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McCallum: For The Birds

07/13/11 5:55PM By Mary McCallum
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(HOST) While commentator Mary McCallum loves the outdoors, it took an organized outing to help her appreciate how important it is to involve the community in appreciating the natural world.

(MCCALLUM) I am not a birder. In fact, my lifelong impression of bird watchers was shaped by a 1950s television sitcom character named Miss Livingstone, a pith-helmeted fanatic in a raincoat and orthopedic shoes, running behind oversized binoculars. And a friend who was so sharp at identifying bird calls that he'd lean over at the movies and whisper the names of birds tweeting in the soundtrack's background. Of course, he now works for the National Audubon Society.

Then recently, I joined a group of local nature lovers for a Sunday morning bird walk. It was one of a series of community strolls that highlight the beauty and importance of what Mother Nature has installed in our backyard. My knowledge about the feathered population was definitely lacking, limited to identifications of robins and woodpeckers.

We began our hike through meadowland as fog lifted and cool mist sifted through soft air. And sure enough - I couldn't help thinking that we resembled a group of Miss Livingstones, moving like a slow herd of nerds in baggy raincoats and floppy canvas hats, staring upward through binoculars.

Bird watching is not aerobic. I remarked on the glacial speed of our pace as we halted every few yards to peer at treetops and meadow grasses. We stopped at every call, ears perked up, and someone guessed the name of the bird. I marveled at the low call of a snipe, the energetic songs of redwinged blackbirds and the surprise sighting of a bittern when it leaped high above the tall grass.

As we slogged through wet undergrowth, a woman in the group remarked that this walk was a great way to meet people, and that the focus on an activity made it easier to connect with strangers. Another confessed to knowing little about birds but saw the outing as a way to learn something about the outdoors.

I returned home soggy but inspired. While none of us gained a huge body of knowledge that morning, each took home a few tidbits to remember about the natural world. For some, it was the first outdoor walk they'd taken in months.

We live in the country, yet many people's interaction with it is slight. In fact, there is a growing national awareness of what the writer Richard Louv calls nature deficit disorder.  In his groundbreaking book, Last Child in the Woods , Louv writes that today's kids are increasingly disconnected from nature, yet they are next in line to be stewards of this precious resource.

He recommends that we reacquaint them and ourselves with nature through hiking, fishing, bird-watching and other outdoor activities that widen the tunneled world of sedentary electronic entertainment. In a deft play on words, Louv promotes the idea of "no child left inside" as a way to lessen the growing and alarming divide between children and the outdoors. My own walk in the woods reminded me that although I am surrounded by a teeming universe of outdoor life, my awareness of it is small if I don't literally open the door and step out into it.
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