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Why Hunters Should Also Be Birders

Why Hunters Should Also Be Birders

A Black-capped Chickadee perched on wood.

You can build community and your hunting skills through your binoculars

All of my conservation heroes were birders.

This fact still guides my outdoor experiences whether it is hunting, hiking, or fishing. While a good deal of the modern conservation movement rests largely on the big, broad shoulders of bison, it was birds that really gave the movement momentum.

Teddy Roosevelt’s fascination with birds as a youngster growing up in New York is well documented and he kept a running list of birds he saw on the White House grounds, some 91 species in total. Plus, Roosevelt’s designation of Pelican Island in Florida as the first National Wildlife Refuge to save and conserve wading and shorebirds and other waterfowl launched the National Wildlife Refuge system that currently provides protection on more than 95 million acres while also providing ample opportunities for hunting and fishing.

George Bird Grinnell, a contemporary of Roosevelt, was also an avid birder and hunter who worked tirelessly to protect lands in the West from exploitation. He was also instrumental in establishing the National Audubon Society.

Aldo Leopold, the father of wildlife ecology and an avid hunter, is famous for his writings on Sandhill Cranes, Canada Geese, and his essay in A Sand County Almanac in the section “December” entitled “65290” about the return of a banded Black-capped Chickadee is considered classic nature writing.

Frances Hamerstrom, a wildlife researcher, birder, falconer, and pioneering woman in wildlife management, devoted her life to preserving habitat for Wisconsin’s dwindling prairie-chicken populations while at the same time pioneering captive breeding methods for the Golden Eagle. She also wrote a wild game cookbook that is full of anecdotes, good humor, and delicious recipes. 

Birding opens opportunities

While it may seem counter-intuitive, birding opens a world of opportunities that we don’t normally consider when we’re in our hunting or fishing mode—counter-intuitive in that a number of us first find enjoyment in the outdoors and then progress to hunting or angling.

However, as devotees of Hunt to Eat, sometimes those activities to engage with nature are secondary to filling tags or creel baskets. I will argue that either way is fine, but by combining both endeavors you can find each more fulfilling.

Birding allows you to take full advantage of your hunting equipment

First, birding will allow you to learn and take full advantage of your equipment, specifically optics.

How many of you have a nice spotting scope that, other than that trip to the mountains or prairies each fall, sits idle for 95 percent of the year? You can improve your spotting skills by taking that glass out in the spring to catch the migration of waterfowl and if you’re fortunate to be able to take advantage of spring light goose season along the way, all the better. By not allowing your glass to gather dust in the off-season you’ll become more proficient in its use.

Maven's logo over a hunter with the sky behind him and a pair of binoculars to the right.

Learning to zero in on a subject, focus and zoom in and out quickly are all skills that will pay off on fall hunts. These same skills can be developed with binoculars, as it is a little more challenging trying to find a small, flitting bird in heavy vegetation with binoculars. Add in focusing and picking out characteristics for identification and you’ll be set for finding antler tips protruding from sage or an ear scanning the surroundings within a spruce stand come fall. For example, noticing whether or not a bird as an eye-ring or wing bars forces you to look at and for parts, rather than an entire body—definitely a skill that comes in handy while spotting big game.

Birding can tip you off to good wildlife habitat

Watching how birds behave, noting the habitat they occupy, or even the species of birds present in an area can be beneficial for finding good hunting or fishing habitats. For example, standing streamside, watching for Tree Swallows, which are insectivores, darting about over a stream can be an indication of an insect hatch.

A duck marsh with a high number of Pied-billed Grebes, which are fish eaters, might not be a great spot for hunting since the presence of fish can indicate lower availability of invertebrates which are important sources of food for Scaup and other diving ducks. Additionally, grasslands full of Bobolinks and Meadow Larks in the summer are very likely to hold good populations of Sharp-tailed Grouse and Ring-necked Pheasants. 

Birding forces you to practice patience

Birding forces me to slow down. Patience is not a strong suit of mine—it probably took me a few extra seasons to fill my first deer tag as a youth because I just couldn’t sit in one place for very long.

Observing birds, learning to wait until they reveal themselves has reinforced my need to be patient while in the field hunting or fishing. Watching for Swamp Sparrows and Sedge Wrens flitting about the cattails when I’m duck hunting or listening for Ovenbirds calling in the turkey woods helps to overcome distractions as well. I’d much rather put my attention towards figuring out what’s happening in front of me even when ducks aren’t flying than to let my mind drift off to the work that is sitting at my desk waiting for my return on Monday morning.

I’m able to be fully present to my surroundings, which in turn makes me much more aware of everything that is happening around me. 

Birding allows you to spend more time in places you love

How often do you spend time in the places you hunt or fish when you’re not trying to fill a tag or a stringer? Birding lets me spend more time in places that I love. From my favorite duck marsh in early spring watching the mass migration of Snow and White-fronted Geese to listening for the cacophony of various bird songs each morning in the turkey woods—of course, all between listening for distant gobbles.

There is something special in getting to really know the areas I hunt and fish outside of my time looking to fill a tag or creel. Knowing the seasonal changes, or phenological events, that occur in the areas I spend time in also adds value to my hunts. If I hear a grouse drumming or American Woodcocks winnowing while I’m turkey hunting, chances are pretty high that I’m hitting that spot up again in the fall to chase those game birds. While technology, such as trail cams, can let us monitor what’s happening in our favorite areas, they really have no equal to actually spending time in the field observing what is happening throughout the year.

Birding hunters build stronger communities

While what I’ve noted above is meant to get Hunt to Eat readers to think about how to fully engage with their environment and equipment, I’d like to close with some thoughts about how these exercises can also help build a stronger conservation community.

As noted earlier, many giants of the modern conservation movement were avid birders. They were also avid hunters who understood that preserving habitats for game species was also providing excellent habitat for non-game flora and fauna. Furthermore, none of their efforts would have been possible without the help of non-hunters. The National Wildlife Refuge System that Roosevelt started would not have happened if Grinnell and his bird-watching peers had not pushed to save herons, egrets, and other birds from the feather market hunters. Truly, this was a conservation effort that transcended the artificial boundaries that currently exist in today’s conservation world, that of hunter versus non-hunter.

In today’s world, where hunter numbers continue to decline, important habitats still need protection, and building relationships with others interested in conservation, regardless of if they hunt or fish, is increasingly more important. So is letting non-hunters and anglers know that we value wild things and wild places just like they do and demonstrating those values.

Participate in your local birding communities, too

Building relationships can be hard work, but those relationships can be very rewarding. I’ve found participating in the events of my local birding club to be very educational and a means to give back to the local community. I’ve talked with bird lovers about my hunting and explained how the majority of the areas they like to spend time in were purchased by hunting or anglers through license fees and excise taxes on equipment. Many of them were unaware of this funding model.

A Hunt to Eat ad displaying four best-selling t-shirts.

We’ve helped fund equipment for a local outdoor classroom so kids can spend more time outside, built nesting boxes for Bluebirds and Wood Ducks, and nesting platforms for Osprey. We’ve also had great discussions on gathering one’s own food, either through hunting, angling, and/or foraging. Getting a bunch of birders excited about clean water funding and grasslands protection and getting them to contact legislators about the importance of these issues has been one of the highlights of my interactions with the group.

Birders can be an odd group, but they’re also extremely friendly and most are very willing to spend time teaching novices some identification skills. One of the best ways to enter into the world of birds is to participate in the Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count. This event has become foundational for monitoring the health of bird populations and most counts welcome new counters. And, not to worry, you’ll be paired with an experienced observer. 

Following in the footsteps of conservation giants is possible, and to be honest necessary. We need to build these relationships with like-minded conservationists and advocate for the activities we love: seeing a new species of bird while doing it, or gaining a new set of friends, are bonuses.

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