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Birders in Paradise

L.A. County's distinct ecological charms attract hundreds of species of birds, encouraging a growing number of Angelenos to look skyward and report their avian findings.


Have you ever glanced out your window and excitedly called to a loved one: "Come quick, I see a red-breasted sapsucker out here"?

Not likely. Until recently, most Angelenos paid little attention to sapsuckers, bushtits, towhees, grosbeaks and other birds that grace the Los Angeles landscape. In fact, Los Angeles County hosts more bird species than can be found anywhere else in North America, except San Diego County. Of the approximately 750 species found on our continent, about 450 of them make appearances here. Our air space is a veritable avian LAX--a milling terminal used by thousands of birds flying north or south--or just flying.

Some are common to our area, others stop on their way to somewhere else. Still others wing into our paradise by accident (they're known as vagrants) and are so enticed by our ecological charms that they decide to stay a bit. That's when the swelling numbers of bird watchers around town (known as "birders") call dozens of telephone hotlines and Web sites to report rare sightings and locations so that other birders can race to see the newcomers, too. The hotlines, and the people who use them, are increasing daily, bird experts say.

That's because birding is becoming big sport in America, and especially in California. A spokesman for the American Birding Assn., for example, says it has twice as many members in this state than in any other.

"It's the fastest-growing form of outdoor recreation in our country, with 60 million people now participating," says John Fitzpatrick, director of Cornell University's ornithology laboratory, the country's biggest center for the study, appreciation and conservation of birds.

Third Annual Birdcount Event

The lab, in conjunction with the National Audubon Society, will conduct its third annual Great Backyard Birdcount this Friday through Monday.Fitzpatrick expects thousands of Angelenos--people who used to consider birding a pastime just for elderly eccentrics in bush hats and clumsy shoes--to participate via a Web site that accepts information on what birds they've seen while hanging out in local parks or their own backyards for as briefly as 15 minutes. To take part in the tally, designed for novices, log on to or

Local bird enthusiasts are exultant. Now that our populace has become aware of healing-the-bay and saving-the-whales efforts, we are beginning to comprehend the necessity for bird appreciation too, says the new breed of birders, who aggressively search for species, driving from spot to spot, reporting what they see.

Gail Portman, a 40-year-old mother of three from Woodland Hills, is too new to know the lingo. She saw a birding walk listed in the paper, persuaded her husband to go along and imagined they would both be "bored out of our skulls." Then they saw something "fantastic--a bird standing in the tide pool with a long, thin, arced beak and a body shaped like a pear. It's hard to explain. It was distinctive and beautiful, so very exciting to see."

She's still not sure what kind of bird it was. Like most Angelenos, she has never thought much about birds, except when hosing their droppings off her patio or accepting a dead feathered gift from the family cat. But among those who know (or are learning) about Los Angeles bird life, the city's everyday landscape can be exciting. Like one of those "Where's Waldo?" picture puzzles, every trip outdoors becomes a contest, scanning trees, scrub or shore to distinguish and identify different species.

Whereas many city dwellers can expect to see mostly pigeons on their daily rounds, and must travel distances to find more colorful species, Angelenos can go birding in their parks and gardens or take birding breaks within blocks of where they work. The city's appealing location, climate and topography explain the great diversity of birds here, much as it explains the diversity of human residents.

Geologically isolated for millions of years by deserts and mountains, coastal California has developed a unique array of plant and animal life found nowhere else on Earth, ornithologists say. That and our moderate climate create a natural lure for a large variety of bird species, both common and rare. Of course, humans were attracted to the same area for the same reasons--and we created our urban jungle in the midst of the birds' paradise.

Luckily for them, there still exist acres of chaparral, waterways, woodlands, wetlands and open grassy spaces amid the areas of dense development. On the upside, this allows Angelenos to spot beautiful birds almost anywhere we look--beaches, parks, golf courses, city streets, gardens. On the downside, man's increasing development of hill and vale is threatening many species of birds whose natural habitat is disappearing.

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