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The Amateur Birder

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It's easy to understand why birdwatching has become one of America's favorite pastimes.  Watching these flying jewels not only fills one with glee and wonderment, but is cheap and easy as well.  The amateur birder need only invest in a few inexpensive items to enjoy all the benefits and clout of a real ornithologist.  These items are lightweight and easily transportable and should accompany the amateur birder at all times.

To get started on your new hobby, one must first purchase four pair of high quality binoculars.  It's mandatory to have four pair and I shall explain why.  Firstly, the birder should have binoculars for the home and preferably, placed around your neck at all times.  If this is not convenient, say, during bathing, lovemaking, or diaper changing, put them in a spot where they can be grabbed at a moments notice.

Secondly, each form of transportation should be equipped - car, snowmobile, moped, scooter, unicycle, skateboard, walker.  Thirdly, a pair should always be well hidden at your place of employment.  And lastly, your bedside table would not be complete without night vision binoculars for those precious moments when the bloodcurdling shrieks of our nocturnal feathered friends abruptly awaken you.

Next, to increase your chances of seeing multitudes of these tiny, flying dinosaurs, one should have a minimum of seven birdfeeders: stationary tube, hanging tube, suet feeder, thistle bag, windowsill ledge pan, hummingbird feeder, and lastly, the handsome thatched roof tiki-hut feeder to add versatility and spunk to your feeding stations.

Naturally, one must purchase feed if one is going to place feeders around the home.  I cannot tell you how many beginning amateur birders have forgotten to place seed in their feeders and spent countless hours at the window or hiding behind bushes, without a single avian encounter.  Tut tut.

There are many different types of bird food from corn to millet, sunflower seed to thistle.  However, I have found that adding a more exotic mix to the above will increase your chances of seeing rarer and more discriminating birds. 

I find that broadcasting macadamia nuts beneath your stationary tube feeder will attract the lusty and full-figured Pink Bottomed Whim, while a few strips of high quality smoked salmon is the food of choice for Sapsucking Pipit.  A good and pungent liverwurst will attract the Little-nosed Grosbeak, and the adorable Tiny Bummer (no bigger than a gherkin!) will always find its way to a tray chock-full of Lucky Charms.  (Note: Tiny Bummers only like the pastel marshmallowy part of the cereal and eight boxes will yield enough for one tray.)

I think one of my all time favorite sights was seeing a flock of Tiny Bummers alighting on a cereal laden tray and in splendid Gladiator-like bravado, viciously pecking at one another over the sweet tasting charms!  Althought there were some casualties, most got away with their lives and tummies full of the delicious food.  And remember, some of our flying friends prefer carrion, especially during the cold winter months, so always have the carcass of some unlucky animal placed near or propped up against your feeding stations.  So not to alarm neighbors, good sense tells us to adorn any carcass with festive or seasonal decoration.  If you cannot get your butcher to regularly supply you with leftover parts, roadkill is readily available and usually quite fresh.

No amateur birder (or respectable ornithologist!) would be without a good bird library. Naturally, one should purchase books by Audubon and Roger Tory Peterson, however, I've been delighted and educated as well by the classic, Great Bird Tragedies of the 20th Century, and for the more analytical birder, The Psychological Traits and Bad Habits of Big City Birds of North America.  If you've extra change in your pocket, look for the beautiful coffee table books, The Joys of Avian Taxidermy, Birds as Toys for Your Pets, and my personal favorite, America's Tastiest Songbirds.

To finish up on your initial purchases for your new hobby, don't forget machine washable hats, a plethora of bird whistles, and for the less sporting new birder, a high powered rifle or top of the line slingshot.  All in all, expect to invest a mere $1,500 to get started, and plan on a good $300-500 per month for food and miscellaneous.  Not much at all when you figure in the lifetime of fun and pleasure you'll receive as a new amateur birder.


To begin, you must know the parts of a bird to make a proper indentification.  There are just a few terms and parts you must remember which will enable you to identify almost any bird.  I highly recommend you study and memorize the following: mantle, nape, eyeline, moustache, nostril.  The rump, uppertail coverts, undertail coverts (only seen if bird is flying upside down or mooning you from a branch), covert coverts (seldom seen), flank, wing lining.  Wingbar, sidebar, belly, wrist, scapulars.  Axillaries, primaries, secondaries, insignificants. 

If you are unable to memorize the above terms, look for three simple parts: face, wings, ass.  Face: part of the bird with eyes (except for the Eyeless Vireo), beak - eats with this end.  Wings: flapping appendages, gets the bird airborne.  Ass: no description necessary.  You are now on your way to identifying your first bird!  Good luck!


Don't let anyone tell you there is no bird hierarchy when it comes to chow time.  Each yard has their dominant birds and smaller, less experienced birds beware!  I have seen the gregarious Double-Breasted Twit deliberately hold the heads of a poor, little Tripple-Headed Crossbill underwater for some time when the inexperienced Crossbill made the mistake of taking a seed out of turn.  You would think that the Triple-Headed Crossbill would have more than its share of smarts, but it is truly a very dim little bird.

You will always see the Thick-Lipped Widget first at the feeder with the more timid Lavender Breasted Swizzle Stick lurking in the shadows.  Only when the Widget has satiated itself will the Swizzle Stick hunker to the feeder.  Look for certain birds to flock and dine together, such as the Pig Headed Cowbird (will eat out of the palm of your hand if you oink gently), the Wingless Thrasher, and the Vested Kingfisher (cousin to the Belted Kingfisher, but marked with an elaborate plaid vest!). 

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Jan Baumgartner is the author of the memoir, Moonlight in the Desert of Left Behind. She was born near San Francisco, California, and for years lived on the coast of Maine. She is a writer and creative content book editor. She's worked as a (more...)

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