Spring 1970: Freshman year at Ohio State University. A guy in zoology class asks me to go bird watching. He'll pick me up Saturday, and we'll head south of Columbus to study migrants for his Ornithology 401 midterm.

Pat arrives in a rag-tag Rambler station wagon. It chugs to a state park, and we select a narrow, wooded trail. I carry no-name binoculars redeemed with S&H Green Stamps. Monstrous 20x50s adorn his chest. We walk a few minutes, then he points and whispers, "Rose-breasted grosbeak."

My birding experience is limited to wrens, woodpeckers, and cardinals. Who's this bozo kidding with a name like rose-breasted grosbeak? I aim my glasses in the general direction but have no idea what to expect.

"Do you see it?" he inquires.


"Up there," he murmurs, slipping behind and encircling me with his arms as he lowers the 20x50's to my eyes. Highly magnified branches wiggle wildly. The more I try to focus, the dizzier I become. I realize a man I do not know has his arms around me on a remote trail. I don't want to scream-so I lie.

"I see it."

"Really?" he says suspiciously. "It flew."

Luckily, it perches on a bare branch. When I finally focus on the elusive black-and-white bird with crimson ascot, I gasp. Awed by the moment, I have no clue the man beside me will share more than 35 years of future birding adventures, or that we will eventually attract these breathtaking birds to our yard.

Backyard Habitats Proliferate

In 1970 few people offered more than a simple feeder to lure birds into view. Now, enhancing backyard habitat is tremendously popular. By sprinkling a water feature here or adding plants there to provide food, shelter, and nesting cover, urban and suburban dwellers can convert a barren lawn into an oasis for wildlife.

During the past three decades, Pat and I have learned much about transforming backyards into birding hotspots. We improved yards in Mississippi, West Virginia, and Maryland for a wealth of species, including bluebirds, hummingbirds, towhees, and titmice.

Tip 1: Diversity Matters

Here in western North Carolina, we discovered a languishing mountainside farm, ripe in diversity with fruit trees, pasture, brushy fencerows, thickets, hardwood forest, and clear-running streams. To that nurturing mix, we added native meadow in lieu of lawn; beds of nectar-bearing flowers to please hummingbirds and butterflies; fruit-laden trees and shrubs; and an array of nest boxes sized for species from wrens to owls. As biologists, we know the more diverse our property is, the more wildlife it will attract.

Rose-breasted grosbeaks are generalists in food and habitat requirements, much like their cardinal cousins. Massive beaks allow them to crush and devour wild grapes, cherries, blackberries, dogwood fruits, and weed seeds. While nesting, they consume countless creeping and hopping insects, including tent and gypsy moth caterpillars, cankerworms, even potato beetles. Suburban yards, especially those shaded by maple, oak, or basswood trees, provide perfect places to balance their twiggy nests on forked limbs.

Not all of our avian guests are as easy to please. Eastern bluebirds are passionate about our pasture, returning earlier than other spring migrants to claim choice tree cavities or nest boxes near the grassy fields on our farm. Like grosbeaks, bluebirds switch from winter fruits to a high-protein diet of insects while raising young. Their best hunting occurs in mown grass rather than fields rank with weeds and grasses. Suburban birders are often very successful offering nest boxes to bluebirds because mown lawns (if the neighborhood is not drenched with lawn-care chemicals) are perfect sources of crickets, beetles, and spiders.

On our mountainside, bluebirds choose a favorite box in the south-facing pasture, where insects are prevalent in April and May. When waist-high grasses obscure insect quarry in summer, the bluebirds relocate to a regularly mown area near our garden for their second brood. Why don't we cut the pasture? We also host golden-winged warblers, whose numbers are plummeting because of habitat loss. These lovely birds, recognized by golden foreheads and gold wing patches, inhabit old fields becoming thickets. They nest at the base of sturdy plants such as goldenrod and hunt for spiders, moths, and caterpillars hidden among the leaves of young locusts, dogwoods, or viburnum shrubs. We manage for golden-winged warblers by allowing alternating portions of the pasture to mature for a decade, then clear it and begin anew.

Tip 2: Plant Wildlife Magnets

Most people who enhance backyards for birds do so in hopes of attracting a beloved species. Neighbors in West Virginia were enamored with goldfinches and began their quest to host them by hanging nyger seed feeders near the patio. Later they planted purple coneflowers and black-eyed susans – natives with seasonal seeds goldfinches relish. Another friend wanted hummingbirds in her yard, so she planted a spring-through-autumn progression of perennials – wild columbine, coral bells, bee balm, jewelweed, and cardinal flower – to supply the red, nectar-filled flowers hummers thrive on.

No matter where you live, you can enhance the surrounding habitat with plants that provide fruit, seed, nectar, or shelter – all of which act as magnets to entice target birds to your doorstep. All it takes is a bit of research using birding magazines, gardening catalogs, or the Internet to match the species you desire with plants, nest boxes, or water features that will lure them.

Tip 3: Enjoy the View

Adding key plants, growing sheltering trees and shrubs, or installing water features takes more than a weekend. Enhancing your backyard to lure new birds becomes a lifestyle. Before you undertake this effort, look around to decide where the investment makes most sense – perhaps near the patio or outside a dining room window. Then train yourself in another important behavior: Pause often to enjoy the view!

Through the years, Pat and I have developed an unspoken rule. Whenever we catch the first spring glimpse of black, white, and rose at our feeder, we grab binoculars and relive the moment we saw the bird that changed our lives.

Freelance nature writer and photographer Connie Toops lives on a 128-acre mountainside farm in western North Carolina (www.lostcovefarm.com). She has authored numerous books and magazine articles, and travels widely to speak on birding, wildlife gardening, and nature photography subjects.

The year was 1973. I was working at the Sleep Disorders Center at Stanford University and living in a tiny cottage in an older section of Palo Alto, California. I regarded my little abode as charming, though admittedly it was rather run down – clearly a fix-up special – but what I liked most about it was that it couldn't be seen from the street. A labyrinth of shrubbery – much of it dead and in desperate need of a hard prune – provided a screen and gave me a sense of security.

One weekend that May I met a guy at a softball game – my all-time favorite participatory sport. He was an excellent athlete – versatile at either first base or left field – and was also extremely tall at 6 feet 8 inches. After the game and picnic that followed some of us, including the tall guy, decided to take a road trip to the foothills of the Sierra. It was the weekend of the Calaveras County Frog Jumping Contest. I know, this is supposed to be about birds and not frogs, but it's part of the "spark." This annual cultural oddity is based upon a tall tale penned in 1865 by Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) that described happenings in Angel's Camp, a gold rush town. The story is about a frog that could out-jump all other frogs and a man who realized that people might be willing to wager bets on this activity and that he might make a buck.

After that particular weekend with the tall, handsome guy named Grant, and some subsequent dates, I realized that I was crazy in love. One day he told me that he had been a bird watcher in his early teens – a hobby that, during that particular era, was looked upon with disdain by social peers.

Although always a nature lover, I had never been particularly drawn to birds. My mom always pointed out the robins and cedar waxwings that feasted upon our pyracantha berries and then staggered about in states of drunken stupor. And I guess I was vaguely aware of ducks in various park ponds; surely I fed them breadcrumbs at some stage in my development. And I do remember drawing V-shaped gulls in art class, thinking they added interest to my rather mediocre drawings.

So Grant began to show me a few birds. I didn't pay too much attention at first, but then one day, as we were relaxing in my little cottage behind the dense tangles of vegetation, he pointed out a bird that changed my life forever. It was the sound that we noticed first: not a lively song or scramble of notes, but a distinct rustling in the leaves. In addition to the swishing sounds, leaves seemed to be flying out in all different directions from one particular spot. The perpetrator was on the ground and seemed to be rather shy, never venturing far from the safety of the shrubbery. It was extremely difficult to get a good look, but we waited patiently – always a challenge for me – until the bird finally revealed itself. It was incredibly handsome: medium-sized, hooded in black with a light-colored belly and rusty red sides. Its dark wings were accented with speckles of white. The topper for me was the fire in its eyes, which were the color of rubies.

The bird was behaving in an engrossing fashion, hopping forward and backward with its feet, delving into the leaf litter – of which there was plenty – performing what Grant calls the "hop-scratch:" he has since composed a song with that very title. Between the foot action and handsome demeanor, this seemed to me to be a creature with attitude. Grant told me it was a rufous-sided towhee. This was 1973, well before the name was changed to spotted towhee. I queried Grant about the bird's behavior, and he explained that towhees were known for hunting for food on the ground, using a double scratching motion with both feet to stir up insects and seeds.

And so that was the moment when I began to notice birds. It was also my first lesson about habitat ("messy jungles in the garden are good"), about differences in bird behavior ("some birds never make it to the ground at all"), and about patience – actually, I still have difficulty on that front, though I have improved.

Some time later Grant and I traveled to Oregon to visit my parents, and my appreciation was reinforced. They had just taken a bird watching course from a local naturalist, and I found myself in the company of three individuals, all of whom were captivated by the avian world. And the local show in central Oregon was mind-boggling: majestic bald eagles, fish-eating ospreys, flashy yellow-headed and red-winged blackbirds, gaudy western tanagers, tweaky nuthatches, comely mountain bluebirds, aerially adept violet-green swallows, and cryptic common nighthawks that appeared at dusk, seemingly from nowhere, to scoop up insects mid-air while uttering haunting cries.

There was no turning back. Since that time I have traveled to every continent to watch birds, and to this day I am partial to those with red eyes. Just this morning I watched several red-eyed wonders in my own backyard: a spunky cactus wren, a sleek phainopepla, a parasitic bronzed cowbird, and scores of white-winged doves, calling with that mnemonic device – Who cooks for you? – made famous by the great Roger Tory Peterson.

I will always be indebted to this very tall man – Grant, not Roger who was pretty tall himself – for "granting" me the gift of birds. My gardens will always be tangles, but only in the interests of attracting birds – for they will forever enchant me with their beauty, behavior, and song.