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Lorena Villa-Parkman/MEDILL REPORTS

Birders explain why bird-watching is such a popular hobby in the U.S.

What makes bird-watchers tick?

by Lorena Villa-Parkman
Jan 19, 2012


Lorena Villa-Parkman/MEDILL REPORTS

Chicago is a great place to be a bird-watcher, according to experts.

Bird-watching is the fastest growing pastime in the U.S. after gardening. There are nearly 52 million birders in the country, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

So, what is so great about staying still for hours trying to get a fleeting glimpse of a feathered animal?

Medill Reports joined a group of bird-watchers as they braved the low teens temperatures of winter on a field trip on North Pond Nature Sanctuary in Lincoln Park.

“What I find fascinating about going out looking for birds is that there are lots of puzzles to work out and solve,” said veteran birder Geoff Williamson, computer engineering professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

It all started for Williamson when he was a kid.

He and his brother got a field guide and went around their house trying to find out what type of birds inhabited their yard. “The great mystery we had to uncover was to identify this blue bird with a large head. It turned out to be a belted kingfisher. That´s how I got into birding around 40 years ago,” he said.

Chicago is a great place to be a bird-watcher, according to experts. “Around the Great Lakes area the spring migration is specially exciting,” Williamson said.

Phyllis Petrilli, a restaurant manager, has been bird watching since 2007. She names her first spring as a birder as one of the experiences that convinced her to keep pursuing this hobby. “We were at the LaBagh Woods Forest Preserve [along the north branch of the Chicago River] and it seemed as that day I saw every beautiful bird that I had seen on my field guide. That will go down in my memory as one of my favorite days ever,” she said.

Birders recommend getting a good pair of binoculars and a birding field guide. “That´s all you need,” said Davy Russell, a Chicago blogger. “That and spending lots of time looking at field guides. Get really good at learning identification marks. Also get along with other birders, they have lots of tips.”

Williamson said that birds are best suited for long-term observation. “As people we get really fascinated by other creatures that inhabit the planet, Williamson said. “Among all those kind of animals, the most accessible ones to observe are the birds.”