by Jim Eagleman
On any morning walk I try to keep binoculars close by—on the back porch, or in my truck. If I don’t carry binoculars with me I miss things. Watching birds, the second-most popular American outdoor activity, is a great way to “tune in” to nature. I say tune in, for it is often the bird call that first attracts attention—followed by our neck-breaking stretches and awkward positions to chase and confirm it. I enjoy this unpredictable pursuit as the bird flits undetected ahead of me—a cat and mouse game between watcher and the watched.
If “birding”, the active sport of bird watching, is the second-most popular outdoor pursuit, what is the first? The top two are closely related. It is something you accomplish by watering, weeding, and pruning—gardening!
We Americans plant vegetables, fruit trees, vines, ground covers, flowers and shrubs at an overwhelming rate every year, much to the delight of nursery and garden supply stores. Who doesn’t enjoy munching into a fresh, home-grown tomato or an ear of Hoosier sweet corn? And we like the color, beauty and variety home plantings provide. Gardening gets us outside to plant, water, and monitor a hopeful crop. Home landscaping and gardening can be of benefit to birds for food, nesting sites, and protective cover.
At a recent school talk about conservation I drew a picture of a bird cage on the blackboard and a rather amateur rendition of a canary swinging on a perch. I spoke about the workers who took the caged bird into the mines. Years ago, this was the only way for miners to know it was safe to work. If the caged canary stopped singing, or they found it lying on its back, the miners knew to exit quickly. The small bird was the indicator of the dangerous noxious gases in the mine. I told my students to think of birds generally in the same way—they can tell us how well we are taking care of the earth.
The numbers of birds, how they are distributed, and the summer and winter range tell bird scientists a lot. Over time, if birds are not found in locations historically used, something has caused them to move. Is it competition for food sources, weather, habitat changes, or something else? If bird scientists see numbers from annual counts dwindle, is local development to blame, or something more global? When birds return from their wintering grounds earlier than normal their insect diet may not be readily available. The birds may find less food, or the wrong life stage of the insect as food, resulting in different nutrition and breeding . Changes in the world relate to changes and adjustments in bird and animal life. And change is inevitable.
Eastern Bluebirds nest in and around our Brown County property, and have responded well to installed boxes. This spring, we saw fledglings being fed by parent birds while another pair nested in a nearby box. What a treat to see these beauties fly down from a perch, quickly pick up an insect, then fly back. That flash of blue is unmistakable! Mild winters and plenty of food this spring resulted in several breeding pairs. This wasn’t the case a few years back. One box full of young was flooded by heavy, overnight rains and less bluebirds resulted that year.
We are fortunate to live in this section of southern Indiana with so many natural areas to visit; and all of them produce birds, free for the searching! At nearby Monroe Reservoir, waterfowl and shorebirds abound. Each winter it provides great viewing of Bald and often, Golden Eagles. Natural areas like parks and state forests are great birding sites, but often its unassuming brushy fencerows and country pastures that can produce the most exciting birding. Closer to home, I like to scan the treetops from my back porch for any bird activity. Bird calls on an IPhone app let me entice in the male, as long as I don’t keep him from protecting a territory or take him away from his job of protecting the female and nest. I play it just long enough to see him fly. Squeaks cause curiosity and sometimes bring in the bird closer for viewing.
Our Bird Appreciation Day at the Brown County State Park was June 22.
Go to <www.interpretiveservices@dnr.IN.gov> and click on Brown County for monthly calendars of our interpretive programs.