For the Birds Radio Program: Interest in birds

Original Air Date: Feb. 21, 1994 Rerun Dates: Jan. 22, 2003; March 29, 2000

Why do people spend so much money, and so much time, watching birds instead of other animals? 3:25

Duration: 3′26″


(Recording of a Black-capped Chickadee)

What is it about birds that so attracts people? Every year Americans spend over $500 million dollars on birdseed alone–and that’s not chicken scratch. People spend years developing strategies to keep squirrels–our fellow mammals– out of feeders so there will be more for the birds. Just what is it about birds that captures our imaginations and makes us want to watch and nurture them more than even our closer relatives in the animal kingdom?

I used to think it was simply a matter of numbers. There just aren’t as many kinds of mammals as there are birds. At my feeder this year I have eight or ten gray squirrels–that’s it on the mammal front. On the bird front, I’ve seen two downies and two Hairy Woodpeckers, two crows, a couple of white-breasted nuthatches, red-breasted nuthatches, several starlings, four juncoes, Purple Finches, one redpoll, Pine Siskins, and, chickadees. Except for tame squirrels, birds are simply easier to find and watch than mammals. And reptiles, amphibians, fish, and invertebrates completely disappear in winter. Minnesota and Wisconsin each have about 400 bird species on their official checklists. Yet the entire Great Lakes Region only has about 80 species of mammals. Birds win the numbers contest by a landslide.

But birds are popular for more than that. The sheer magic of flight and mystery of migration have mesmerized people since earliest times. When people see birds they dream of freedom– imagining themselves able to come and go whenever and wherever they please. Ironically, in reality most birds are more restricted by their biological clocks and innate migratory patterns than the most driven humans are by a watch and schedule.

Konrad Lorenz believes the attraction to birds comes from the fact that their movements are on approximately the same time scale as our own, the sounds they make are in our own hearing range, and, like us, their vocalizations and sense of hearing are used in social communication. He wrote, “This emphasis on the senses of sight and hearing results in birds exerting strong claims on our aesthetic sentiments. Had we been “nose animals” like dogs and many other mammals, there would be no amateur ornithology. Instead of going out to enjoy the music of bird song on woodland walks, we would go snuffling round foxholes and badger sets and along hare and deer tracks…We would have mammal-sniffing societies instead of bird-watching societies.”

Whatever the reason, birds have an appeal that few other creatures on earth can match. Whether it’s a wild honker, an antarctic penguin, an African ostrich, or a fluffy ball of chickadee, birds are interesting and pleasing to almost everyone.

(Recording of a Black-capped Chickadee)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”