Believe it or not, bird-watching is the hottest hobby in America. Here's Sunset's complete guide to its pleasures

Many years ago, I walked down to our family's basement anddiscovered a bird book from the 1930s. It was tattered anddog-eared, and its margins bore notes in my mother's girlish hand.When I asked my mother about it, she explained that it dated fromher childhood in Seattle. She told me it had been an important bookbecause, for her, birding had been no idle hobby.

At age 12, my mother had been stricken with polio. She spentmost of a year confined to bed. That year, the birds my mom couldglimpse from her bedroom window were her link to the larger world.She doesn't claim that bird-watching sped up the healing process.But daily observations of chickadees and warblers taught hersomething: about patience, persistence, endurance. Those lessonsrallied her ― not only during the painful physical therapythat eventually helped her to walk again but throughout herlife.

Inevitably, perhaps, I became passionate about birding too. Thepastime has taken me all over the West. I've followed hummingbirdsto Arizona's Sabino and Madera Canyons and watched them zip throughthe air, catching sunlight like gemstones. I've gazed at thousandsof snow geese in the Sacramento Valley, their cries pealing as theycircled like clouds of confetti.

I am not alone. The National Survey on Recreation and theEnvironment names bird-watching the fastest-growing outdoorrecreation in the nation ― an interest shared by 70 millionAmericans. It's easy to understand birding's popularity. There arefew sports that are as simple and inexpensive to begi ― youneed only a good bird book, binoculars, and walking shoes. You canfind birds everywhere ― even, quite literally, in your ownbackyard.

Bird-watching can change the way you think about the world.Almost by accident, studying birds has made me study theenvironment. I've taken note while some species skidded to thebrink of extinction and watched others, like the brown pelican andbald eagle, be helped to recovery.

And birding can give you great joy. Scientists say that birdsuse song to attract a mate, mark territory, or signal danger. But Ithink there's another reason: wild birds sing because they own asky so big, a heart so light, they simply must make music now andthen.

Today, at age 80, Mom lives by a lake. She still looks at birdsout the window ― only now with a powerful spotting scopetrained on the water. She and I are no longer the only birders inthe family: the bird-watching bug has been passed around to mybrother, sister, brother-in-law, and niece.

Still, Mom and I share our own special birding bond. We'll takeany break in our schedules to squeeze in a trip together. Lastwinter, the promise of hundreds of bald eagles sent us flying northto the refuges of the Klamath Basin, along the California-Oregonborder. We saw eagles everywhere: on fence posts and in grainfields, on mudflats and icy ponds. One magnificent bird satastonishingly near ― atop a telephone pole ― while weeyed him, until at last he lifted his wings and soared off. It wasthe closest we'd ever been to a bald eagle and, perhaps, to eachother.

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