Essay | Sitting Still is for the Birds

I am entering my third spring as a bird watcher and I think I have some idea about why people who become bird watchers tend to remain bird watchers for life.

Like the birds we watch, there are different species of bird watchers. I am a backyard bird watcher, meaning I have no real interest in seeking out opportunities to bird watch outside my backyard or neighborhood or otherwise going about my business. This doesn’t mean I stop watching birds when I leave my house, I’m always on the lookout, but it does mean I won’t be making any special trips to watch birds.

Some birdwatchers, those who do make special trips, consider us backyard bird watchers a lesser species. Ask me if that bothers me? See, you don’t even need to ask. I admire the people who go on bird watching vacations, I just don’t aspire to their ambition.

But I am wandering. I was going to tell you about the evolution of a bird watcher. There are, I think, and I am making all of this up, three overlapping phases of bird watching. The initial phase is the manic acquisition of species sightings, also known as the newbie phase. Humans like to keep score and increasing your species count is a kind of keeping score and the larger your species count the more successful you feel. For the backyard bird watcher this phase is relatively short. While there are always exceptions and unusual visitors, the majority of birds you are going to see will be seen once you’ve been watching actively through both a fall and a spring.

Next is the proficiency phase. This is where you become better at quickly identifying birds already on your list without referencing visual aids. I have 37 birds on my backyard/neighborhood list and I can identify approximately 75% of those from memory. This phase also includes beginning to identify birds by sound, by their calls.

The final phase is understanding. At some point your bird watching skill-set plateaus and your choice is to expand your score keeping horizons (start watching/counting more birds in more places) or start sitting still. These choices are not mutually exclusive but if you are a committed backyard bird watcher your only real choice is to sit still.

When you sit still, with no thought of finding and counting, and just observe, you begin to learn things about the birds, more than shapes and colors and calls: Mr. and Mrs. Cardinal, that old couple, married for 50 years (even if they only just met this spring). The brave and tiny Chickadees who can intimidate crows 10 times their size. Crows and all their magician’s secrets. The never-ending and frightening patience of hawks. The way the Mourning Doves maintain appearances of wealth and respectability despite being reduced to scavenging for their supper. The Titmouse that is too big for his britches and the Wren who will nest in your ear if you fall asleep in the garden. The Nuthatch who is not a Woodpecker but is nevertheless one of the most talented woodpeckers in the yard.

I think the reason people never really stop watching birds once they start is because bird watching, eventually, necessitates a meditative practice, a stillness and an absence of expectation. Eventually, you stop bringing your agenda to the birds and that is when the birds start talking to you. What do they say? Well, if you’re asking me, and you’re not, they tell you all the reasons why the air under your wings at any given moment in time is the only air that exists.


Copyright © 2018 by Mike Ferguson
All rights reserved. No part of this website ( may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, screenshots, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission from Mike Ferguson, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, use the contact form.