After more than a decade working in conservation, I've only recently discovered birds for myself.
Last year, I made a New Year's resolution to learn more about the birds I spied outside my window. With the help of my children, I situated bird feeders in ideal spots for observation. We gathered books and binoculars-as if we weren't close enough! We kept track of avian visitors such as chickadees, tufted titmice, mourning doves, cardinals and many, many well-fed "squirrel birds."
Learning about birds has been surprisingly satisfying. I began to understand why people travel around the globe in search of additions to their "life list."
Imagine my surprise when in the midst of pursuing my new hobby, I learned that some experts don't approve of bird feeders.
Some ornithologists think that attracting wild birds to feeders does little good, and may do harm. Welcoming birds into our backyards might distract them from migration patterns established long ago. Dirty, neglected feeders might cause disease among bird populations. Busy feeders might encourage diseases to spread. Feeders located in the middle of an otherwise treeless backyard might make wild birds an easy target for house cats and other predators.
Then there's the issue of whether feeding wild birds benefits, or degrades, the natural environment. Based on what I see at home improvement stores and local nurseries, feeding birds represents a thriving industry. Such demand can't come without a price in the way of water, pesticides, packaging and fuel needed to produce and transport the goodies we offer to our feathered friends.
Trying to learn more led to more questions than answers. For example, are we jeopardizing ecological balance for a front row seat to nature? Should we supplement wild forms of food and shelter with artificial sources?
Or, are we providing beneficial and increasingly necessary help for wild birds losing critical habitat to a sprawling and consumptive society? How can we expect birds to follow nature's path when we're paving over it?
My answer-at least for now-came one morning as my kids spied a red-headed woodpecker at our bird feeder. They watched with enthusiasm surpassing what's usually reserved for things like candy, "Tom & Jerry" cartoons and fireworks on the Fourth of July. My kids were excited by nature. They wanted to learn more. That's huge.
It's also not uncommon. We're not the only amateur ornithological laboratory staffed by one grown-up and two preschoolers.
As I write this, people of all ages across North America mirror our enthusiasm as they participate in the "Backyard Bird Count." During this annual event, citizen scientists report on birds they've observed in backyards, schools, local parks and other areas over a four-day period.
According to the Audubon Society's website, last year's event resulted in 80,000 checklists accounting for more than 11 million birds and 616 species.
And it's not just for fun. Efforts like the Backyard Bird Count document important trends in bird diversity, distribution, population and migration patterns that no single scientist or team of scientists could hope to document in the course of a few short days.
That's a lot of people who care about birds. If they are anything like me, they also care about nature in general.
So I'll leave the bird feeder out a little longer while also making my backyard a welcoming place for wild birds in other ways. It's already chemical-free and contains a mature butterfly garden full of tasty insects. For new plantings, I'll choose native flowers and shrubs full of nuts, berries and other popular menu items.
Our feeders are already located near trees, where birds might rest or hide if they feel threatened. I do intend to clean them more often, though.
Finally, while I gaze upon the bird feeders with my budding conservationists, I'll also keep my eyes open to issues and ideas that will help me learn about the difference between supporting nature in the face of modern day living-and getting in the way.