We all have a bird story. It would be hard to find a person on earth who doesn’t. I’ve had some spectacular ones, like watching a pair of golden eagles lock talons and spiral from the sky to the prairie, but most are more mundane, as when a chickadee quietly visits the feeder by the window. One of the most visible groups of animals on earth, birds have made their way deep into human culture and everyday experience. Wherever we live, urban, rural or wild, there are birds to accompany us. For a moment, I’d like to consider some of the many ways birds help us become more human.
Modern life can be stressful and difficult to cope with at times and from a conservationist standpoint, it is often downright depressing. We confront challenging and seemingly insurmountable problems on a daily basis; climate change, invasive species, subdivision of habitat, declines in wildlife populations….you name it. An effective way to deal with this despair is by taking the time to enjoy what we endeavor to conserve. Getting outside and mindfully watching birds in their habitat is an effective and reliable way to gain perspective and relieve stress. Observing wildlife going about their lives has the power to trigger memories, be instructive in some way, evoke a sense of wonder within us, or all of these at once. A host of intellectual-emotional responses are possible by paying attention to wildlife and almost all enrich us.
People naturally gravitate to certain kinds of nature appreciation, but I’d argue that because birds are accessible to nearly everyone, they remain an especially important catalyst to instill a lifelong love of the natural world. Many friends of mine involved with natural resource management, conservation and outdoor education began their respective journeys by watching birds as youngsters. Birding itself can be either a highly social or completely solitary activity, depending on our mood, is a relatively inexpensive pastime and can be pursued nearly everywhere at any time of year. Careful observers often feel more connected to seasonal changes and ecological cycles by noting which species appear on the landscape at a particular time. What northern spring isn’t made more vivid and luminous by the loon’s wail or the curlew’s call?
Since they can travel great distances and use a variety of habitats during the winter, breeding and migratory seasons, many birds are studied as indicators of greater ecosystem functioning and health. This is especially true in recent years; as global warming reshapes the planet, bird populations are responding by altering migration and feeding patterns, which can help predict how natural systems might change in the coming years. The regular accessibility to birdlife creates a strong sense of kinship in many people which seems to enhance a desire to learn more about birds and nature in general. According to some research, birders tend to rank fairly high in their knowledge of natural history and ecology compared to some other outdoor recreationists.
There are of course, many ways to interact with and experience the natural world. For me, chasing birds is only one way but often in combination with plant identification, looking for sign of other wildlife or merely sitting back and allowing myself to be moved by the elemental power of a beautiful landscape. But while there is sometimes a dearth of flowers, mammalian wildlife or good weather…there almost always seems to be a bird at hand. We are all collectors of bird stories.
A great way to learn about Montana’s diverse birds and their habitats is by attending the Wings Across The Big Sky bird festival in Helena from June 5-7. The event is sponsored by Montana Audubon and Last Chance Audubon and attracts birders, wildlife enthusiasts and conservationists from around the region. Activities include field trips, presentations, raffles and a silent auction. Noted author and naturalist Scott Weidensaul will give the keynote address on bird migratory patterns. The event is a great way to share the joy of birds, other wildlife and the incomparable landscapes of Montana with others.