I was very lucky growing up. My grandparents lived on a lake in northern Indiana, and I was able to spend plenty of time with them. It was where I saw my first great blue heron and pileated woodpecker, and was informed at what I was seeing. I was probably five or six when I began identifying birds.
There was always a bird feeder in their yard, and the common birds visited regularly. I don't remember it not being there, ever. My mother did the same thing wherever we lived.
Sharing our life with birds was not a scientific exercise. No one in my family was a true birder. The birds were like flowers. They offered beauty to our otherwise mundane and chaotic lives. Nobody kept lists, and there wasn't an abundance of field guides in the house. Feeding the birds was an act of gardening. Identifying them was important, but not an obsession.
I drew pictures a lot when I was a kid. One of those "entertain yourself" exercises. If there would have been video games then, I'm sure I would have done that instead. But I didn't. I drew, and read a lot, and I'm glad I did. I learned the anatomy of cardinals, blue jays, and cedar waxwings, all for the fun of it--really without knowing I was doing it, or why. Drawing them helped me see them more clearly.
Of course, when I got older and settled in my own place, I brought along the must-have bird feeder to my home. I went through an obsessive stage of birding and started keeping a life list, going out on walks just to see how many species I could tick off. It was a long period, and it was like the time when I was a kid drawing--I was learning to look closer.
I read a lot, educated myself, and immersed myself in the habits of a responsible birder. I got pretty good at identifying migratory species as well as all the "normal" birds that lived around us on a daily basis. I mixed my birding interest with another interest, photography, to see even clearer, to have a record of what I was looking at.
I started to recognize songs, and note patterns, and I took music lessons to understand the value of my ear a little more (and to see if I had any musical talent--I don't--see the post, Guitars).
When I went outside, walked the dogs, I heard an orchestra, not background noise--I still do. The thing I always liked about birding was that it put me in the moment. It was almost like a zen exercise. You can't think about yourself or your problems when you're trying to figure out if you're looking at a magnolia warbler or a yellow-rumped warbler. Looking through the binoculars put me in a focused state of mind, and the world went away--yet, I was looking at the simplest, most beautiful thing there was: a tiny creature that had flown thousands of miles, our lives intersecting for a brief second,and was gone in an instant.
Birds have always been a gift to me, have always been present in my life, and I'm grateful to my family for making that so, for introducing me to the habit of feeding birds. But I don't bird watch much these days. The constant list making is too much like work, and while I enjoy the competitiveness with myself, my passions have evolved. I'm more interested in spending time with birds these days, getting to know them, how they behave and why, rather than ticking them off on a list, and moving on to see what's next.
But trust me, I always have an eye on the bird feeder...even now.