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World's Easiest Hobby: Bird Watching

50 million birders must be on to something. You can be, too, faster than you can say antillean nighthawk

A woman smiles as she fills a bird house in a yard.

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Bird watching is one of the fastest-growing hobbies and is popular among older Americans. 

En español |  After my kids were semi-successfully launched into the world (fingers crossed!), I got to thinking: I need a hobby. I need something to keep me busy that I look forward to doing — you know, the kind of stuff the experts say keeps your mind from turning to mush.

Which is all well and good, but here’s the problem: I’m already busy. I’m still working. I still have a house to clean and meals to make and bills to pay, not to mention all those reruns of Law & Order to watch again and again. What I really need is a hobby that won’t take up much time. An easy hobby. One more along the lines of, say, tying my shoes than mountain climbing. Which is when it hit me: I already have such a hobby. I watch birds.

By which I mean I have a bird feeder out in the backyard, and sometimes, when I’m staring out the kitchen window thinking about how much house I have to clean, I see birds there. Big birds. Little birds. Birds, sometimes, that make noise. If I just paid a little more attention and learned to tell them apart, that would count as a hobby. It’s the sort of thing I could drop into conversation at cocktail parties: Why, just yesterday I had a yellow-bellied sapsucker at the feeder. Of course, if I went to cocktail parties, that could be my hobby. But I digress.

So now I don’t just watch winged things. I’ve become a bird-watcher — or, in the preferred parlance, birder. The best thing about my hobby is that it requires little exertion (they call it “watching,” remember?) and zero investment above the 10 bucks I shell out each week to keep the feeder filled. Over time, I’ve gathered some insight and useful tips related to my hobby, which, in case you, too, are looking for a pastime that requires you to pay almost nothing and do less, I’ll now share with you.

Two birds sit on a bird house outside a window of a highrise home.

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Filling your birdhouse with food on a routine basis is key to making sure the birds come back.

1. Bird watching is one of the fastest-growing hobbies in our nation. Fifty million Americans actually go to the fuss and bother of planning trips to watch wild birds each year, rather than just looking out the window. Suit yourselves, but I’ll enjoy my cup of coffee right here.

2. There is, indeed, an app for that. While the purists of the birding world bicker over whether using bird-watching apps is kosher (the American Birding Association is revising its code of ethics to sort matters out), you can be busy downloading one to help take your pursuit to the next level. The iBird Pro Guide to Birds ($14.99, iPhone and Android) puts an interactive guide at your fingertips, with ID tips, photos, recordings of bird calls and a range map, in case for some reason you do leave your backyard. Merlin Bird ID (free for iPhone and Android) is even better; it asks five quick questions about your feathered friend (Where are you? What time did you see your bird? How big was it? What colors was it? What was it doing?), then offers up possible suspects. It’s surprisingly accurate, and a great aid for beginners like you and me.

3. There’s no such thing as a “squirrel-proof bird feeder.” I don’t know what our government is doing, but it sure isn’t cracking down on misleading bird feeder ads. There are only squirrel-challenging feeders, with varying degrees of difficulty. (If the prospect of luring small rodents to your yard revolts you, you may have to take up quilting instead.) What you want is a feeder that’s sturdy, meaning metal and not fancy scrolled woodwork. I’ve had good luck with Brome’s Squirrel Buster series. Don’t blanch at the prices; they’ll outlast four or five cheaper ones.

4. What you put in your feeder matters less than putting it there. You can find birdseed tailored to particular species, in case you’re determined to, say, focus on finches. Eh. I get a great mix of visitors simply by providing sunflower seeds — every day. Consistency is what matters to the birds. I swear, when I sleep in on weekends and finally make it out to the feeder, there are whole rows of sparrows on the overhead wires, staring down at me like, “Yo, it’s about time.”

5. Birds like a drink with their meals. Well, who doesn’t? Your water source doesn’t have to be elaborate, though if you want to go all out on a fountain, don’t let me stand in your way. I just keep on refilling the water bowl I still have out back even though our dog died 10 years ago. This has the added benefit of discouraging burglars. (Hey, it’s worked so far.)

6. You can use plants to attract more birds. Come on, you’re out in your yard anyway. Among its many other beautiful and useful features, the Audubon Society’s website (audubon.org) has a nifty native plant database, organized by zip code, so if you’re dead set on hummingbirds, you’ll know what to do.

7. Be prepared to fall in love. It’s amazing how cute a flock of goldfinches looks jockeying for position at the feeder. Before you know it, you may be signing on for “avitourist” jaunts to Antarctica to peek at penguins or Papua New Guinea to get a bead on birds of paradise. The U.S. government’s most recent estimate: Bird-watchers spend $41 billion each year on their hobby, at home and abroad. That ain’t birdseed, friends. And 2018 has been declared “The Year of the Bird” by the National Geographic Society. So hop to it, already!

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