In late January, I spent a couple of days in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, sampling a slice of that city’s Wildlife Wilderness Week celebration, an annual, seven-day, outdoor smorgasbord that tries to serve up something for just about everyone. Offerings ranged from map and compass field trips to seminars and classes about birding, learning to needlepoint and cooking over a campfire. One day was devoted to all things fly-fishing. There also was a daily outdoor/sport show.
All events were free. Refreshingly, no one tried to hide the fact that the primary purpose of Wildlife Wilderness Week is to lure off-season tourist dollars into an area that thrives on visitors. But there was plenty to be learned, too.
I sat in on a couple of the birding seminars. I’m not a birder, unless you count scanning the Kentucky Lake skyline for ducks during waterfowl season or searching the Lake Cumberland or Taylorsville Lake shore for a visiting bald eagle. But birding is a popular activity that attracts millions, including nearly 700,000 Kentuckians.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the United States is home to 47 million birders, including 41 million “backyard birders.” That’s more people than play golf (24 million), hike or backpack (29 million), hunt (14 million) or camp (40 million). Fishermen (49.8 million) barely outnumber birders.
Mark Dunaway led the seminar on backyard birding. He is an assistant professor of biology at Walters State Community College in Morristown, Tennessee. He and his wife describe themselves as avid backyard birders, and Dunaway confessed they are probably “a little over the top” with the number of feeders they have at their rural home.
Dunaway loves birds and wants everyone else to love them, too. Attracting birds is easy, he said, regardless of whether the view from your kitchen window overlooks a backyard deck, manicured lawn, apartment patio, woods or farm field.
“Just put out food,” Dunaway said. “You’ll get birds.”
For want-to-be birders, his advice is easy to follow: Keep it simple. Buy a triple tube feeder. Fill two of the tubes with black oil sunflower seeds, which Dunaway called “the gold standard” of birdseed, and the third tube with a seed mix. Then just wait and watch. The birds will let you know which they prefer.
“Birds have personalities, just like we do,” Dunaway said, adding that if birds are raking through the offered food, they are almost certainly looking for something.
“If they are doing that with black oil sunflower seeds, they’re probably not interested [in those] and are looking for something else,” he said. “If they’re doing that with the mixed seed, they’re probably looking for [black oil] sunflowers.”
Birds also put their personalities on display when picking a mate. Presenter Stephen Lyn Bales said this is evident when many birds—including Kentucky’s state bird, the Northern cardinal—decide to bond. The brownish/reddish female picks the male, and other factors being equal, she will choose the mostly brightly colored male available.
Bird vanity? Maybe. But it’s more likely a practical decision.
“The cardinal that is the most red is the one that eats the best,” explained Bales, senior naturalist at the Ijams Nature Center in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Birds also vary on the intelligence scale, according to Bales, who listed crows, ravens and blue jays as the brainier species. He said jays sometimes imitate the call of a red-shouldered hawk to scare other birds away from a feeder.
There’s one school of thought that suggests birds evolved from a group of dinosaurs 200-150 million years or so ago. While I don’t particularly subscribe to this theory, it does present a thought-provoking dynamic, especially in light of what Bales shared about the Cooper’s Hawk.
This bird, also called a chicken hawk, will display some dinosaur-like tendencies in gathering food. It often chases, kills and eats other birds, attacking from ambush and occasionally carrying its prey to water to drown it.
“The female Cooper’s Hawk is really intense,” Bales said. “It’s the only bird species I know of where the male builds the nest.”
Maybe I’ll buy a feeder.