Sunday, April 13, 2014

Pledge to Fledge - Every Day!

The weekend of April 25th-27th is Pledge to Fledge weekend. P2F is a grassroots movement by the Global Birding Initiative (GBI) to inspire experienced birders to take non-birders out on a birding excursion. Through these introductions, people will develop an appreciation for birds and nature, with many of them becoming casual birders. And we all know what happens to casual birders - they become serious birders, who then become whatever we call birders who drive 150 miles through raging blizzards to see a "possible" Slaty-backed Gull.

Here's the actual pledge:

"I pledge to actively share my enthusiasm for birds with non-birders by taking them into the field to show them birds and foster their own appreciation for birds whenever possible. I will strive to be friendly, patient, helpful, and welcoming when approached by ‘non-birders’ or asked about birds by acquaintances.  I believe that individual birders, as part of an international grassroots movement, can effect positive and profound change for our shared birds and their future."

That's good stuff. And it works. I'd encourage everyone to check out the P2F website for ideas. The key to the pledge is that "whenever possible" part. It's nice to have an official weekend, but we should be taking non-birders out birding whenever we can. We should be friendly, patient, helpful, and welcoming to non-birding strangers we encounter every single time we go birding. For me, one of the great pleasures of birding is that moment when a stranger walks up and asks if I'm looking at birds. I reply that I'm checking out a Sandhill Crane. The stranger gasps, saying she's never seen one. I point over her shoulder and tell her she walked past one within 30 feet of the boardwalk 90 seconds ago. 
Sandhill Crane, Lake Lansing Park North, Ingham County, Michigan
That's a true story from several days ago, and things like that happen all the time. 

I was interviewed on a local radio program last weekend about birding. It's a pet talk show, but they do a wild bird show every spring. One of the points I stress every time I'm on that show is how many different birds are right here in Ingham County, Michigan. Ask a non-birder with a very casual appreciation for nature how many birds can be seen in a year in your local area. The answers will probably vary from a dozen to maybe 40 or 50. Depending on where you live, the actual answer could be almost ten times that number.  

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Here in Ingham County, the Big Year record is 228. That blows non-birders' minds. With very little effort and a cheap pair of binoculars, anyone could get a hundred birds in a suburban yard with a wooded area around here. For someone who thinks the only birds in the neighborhood are "crow, chickadee, robin, cardinal, woodpecker, sparrow, and blackbird," hearing that is a challenge. A casual birder is born.

With the whole P2F thing in mind, I want to stress one other thing. When taking a non-birder out, remember that you don't need to make it an excursion that would impress the likes of the late Roger Tory Peterson. Pick a spot with a lot of charismatic and fun birds. I call them ambassador birds, because they're good ambassadors for the hobby. A vagrant sandpiper or a very early sparrow may be the stuff that gets birders' blood flowing, but those aren't the kind of birds that rock the worlds of the non-birder. By all means, if there's a vagrant sandpiper, scope it and tell its story. Talk about wrong-turns in migration, climate change, random chance. Just make sure you show (and allow) that same excitement for a close up of a Yellow Warbler. 
Yellow is a happy color, so use an Evening Grosbeak as an ambassador. (Hartwick Pines State Park, Michigan)
I've been using Hooded Mergansers as ambassador birds around here lately. We have a trail system that runs along two local rivers connecting downtown Lansing, our zoo, a couple parks, and the Michigan State University Campus. It's heavy walked/jogged/biked. No one stops to look at the river. No one notices the absolutely absurd-looking duck floating by. At least not until they run past when I'm there. A weird guy staring intently through binoculars at the river causes a percentage of the trail joggers to stop and inquire what I'm all about. Most of them have no idea what a Hooded Merganser is and are flabbergasted such a creature is commonplace on these streams. 
I've seen hundreds of Hooded Mergansers and I STILL think they're crazy!
Herons make great ambassador birds as they tend to stay in one place long enough to show them off. Warblers don't share that trait, but if you get one in the open, use that bird to recruit! And then there's the ambassador of ambassadors:

Bald Eagles are one of the most "in" of our inside birding jokes. Strangers love to come up to binocular-toting folks like us and tell us about a place we can go to see real live eagles. They aren't aware that Bald Eagles are conspicuous and easy to find over much of North America. So we smile and pretend to be excited about the information. At least I hope we do. Dismissing a non-birder's enthusiasm about an eagle with a lecture on how common they are to birders is precisely the opposite of what we should be doing. Embrace eagle enthusiasm! Dare I say, take a non-birder out to see eagles. It is shocking to me how many people live near me in Michigan who have (as far as they know) never seen a Bald Eagle. Some of them have surely seen immature eagles and not known it. Most have just never looked in the right place at the right time. Namely, "up" and "whenever".

We all know how we can chase a nemesis bird for years, and then, after finally finding it, you start to see the bird regularly. The same thing happens with eagles. Show a newbie an eagle, and suddenly they notice them everywhere. Then a magical thing happens. That person starts caring more about pesticides in lakes, toxic lead shot, wetland destruction, and anything else that might hurt the beautiful birds turning up everywhere.

It can all start with an eagle. Or a duck. Or a warbler. Or a heron. It starts when we let someone into this world of ours and show them that birding is fun.


  1. What a wonderful article! I love showing people the birds that surround us as that is how I got hooked when a co-worker took me out birding. I never KNEW! Every outing is a treasure hunt; every bird a prize. I'll probably always be a bird watcher as I'm slow to learn the science bits but that's ok. I absolutely love to go birdwatching and that co-worker did me a huge service taking me out and introducing me to the wonderful world of birds. She was introduced by another co-worker of ours when he would bring in photos of the birds he'd seen on the weekends. She was intrigued by his enthusiasm. She lives 10 min down the road from Hillman Marsh and about 20 from Point Pelee. Not a bad area to live in. :)

    I KNOW that Hoodies are crazy. Just take a look at my flickr photo of one … This was taken at Lakeview Park Marina here in Windsor, ON. this past winter.

    1. Wow. That is a prize-winning crazy duck picture, Karen. I'm ashamed to say that living less than 3 hours away, I have never been to Pt. Pelee. I'm finally fixing that this spring, as I'm out there on assignment May 9 and 10 with plans for some time at Hillman as well. My wife and I were thinking of stopping at Ojibway Prairie in Windsor for something to do...and to pad the Ontario list. Looks like an interesting place. If you have any other secret birding spots in Windsor, let me know!

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  3. That's funny about eagles-so true! I love this post! Introducing non-birders to a special bird viewing opportunity is one of the things that keeps me enthusiastic about being a birder. I used hoodies over the winter too but now I enjoy showing them a heron rookery. Good advice about not trying too hard to impress them with the numbers or rarity of birds.Just show them something they can see good and appreciate.

  4. very nice shots....congratulations

  5. Marvelous post, so interesting! I would love to go birding with you Kathie. I think it would be a lot of fun to get out there with someone who knows a whole lot more about birds than I do. Sorry you have had trouble commenting and I thank you immensely for visiting all the same. I hope the glitch has gone away now, keeping fingers crossed. Have a great weekend and A Happy Easter.