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Watching Wildlife

Observing, tracking, and connecting with your wild neighbors

The Humane Society of the United States

  • Cute and curious, persistent and playful, tree squirrels are fun to watch. Matt Prescott/The HSUS

In the relatively short time that surveys have asked Americans their preferences in experiencing wildlife, there has been a resounding affirmation that the majority of us are “wildlife watchers” — we observe, photograph, or feed wild animals as a “special interest.”

If a full third of our population expresses such special dedication, then how many more of us have paused to watch a hawk fly overhead or stopped to wonder why squirrels frantically chased one another through back yard? 

Connecting with wildlife

Americans have a long history of pursuing wildlife for sport and recreation. This we know from an abundant literature and traditions focusing on hunting and trapping. The “pursuit” of wildlife through observing, photographing, drawing, tracking, or engaging in “nature study” has a less publicized, yet equally significant history.  From the “ramblings” of early naturalists such as John Goodman to the systematic, multi-year researches of dedicated scientists such as Margaret Morse Nice, wildlife watching has engaged us at many different levels. 

Amidst growing awareness and concern for the environment, the greatest value in our interest in wildlife watching may be that it encourages us to engage the natural world on its terms, not ours. Watchers become participants in, rather than pursuers of, the lives of wild animals. 

Wildlife watching can be as simple as looking up from the paper at breakfast to see which birds are visiting the backyard feeder. Or it can take the form of reading in that same paper that a rare gull has been observed at a sewage treatment plant in Massachusetts, and booking a flight that morning to rush across country on the chance it will still be there to be seen. 

Watching birds

Bird watching, or “birding,” is the single most common way in which Americans enjoy and participate in the world of wild animals. Our fifty-five plus million birdwatchers spend literally billions of dollars on seed, binoculars, books, and birding-related travel. Birders can “collect” observations in the way philatelists “collect” stamps, prizing each new encounter, and preserving the moment with a photo, a sketch, or a field journal entry.

The thrill of collection increases as each addition becomes harder to acquire, but it’s all the more rewarding because of the challenge. All the birder needs is some outdoor gear, binoculars, and a good bird guide. A desire and the ability to travel are also necessary for those attempting to see the nearly 900 bird species in the United States; even then, the challenge of getting the last few is consuming enough that only the very few will ever approach completion. 

Happily, though, most of us will take equal pleasure in seeing the chickadees, cardinals, jays, and other familiar species coming to our backyard. Many will take special note of the various species passing through neighborhood parks during migrations. And, thumbing through field guides, we will find and identify still more species on occasional family trips to the woods, the shore, or any of our wonderful national parks. Birding belongs to everyone.  

Finding another path

A fresh snow and an early morning walk across a field that joins a woods can reveal myriad stories about the animals who live nearby: where they went, what they stopped to eat, whether they were stalked or stalkers, and if the night ended in safety for them. Whether in sand, snow, or mud, wild animals leave traces of their presence and sometimes details of behavior in tracks and signs that can, with a little experience, be read like a book. 

A rabbit moves across the field as snow falls and weaves a trail that shows a cautious exploration for food amidst a concern for exposure to predators. And well so. A fox’s trail intercepts the rabbit’s and follows it, as predator and prey move in unapparent synchrony across the winter landscape. Suddenly the pattern of the trail changes—the greater spacing between prints tells of increasing speed, and a crazy zigzag shows where the fox closed but did not finish the chase. The rabbit’s trail ends at a bushy clump of raspberry, and the fox’s lone track goes its separate way across the field. The snow has recorded it perfectly—an open book for those who have taken time to learn how to read wildlife signs.

Observing to understand

Once a story is read it is only a small step for the watcher to become an observer—someone who puts the stories down in a record meant to stitch events together as something more than casual sightings.  Observers of wild animals develop special interests and, typically, keep a field journal of their observations and the questions that arise from what they see… 

  • What does it mean that there are three squirrels chasing the one?
  • Why did the raccoon so obviously leave the trail to walk the length of the fallen tree?
  • How long does it take for the mockingbirds to build a nest in the shrubs in front of the house? 

Should the observer next begin to formulate such questions as testable hypotheses, the world of formal academics and membership in a community of individuals who are highly trained in technical aspects of observing and interpreting behavior may be opened. And, for those who are merely curious to know more about the animals they are seeing than field guides can explain, there are an increasing number of fine natural history accounts available on birds, mammals, and other wildlife.  

At whatever level wildlife watchers choose to pursue the birds or other wildlife that interest them, the experience will surely be enriching, challenging, and stimulating. The reward, at the end of the day, is that both the pursuer and pursued have another day tomorrow for it all to happen again.

Create a Humane Backyard

A place that offers food, shelter, water, refuge from toxic sprays, and safety from mowers—it’s what every creature wants, right? They want a Humane Backyard. By making simple changes, you can create that haven of comfort and security for local wildlife. And you can do it anywhere: in the city, suburbs, or country. So look around--at your backyard, balcony, or the park down the street—then let us teach you how to make your own Humane Backyard. Once you’ve learned how, take our Humane Backyard pledge.

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