Watching, protecting our feathered friends


January 09, 2000|By MIKE BURNS

WE had about 100 visitors drop by the house on New Year's Day, maybe more. Many of them came back for second helpings and thirds. We managed quite well and kept the groaning board amply supplied, however, because our guests' appetites were mostly peckish and they ate like birds.

Actually, they were birds. The clear, sunny winter weather was a welcome relief to our avian neighbors, and to us. It was a grand time for enjoying the moment before the penetrating gray, frozen blanket of winter falls for the duration.

Counting the winged supplicants at the feeders on our deck is admittedly an inexact task. There are no radio transmitters or leg bands on these birds, no trappings of entrapment.

It's an estimate but the numbers never count much for us anyway. An encounter with an individual feathered visitor is more rewarding than a scrupulous count of heads, just as a conversation with a single guest at a party can provide more enjoyment than quick pleasantries with everyone.

It was our own informal, lazy man's version of the Christmas bird count that is assiduously conducted across the United States to see how many birds and species are spotted by amateur ornithologists in a single day.

The Christmas count, which is actually held after Christmas Day in most parts, has been the major event of the nation's birdwatching community for a century. Organized by local birding groups, the annual amateur census attracts nearly 50,000 participants in North America and the Caribbean. They aim to count total birds seen and the number of different species.

The outing began as an alternative to the holiday "side shoot" in which hunters competed to see how many birds they could kill. The National Audubon Society started the count in 1900 as a protest and continues as the coordinator and compiler of the hundreds of local Christmas counts.

So while it may not be the "ideal" time for spotting the most birds, or unusual species, it's a firmly implanted holiday ritual that continues to gain popularity.

In fact, bird watching is the country's most popular recreational activity. About one of every four Americans admits to being a bird watcher, but those credentials are often casual.

It can be someone who simply enjoys regularly looking out the window at the creatures without ever joining a club or putting up a birdhouse. It includes the most fastidious checklist keeper or globetrotters ever seeking new species.

But the main distinction of most birders is the practice of feeding the feathered friends.

Bird seed sales now total more than $100 million a year, a considerable economic impact for a recreational pursuit that requires no special equipment or apparel. (That figure does not include pet [caged] birdfeed, either.)

All told, the measured impact of birdwatching exceeds $1 billion a year in seed, binoculars, field guides, bird feeders, etc.

It's even greater when you consider the boom in bird-attracting flowers and plants sold by nurseries.

Interest in the hobby continues to grow. As Kerry Sanders of the Wild Bird Store in Eldersburg notes, "New people come by every day and look for something to advance their interest in birds. -- It's not just the regular customers who keep us running."

Wild bird seed is now sold widely, not only in specialty shops but in the megastores and farm supply, the supermarket and even drugstores. And while some stock bird feed only in the cold months (when people are more concerned about providing extra nourishment for the creatures), you can typically find it year-round.

Partly that's the result of a good economy that encourages birders to indulge in continuous feeding. Partly it's a result of studies that debunk the old fear that songbirds fed by humans in warmer months will be unable to cope with winter's demands.

Not too long ago, wild bird feeding consisted of throwing out stale bread or toast to hungry avians. That may have worked for some species (pigeons, starlings, ducks, geese) but not for most birds, who left it untouched. Now, you can finds dozens of kinds of seed, from the costly "black gold" niger seed to mixes with fruits and nuts and all manner of seed.

Even the staple bird food in these parts, sunflower seed, comes in so many different varieties that it's confusing. (The birds in our back yard don't seem so finicky about the grade of the seed, even if they may get more nutrition per peck from a fatter oil seed.)

And don't confuse milo with millet, either: one's a cheap filler rejected by many birds, the latter's a welcome treat.

With a small investment of a few dollars to get started -- you don't even need a feeder -- bird watching is a widely accessible hobby.

Despite repeated efforts to place a special recreation tax on bird and wildlife items, to balance similar earmarked conservation taxes on hunting and fishing goods, there doesn't seem to be much heart in Congress for such measures.

After all, it is by feeding and housing wild birds and looking out for their welfare that amateur birdwatchers are doing a lot to protect their feathered friends.

Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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