Wings over the West

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

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

At age 12, my mother had been stricken with polio. She spent most of a year confined to bed. That year, the birds my mom could glimpse 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 her something: about patience, persistence, endurance. Those lessons rallied her ― not only during the painful physical therapy that eventually helped her to walk again but throughout her life.

Inevitably, perhaps, I became passionate about birding too. The pastime has taken me all over the West. I've followed hummingbirds to Arizona's Sabino and Madera Canyons and watched them zip through the air, catching sunlight like gemstones. I've gazed at thousands of snow geese in the Sacramento Valley, their cries pealing as they circled like clouds of confetti.

I am not alone. The National Survey on Recreation and the Environment names bird-watching the fastest-growing outdoor recreation in the nation ― an interest shared by 70 million Americans. It's easy to understand birding's popularity. There are few sports that are as simple and inexpensive to begi ― you need only a good bird book, binoculars, and walking shoes. You can find birds everywhere ― even, quite literally, in your own backyard.

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

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

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

Still, Mom and I share our own special birding bond. We'll take any break in our schedules to squeeze in a trip together. Last winter, the promise of hundreds of bald eagles sent us flying north to the refuges of the Klamath Basin, along the California-Oregon border. We saw eagles everywhere: on fence posts and in grain fields, on mudflats and icy ponds. One magnificent bird sat astonishingly near ― atop a telephone pole ― while we eyed him, until at last he lifted his wings and soared off. It was the closest we'd ever been to a bald eagle and, perhaps, to each other.