By Christine Harris
Innovative birding programs across the country are bringing this popular pastime to many unlikely candidates. The stereotypical image of a “birder” to many would be a man who wears a floppy hat and a beige vest, is harnessed into a pair of binoculars and has a spotting scope slung over his shoulder. I won’t pretend that this description doesn’t apply to some of the birders I’ve encountered over the years, but as the pastime increases in popularity it has found some less-traditional enthusiasts.
The Michigan Bird Brains are a group of young birders organized by their birding mentor and teacher Donna Posont. Many youth birding groups have sprung up around the country, but what makes the Bird Brains unique is that they bird entirely by ear because they are all visually-impaired. Donna Posont, who is also visually-impaired, teaches her students to identify birds by sound, a skill that can give them a unique advantage over sighted birders as pointed out by one of her students, seventh-grader Austin Shepherd. Sighted people can only focus on one bird at a time while Austin points out, “it’s special because we can hear lots of different birds at once.” The Bird Brains have participated in the Great Backyard Bird Count for several years and may take on competitive birding in the future.
At four nursing homes in Connecticut another group of nontraditional birders has emerged: Alzheimer’s and dementia patients. Randy Griffin, a registered nurse, seeking ways to improve the lives of Alzheimer’s and dementia patients, teamed up with Ken Elkins, an education program manager at a Southbury, Connecticut Audubon center, to bring birding to residents at four nursing homes in the area. The program they developed, Bird Tales, introduces Alzheimer’s and dementia patients to birds through pictures, models, and recordings, and also suggests ways to make the nursing home grounds more bird-friendly.
All four of the Connecticut nursing homes using the program now practice organic lawn care to attract more birds to their grounds. Additionally, these nursing homes have seen a significant decrease in the amount of medication they are using to calm agitated patients. Elkins visits each nursing home twice a month and spends about a half an hour with each group. He also trains nurses to continue the program in between his visits.
Urbanites represent another unlikely group of birders. Perhaps the best know urban birding spot is Central Park in New York City. The park is a metropolitan migrant trap to which countless birders flock. Organized bird walks catering to kids and adults alike are offered regularly in Central Park and are also offered in countless other urban areas across the United States including Boston, New Orleans, San Francisco, Minneapolis, Milwaukee and Tucson.