Shila Wilson, 55, always felt she had a special appreciation for wildlife, but it wasn’t until she saw her first great blue heron near her hometown of Marietta, Ohio, that her passion for bird-watching was ignited. “I was taking a morning walk along the Ohio River when I noticed this tall, prehistoric-looking bird wading along the bank only a few feet away. Suddenly the bird took off, its enormous wings slowly propelling it across the river. It was the most stunning bird I had ever seen, and I was overwhelmed by the desire to know what it was.”
She called a friend who was an avid bird-watcher, and together they consulted a field guide to solve the mystery. “My tall, blue-gray bird was an adult great blue heron. This one experience got me tuned into birds, and I began noticing them everywhere I went,” she says.
For Wilson, that heron was her “spark bird”―the one that sparked her interest in bird-watching. Wilson’s experience is not unusual. Bird-watching is booming in North America. According to recent estimates by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, there are about 50 million North American bird-watchers. There are more than 200 birding festivals held each year in the country, and nearly 25 states now have driving routes―called birding trails―specifically dedicated to the pastime.
People who are not bird-watchers are often curious about why this activity is so popular. The late Roger Tory Peterson, whose field guides made bird identification easier, believed it was because birds are “the most vivid expression of life.” After all, they demonstrate behaviors and characteristics we humans find admirable: beautiful plumages; elaborate, musical singing; courtship of mates; dedicated raising of offspring; defenders of home territory; and, perhaps most wondrous of all, flight―something humans have only mastered in the past 100 years.
According to Scott Weidensaul, ornithologist and author of Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds, the appeal of bird-watching is easy to understand. “The great thing about bird-watching is its simplicity―all you need are a good pair of binoculars and a willingness to slow down and drink in your surroundings,” Weidensaul says. “You will find that there are beautiful, rare, and fascinating birds absolutely everywhere, from urban parks and your backyard to wherever you happen to be going on vacation.”
It’s this phenomenon that avid bird-watcher Christine Williamson, conservation chair of the Chicago Ornithological Society, calls her “bird scanner.” “I walk out the door in the morning, and my ears and eyes are automatically scanning,” Williamson says. “What I hear and see tells me what migrated in overnight, which breeding birds are still on territory and singing. In the winter, the call of a single chickadee reminds me that life is still present and that spring will come.”