13 Smart and Fun Ways to Enjoy Wildlife in 2014

Next year, set out to see something new at least once a week amid the beautiful wildlife that surrounds you.

explore wildlife

(Photo: Jodie Griggs/Getty Images)

Richard Conniff is the author of The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth and other books.

The failure rate for New Year’s resolutions is 110 percent. OK, that’s a lie, but so is pretty much everything else to do with this little annual ritual of mass self-deception. So here’s an alternative approach: Instead of resolving to exercise more, lose weight, and spend more time outdoors, try giving yourself a motive to do all three in 2014. Set out to see something new at least once a week among the beautiful and often dramatic wildlife that lives all around you. Birds are the easiest way to start, and good binoculars help. But insects, spiders, mammals, plants, mushrooms, and even rocks will do.

Here are a baker’s dozen ideas to get you in the swing of things:

1. Learn to identify 10 species in your neighborhood. Go for the easy stuff—house sparrows, mourning doves, cardinals, blue jays, gray squirrels, chipmunks. Then move on to 20, 50, 100 species. Do it on the golf course, to distract your pals from your lousy swing or to remind them that birdies can matter in more ways than one. If you’re a college student cursing those birds that dare to wake you up at 10 a.m., demonstrate your romantic side by learning to identify their songs. Don’t graduate without coming to recognize your campus as a habitat for something other than 7 for All Mankind jeans and Ugg boots.

2. Hold still and just watch a wild animal for a while, even if you don’t know its name: a cormorant diving for fish, a seagull smashing open shellfish on the rocks, a squirrel burying seeds, birds mating, a snapping turtle laying her eggs. Don’t take pictures. Just look. And don’t get too close. Wild things deserve a little respect.

3. Leave the smartphone at home, and instead, join up with a group of birders. Later on, you can try out some useful apps for identifying species. You can also report your sightings and see what others have spotted in your neighborhood with apps like iNaturalist or Project Noah. But the main thing for now is to get your face out of that phone and start seeing, smelling, and listening to the world around you.

4. Know what can be done with four or five local species, like harvesting ramps and using them to make a spectacular pizza, or digging clams to make chowder, or chiseling a cherry boll into a salad bowl. Build a fire, and light it Stone Age style (that’s without matches or lighters).

5. Climb a tree. It was fun when you were a kid. Why not now? I ran across a photo last summer of a guy named Jason Lalla, who works for a prosthetics company in Manchester, N.H., climbing a tree with his kids. Lalla has an artificial leg. So what’s your excuse? Sure, there are risks. The eccentric 19th-century British naturalist Charles Waterton died falling out of a tree. But he was 80-something, and it was an honorable death. Still nervous? Everybody starts on the lower branches, and staying there is perfectly fine too.

6. Track an animal. Start by learning to recognize your dog’s footprints at the beach; then move on to the neighbors’ dogs. See if you can tell which one was running, which walking, or whose tracks came first and whose crossed over. Sound impossible? !Kung San bush kids in Namibia start out tracking the footprints of ants for fun.

7. Rescue an animal. Maybe it just means reporting cruelty or phoning up the local animal shelter to help with an injury. Now and then, I’ve run into a wild animal in distress I felt comfortable handling. One time, my dog started swimming toward a seagull out by some rocks, and I was alarmed when the gull failed to fly away. Fortunately, my dog was alarmed too and changed course. It turned out the bird was tangled in fishing line. I covered its head with a towel, which sometimes helps calm a bird, and carried it to a nearby house, where an elderly neighbor named Hooker Judson helped me untangle the line. Then we set it free. I think even the dog was a little thrilled.

8. Learn to hunt. Maybe you just want to get close enough for a good photograph or to see how animals behave when they don’t know you’re there. Or maybe, after a lifetime of eating packaged meat from the store, you want to know what it means to hunt and kill your own meal. There are plenty of invasive animals worth hunting—like wild pigs in Texas or Burmese pythons in the Everglades—if only to reduce the damage they do to native species. But learn to do it right, and follow the rules. If that takes more time than you’re willing to commit, move on.

9. Sleep alone somewhere in the wild. Yes, the backyard is an OK place to start.

10. Maintain a bird feeder. It’s a good way to start separating the nuthatches from the titmice and the chickadees. Just make sure the neighbor’s cat doesn’t use your feeder as a bird buffet. Build a birdhouse or an osprey nest stand, and see what comes to live there.

11. Read a book about wildlife for laughs and inspiration. Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals is a hilarious introduction. Other favorites abound, from The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling and Call of the Wild by Jack London to Birds of Heaven by Peter Matthiessen and The Raven in Winter by Bernd Heinrich.

12. Volunteer with your local land trust. You’ll find out about little pockets of protected land you didn’t know about, meet curious people, and probably get dirtier than you meant to. But it will feel good.

13. Plan a trip to see wildlife you’ve never seen. You may find that this involves getting up at ungodly hours of the morning or exercising a little more than you planned to, but bear in mind what the poet William Carlos Williams once said: “I have discovered that most of the beauties of travel are due to the strange hours we keep to see them.”

Have fun, and when someone next asks, “So how was your day?,” you will be surprised how often you can answer, “I saw the coolest thing.”

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