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BIRDWISE: Birds may be scarce, but birding is 'in'

Right now, our fields, forests and feeders are populated mainly by the usual suspects: the permanent bird residents like chickadees, nuthatches and woodpeckers.

So far, there is little evidence of irruptions of winter finches and others I spoke about last time. There are some pine siskins here and there, and today the first Bohemian waxwings were spotted not far away at the Deep Portage Learning Center, near Hackensack. We can certainly hope these are signs of things to come.

But until the local birding picks up, I thought I might fill the gap with some articles about birding in general, including tips on how to improve your birding skills. Today's focus is on how birding as a sport has evolved over the past half-century.

When I first developed an interest in birds as a child, the activity was known as "bird-watching" and it was broadly stigmatized as something done only by frumpy, old ladies in tennis shoes.

At least for boys, watching birds was hardly a stepping stone to popularity with peers. So as a shy child, I became a closet bird-watcher. Group experiences were mainly field trips with older adults from the local Audubon society. I became hooked: the more bird species I saw and identified, the more I wanted to see all the others depicted in "The Peterson," the bird-watcher's bible (Roger Tory Peterson's "A Field Guide to the Birds"). Peterson was the pioneer artist and author who developed the concept of using "field marks" — specific features of a bird's appearance — to enable the bird-watcher to distinguish similar species from one another with relative ease. His guides are still used today.

Fifty years later, birding has gained enough popularity as a sport in the United States to be featured often in magazines and newspapers. Hardly a frumpy, old ladies' activity anymore, birding is embraced by young and old alike and is gender-neutral.

What has accounted for the transformation? For one thing, I think the simple terminology shift from "bird-watching" to "birding" has transformed the image of this enterprise from a passive to an active and more broadly appealing one.

Another important factor has been the maturation of organizations dedicated to communication among birders (like the American Birding Association and, more locally, the Minnesota Ornithologists' Union) and their promotion of birding's competitive aspects. It is really competitive listing that has enabled birding to come into its own as a sport.

Today's birders find great satisfaction in developing lists of the bird species they have identified locally or regionally. "Life lists" are lists of all the species they have seen in their life. They compete, usually in a friendly way, with birding colleagues who have their own lists.

The increasing availability of excellent bird guides for most parts of the world have expanded competitive birding to a global sport. Very popular are "big days," in which one tries to identify as many species as possible in a 24-hour period. And for a few obsessive birders for whom money is no object, "big years" become possible.

If you haven't seen the 2011 movie, "The Big Year," with Jack Black and Steve Martin, I heartily recommend it, not only because it's entertaining, but because it accurately depicts the extreme to which birding can be taken.

Now that birding has become the subject of a full-length feature, can there be any doubt that birding is "in"?