It only takes one bird.
For me, that bird was the roadrunner, the inspiration for the creature that famously tortured Wile E. Coyote in the Warner Brothers cartoons of my childhood.
It was a bird more of fiction than fact; a bird that I associated with the faraway deserts of the Southwest. Yet there it was, jerkily running along the shore of the John Martin Reservoir, a remote state park on the eastern plains of Colorado.
And I was hooked. I began to pay attention, to the chickadee outside my deck window, the great-horned owl perched in the rocks above my campsite and the pygmy nuthatch that climbed upside down on the ponderosa pines just off the trail.
For Rise Foster-Bruder, it was a tiny warbler with raccoon-like eyes that she spotted when she was working on a college assignment in Minnesota. It had been in her backyard all along and she had never noticed. Yet, there it was, sharing the branches of a tree with the sparrows that she thought of as ordinary.
It was astounding to me, Foster-Bruder says. I couldnt believe what I had been missing. I had been passing by these little warblers all my life. They were right there.
With her discovery, Foster-Bruder realized something else: Watching birds helps light a flame in you. It allows you to realize that theres this whole natural world around you.
Thats all it took for Foster-Bruder. Today, 25 years after her first warbler encounter, shes still watching the birds in her backyard. Her husband is in the military, so they have lived, traveled and watched birds all over the world.
In Colorado Springs, she has continued her love of watching the birds by serving as president of the Aiken Audubon Society, the Pikes Peak area chapter of the venerable nature organization.
Whats great about birding is this: You can do it anywhere, no matter where you go, she says.
Canaries in coal mines
Bird-watching, says Pat Leonard, can be much more than a hobby.
"Birds are everywhere, but we are not," she says from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in New York, a nonprofit facility that is dedicated to studying the world's birds. "If we watch the birds, we can gain insight into what's going on around the world biologically. Birds are sensitive indicators of the environment."
When the West Nile virus began to spread across the country in 1999, infected birds began to fall. Today, the population of American crows, a species especially susceptible to the disease, has dropped 35 percent. Decreases in chickadee populations and more than 100 other species also have been noted.
West Nile isn't the only threat to birds. In a 2001 study by the U.S. Geological Service, data collected over 35 years showed that almost one in four bird species in the United States was in decline, a result of the destruction of habitat for development. Wetlands are razed for houses; forests are cleared for roads. Changes in weather and seasonal patterns wreak havoc as well on migration and breeding habits.
Those are the kinds of changes monitored by biologists at the Cornell lab. It is also a center for what is called citizen science, offering several programs that allow people to record their bird sightings as part of breeding and migration projects, and seasonal bird counts.
Close to home, Ken Pals, interpretive specialist at Fountain Creek Nature Center, recruits volunteers for bird counts held at the nature center.
"It's fun to see what's going on," he says. "And although we are doing informal, not scientific, research here, we can learn a lot about birds moving up and down the Fountain Creek riparian corridor."
Caught in the act
According to the Outdoor Industry Association, 48 million Americans call themselves birdwatchers. What are the qualifications? You have to do more than notice birds or visit a zoo.
The guidelines are fairly specific: A birder must take a trip a mile or more from home to expressly view birds, or closely observe or try to identify birds around their home.
A good guidebook and binoculars will help. "I (heart) birders" sweatshirts are optional.
Many people are hooked once they start paying attention to birds. And once birders start paying attention to the winged world around them, they are amazed. Guidebook author Roger Tory Peterson wrote in his collection of essays, All Things Reconsidered: My Birding Adventures, that he was often caught up in the simple act of watching.
"I would rather shoot a roll of film on some relatively common species than add a new bird to my life list," he admitted.
Foster-Bruder says she's drawn to the universality of birding.
"I've been to Costa Rica four times, to Europe, to China and Russia and Eastern Europe, and I can bird-watch everywhere."
She's developed a friendly competition with her husband, who is in the military and went overseas during the Gulf War.
"I sent him a bird book, and when he was riding around in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, he saw birds I've never seen."
Last fall, Pals' wife spotted something unusual in the family's backyard near the Garden of the Gods a brilliant red northern cardinal. Cardinals are rare in the Pikes Peak region, usually not venturing further west than Lamar or areas of extreme northeast Colorado.
Pals says the cardinal has stayed, and is now singing its melodic song, perhaps in search of a mate.
"Birders are posting sightings and pictures of it, and people have been coming down from Loveland and Denver to see it and hear it," she says.
"It's gotten a lot of attention in the birding world."
Wanna be a birder?
Of course you do. Start by looking for common birds in the region. Here are 10:
1. House sparrows, gray and brown, seen in groups in riparian and urban areas.
2. Starlings, stout, shiny black birds, in both urban and rural areas.
3. Pigeons, large birds with feathers in shades of gray, in urban and forest areas.
4. Robins, familiar orange and brown, found in forest and urban areas.
5. Crows, large, black with distinctive voices and varied vocabulary, in riparian and urban areas.
6. Ravens, larger than crows; can soar like raptors, in forest and alpine transition areas.
7. House finches, red-headed males, found in urban and riparian areas.
8. Black-capped chickadees, black caps and bibs and white cheeks, found in riparian and urban areas.
9. Hummingbirds, tiny birds whose wings create a whistle or a chirping sound, found in forests, pion-juniper forests.
10. Flickers, striking brown and black with black spots and a black neck ring, found in riparian areas and lower-elevation forests.
Sources: Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Aiken Audubon Society, Stokes Field Guide to Birds (Western Region).
Aim your binoculars here
Go ahead. Get excited about that spotted towhee. Impress your friends with talk of grebes and loons. And we dare you to not gasp the first time you see a bald eagle.
Here are some great locations for birding in the region. For more information (and for directions to these locations), go to coloradobirdingtrail.com. The site is a new collaboration among the Colorado Division of Wildlife and State Parks, Audubon Colorado, Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory, Colorado Field Ornithologists and Playa Lakes Joint Venture, a partnership of federal and state agencies and conservation groups that spans six states.
Garden of the Gods
What to look for: spotted towhee, Virginia's warbler, white-throated swift, prairie falcon, rock wren
Big Johnson Reservoir (at Blue Stem Prairie Open Space)
What to look for: grebe, loon, tern, burrowing owl, scaled quail, Lapland longspur
Chico Basin Ranch
What to look for: mountain plover, sparrow, Bullock's oriole, yellow warbler
Fountain Creek Regional Park
What to look for: sparrow, duck, rail, marsh wren
What to look for: juniper titmouse, bushtit, ash-throated flycatcher
Cheyenne Mountain State Park
What to look for: wild turkey, prairie falcon, peregrine falcon, golden eagle, sharp-shinned hawk
What to look for: black-chinned hummingbird, black-headed grosbeak, lazuli bunting