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Commentary: Birding can brings us all peace, life lessons

Its rewards include a respite from the pressures and challenges of everyday life

Having trouble sleeping at night? Experiencing racing thoughts or night sweats? My friend, you need to look at some birds.

Yes, it’s that time of year again, when I tout the virtues of birding to my fellow insecure, overachieving denizens of Baltimore and across D.C., Maryland and Virginia. Why birding? Articles from countless esteemed and erudite publications have its many benefits to mind and body. This isn’t one of those articles, but I endorse their findings. Why the DMV? If there’s any group of people that needs to take a minute to unplug, slow down and breathe, it’s us.

So, whether you’re a novice or a veteran birder, you’re off to the jungles of Costa Rica or to Huntley Meadows Park, Patterson Park or just your neighborhood trail, I present these tips, short and sweet as birdsong, that could help make this your best birding season yet.

Start by knowing that birding always defies expectations. With birding, you set out with your wish list and see a few squirrels, or no wish list and run into a resplendent quetzal in the parking lot. Generally, I’ve found that I see the birds I’m looking for once I stop looking for them.

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Shown is a rose-breasted grosbeak. (John Harrison)

Birding reminds me that I have zero control over what I will or won’t see, which opens me up to the childlike delight of being surprised by whichever ones I see. In that way, birding increases my appreciation for the notion of life as pure gift. I realize that’s a little cheesy, but it’s true.

Birding teaches presence and patience. I am not by nature a patient person. But when I’m scanning the treetops, I have no choice — those darn birds are always flitting around or hiding in tall trees, or not showing up at all.

Birding forces you to be present; it forces you to be patient. A better antidote to screens, social media and zombie scrolling you won’t find. For a time, birding makes me a delightful stranger to myself and helps me to realize that I could be more patient in other areas of my life as well — in theory, at least.

A yellow warbler. (Wikipedia)

Truth is, most of the birds I’ve seen have found me. There I am, walking along with my binoculars, occasionally patting my back pocket to make sure my wallet is still there. I wait eagerly at supposed hot spots and see zilch, but when I turn to go back to the car, a barred owl swoops overhead and perches on the branch directly in front of me.

Some birds that have been reportedly seen in the DMV appear to have somehow gotten here from Costa Rica or elsewhere: scarlet tanager, indigo bunting, rose-breasted grosbeak, yellow warbler.

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I’m no conspiracy theorist but hear me out: We’re not watching birds; the birds are watching us.

Seen anything good today, Bill?

Eh, the usual — lot of Patagonias, some North Faces, couple YETIs, nothing to chirp about. Still looking for the elusive three-piece suit.

An indigo bunting. (Dan Pancamo)

Birding reminds you that you don’t always have to be the captain of your ship. That’s particularly important to remember here in the dizzying DMV, where it often seems our greatest fear is unstructured downtime or any absence of achievement. So do your best, but don’t strain your eyes. Plenty of birds will find you.

With birding, all you can really do is keep showing up and being ready. Relinquish all illusions of control and appreciate the gifts that come your way.

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Is it a stretch to say that in many ways, birding is a lot like life? Well, that’s what I’m saying.

Zach Przystup works for the Fulbright Program at the U.S. Department of State and is a backyard birder in the DMV.