER (software) transforms an iPod into a birdPod or mobile bird field guide. Within 15 seconds, you can listen to the song of any of 650 species of North American birds by accessing the comprehensive bird song library using your iPod. It's easy to use, small and lightweight. The birdJam Maker is organized into 75 habitat and family playlists. Each bird is on a separate track. No narration. Fast and easy to install on any color iPod or MP3 player. MSRP: $59 for either Eastern or Western North America & MSRP: $99 for all of North America; www.birdjam.com or 800-403-5524
    • Brian Dakss

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