Some mornings, it wouldn't be worth getting out of bed if I couldn't watch the birds at my backyard feeders while sipping the first cup of coffee of the day.
The news in the paper may depress, the weather on the radio may disappoint, the well-coifed chatterboxes on TV may disgust, but the birds never do.
They sing and flutter. Get along and squabble. Big ones feed their youngsters. Sometimes the boys feed the girls. And every so often a big fuzzy squirrel makes like Rocket J. Squirrel and flings himself from my roof onto a feeder to steal some sunflower seeds.
I'm not a birder. What I know about birds could fit in an oriole nest with room left over for a pair of binoculars. Let me sum up my vast knowledge: the little yellow ones are gold finches, the bigger red ones are cardinals. If they have a brick-orange breast and pause dramatically as they dash across the lawn, they're robins. Squawking blue birds are probably jays. Screeching black ones are crows.
But just because I don't know the difference between downy woodpecker, hairy woodpecker and Woody Woodpecker doesn't take any of the enjoyment away. I gladly make the trek to the local Wild Bird Center and plop down my money for a 40-pound sack of black oil sunflower seeds.
Feeding the birds makes me feel good, and when I look at all the happy faces in the store, it's obvious others feel the same way.
That's why Dave and Claire Horvath, owners of the Wild Bird Center stores in Columbia and Silver Spring, got into the business 10 years ago this month.
He ran fast-food places and movie houses and she sold Tupperware. They decided, Claire says, "to pull ourselves out of the mean world and into the nice world."
Noticing how much money his wife spent at the Wild Bird Center near their Columbia home, Dave thought he might be cheaper if she worked at one instead of shopping at one.
"It was a very new idea, very weird," Claire says of their choice. "When we went to get a loan, the bank said, `You're selling what? Bird seed?' "
They obtained a franchise from Wild Bird Centers of America, a company based in Cabin John, and opened the Silver Spring store with $18,000 in inventory - mostly seed.
"I told her, `If it doesn't work out, we can always eat the inventory,' " Dave says, chuckling at the memory.
But it did work, and five years later, they took over the franchise and lease of the Columbia store, where Claire bought her first feeder.
Being in either of the two stores is like being outside. Water trickles from fountains and bird baths and CDs of bird sounds mask street sounds.
"People come here on their lunch hours just to chill out," says employee Janice Frazier. "It's a combination church and wildlife haven."
The Horvath's three girls - Rebecca, 18, Jenny, 17, and Tara, 13 - all work the counter and know just about as much about birds as their folks do.
Bird stuff ain't cheap (forgive the pun), but bird seed stores like those owned by the Horvaths are filled with people who are in there not because they have to be but because they want to be. That's a nice business to be a part of.
But let's say you're like me, ornithologically challenged. Not to worry, help is out there.
First, get a guide. No, not some guy in a pith helmet, a book.
There's the old standby, the 384-page "A Field Guide to the Birds," by Roger Tory Peterson ($15). And a newer old standby, "Birds of North America: A Guide to Field Identification" by Marylander Chandler Robbins ($16). Then there's "Birds of North America" by Kenn Kaufman ($20), and the even newer "Birds of North America" by Fred Alsop ($25). Let's hope the next author gets some help picking a title.
We caught up with Alsop on Thursday at a pay phone at Rocky Mountain National Park, where the Tennessee zoologist was leading a field trip for a group of students.
While it was raining at my end of the phone in Baltimore, it was "wall-to-wall sunshine, 65 degrees, and I'm surrounded by broad-tailed and black-chinned hummingbirds." Alsop said, laughing. "I don't think I'd trade places with you."
Alsop has been birding for 30 years and remembers the first time he picked up a guidebook. "I said, `There's no way I'll learn all this.' But over the years, I've chipped away, and now I've seen almost every one of the birds in my book."
It can be intimidating, he acknowledged, but a fledgling needs to break the process into pieces. First, he said, look at the range maps to see which birds inhabit your area. Then, find a local birding group and see if it has a list of birds in your area.
"You need to narrow your focus," he explained. "It's like being on a diet and getting a huge menu. You select the things you can eat."
Next, thumb through the guide and get familiar with the different families of birds, such as owls and hawks.
And last, remember that birders of a feather must stick together. "Go with a friend. It's like getting a second pair of eyes," he said.
Or go with an amateur guide. No, not a book, a person.