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Follow the birds.

Citizen science has taken off in recent years, and I've become an enthusiastic participant. I've been counting backyard birds at my feeders and learning a lot in the process. Admittedly, backyard birds are not that difficult to identify and count--in 10 years, I've only logged in about 30 different species--but what you can learn from watching birds is pretty amazing. And your efforts might help scientists track migration patterns and bird population changes.

Back in second grade, we learned to identify some of the major players, such as cardinals, chickadees, robins and blue jays. But birds didn't reappear in my life until I was in my 50s, when an accident left my father a quadriplegic. He and his wife, Pat, built a life around things in and around their home. When they improved their flowerbeds, gardens, shrubs and trees, and added bird baths and feeders, their home began to attract many birds.

From his bed, my father could watch and keep track of birds through a window that had its own feeder. When we talked on the phone, he'd ask if I had seen a particular bird in our neighborhood that he saw frequently at his window. Or he would report how many birds of a particular species had appeared in their yard. Pat provided support--one time she suddenly shouted into the phone "Oh! Oh! I have to go outside and get that hawk out of here!" and then rushed outside to fight off the invader.

To hold up my end of our conversations, I began feeding backyard birds. I discovered the more you know about birds, the more there is to learn and enjoy. Every day, the birds bring something new to ponder or investigate--a new behavior, a different species arriving. Sometimes a problem to solve.

I was thrilled, for example, to solve the dilemma of house sparrows mobbing my feeders. In fall, house sparrows were all over the place, taking over the feeders. I was dismayed I would not see much of "my" other kinds of birds; and further learned that house sparrows attack other birds' nests and eggs, and perpetuate declining bluebird populations. Now I was on a mission. I read that scientists discovered that simple contraptions make it difficult for house sparrows to grab seeds out of a feeder, but other birds aren't affected. Who knew? A few household wires wrapped around the perches of my tube feeder and --ta-da!-- problem solved.

Once your friends and relatives realize you are interested in birds, you become a resource. Friends will ask me to identify birds in their yards and bushes. Sometimes I have to remind them that it's hard to say with only limited details (e.g., color alone is not enough). However, I started feeling pretty confident about my ability to identify backyard birds. I decided to take it to the next level by learning to identify some new birds (especially warblers) on early morning hikes in nearby Minnewaska State Park Preserve, which has a Bird Conservation Area that is part of the Northern Shawangunk Mountains Important Bird Area. The hikes are led by an accomplished birder, accompanied by beginners and experts. To keep up, I had to build up my stamina, but learning just one or two "new" birds on a hike is a satisfying reward. I also gained a new appreciation for serious birders.

Books, articles, the internet and electronic gadgets are helpful tools to identify birds on the fly, so to speak. Data citizen scientists collect can support efforts of organizations and other birders, such as Cornell University's FeederWatch and eBird projects, or the National Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Count, Great Backyard Bird Count and Hummingbirds at Home project.

Watching birds eventually leads to listening to them, including the loud and distinctive "tea-kettle, tea-kettle" of Carolina wrens, or the heart-warming "Sweetie! Sweetie!" of the chickadees. I think the birds are calling to us, enticing us to join them. It's a big world out there, and birds provide an exciting path for exploring it.

Linda Greenow is a retired Geography professor from SUNY New Paltz. She lives in Ulster County, where she enjoys gardening and observing birds.

Caption: black-capped chickadee
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Title Annotation:Back Trails: Perspectives on People and Nature
Author:Greenow, Linda
Publication:New York State Conservationist
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Dec 1, 2016
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