- Associated Press - Saturday, August 13, 2016

WEST MONROE, La. (AP) - Was the lone titmouse eating at the new feeder a smart bird or a dumb bird?

Iriel Edwards wondered as she lay in a hammock in her backyard. She had just hung a new seed feeder and was watching one bird eat at it. Maybe the other birds thought it was dangerous?

Edwards, 18, notices birds everywhere. Her longtime friend Chloe Robertson, 18, said they’ll hang out on the porch and Edwards will look up, spot a small bird of prey flying overhead and shout, “Mississippi kite!”

“We can’t sit outside without her noticing one,” Robertson said.

Edwards, who graduated from West Monroe High School this spring, will attend Cornell University this fall. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is famous throughout the world for its research on birds. Although the school does not offer an undergraduate major in ornithology, Edwards will be able to focus on the study of birds within her environmental science and sustainability major.

Edwards’ interest in birds developed from a general interest in nature and the environment. She didn’t grow up spending much time outdoors. She became interested through her participation on the school’s cross-country team. She and Robertson eventually started the school’s Environmental Club.

Edwards started birding two years ago when she participated in the annual Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count. The count is an international event during which volunteers identify and count the number of bird species in a given area. Local birders usually count at least 100 species. The birders submit the data they collect to the Audubon Society. The data have been used by researchers and U.S. federal agencies to understand birds and bird migration throughout the country.

“(The Christmas Bird Count) gives you an idea of the health of the birds and how many are there,” Joan Brown, who compiles the data collected during the event, said.

Brown was with Edwards during her first Christmas Bird Count.

During a Christmas event for volunteers, Edwards expressed her interest in participating in the Christmas Bird Count. Brown was impressed when Edwards showed up at 7 a.m. and spent more than 12 hours birding at D’Arbonne Lake National Wildlife Refuge.

“I was surprised at how interested she was,” Brown said. Edwards knew little about birds at the time but learned quickly.

Edwards was hooked. Robertson said she’s the type of person who does a lot of research on a subject that interests her. She started reading bird books, using apps on her phone to identify them while she was in the field and listening to CDs to learn to identify them by sound.

“It was like being introduced to a complete world that I’d been within pretty much all my life but I hadn’t noticed,” Edwards said.

It taught her that birds were everywhere.

“I don’t think anyone really notices birds until you’re introduced to the fact that they’re there. They’re kind of everyday.”

Since the 2014 Christmas Bird Count, Edwards has learned to identify birds by sight and sound. She describes her birdwatching abilities as average. Her life list - the list of birds she has identified throughout her life - has about 150 birds on it. Birders add to their life lists every time they identify a bird they have not seen.

During a birdwatching trip to Black Bayou on July 8, Edwards added the yellow-crowned night heron to her life list. She saw other species she has identified in the past. Among the birds she spotted that day were a green heron, a great blue heron, an anhinga, a killdeer, a red-tailed hawk, an indigo bunting, a red-eyed vireo, cardinals, egrets, mockingbirds, turkeys, turkey vultures, red-winged blackbirds, painted buntings and prothonotary warblers.

Edwards is as interested in understanding birds’ behavior as she is in identifying them. She said she has learned to identify a bird the first time she’s seen it, then take the opportunity to observe its behavior when she sees it a second or third time.

Birdwatching is exciting, Edwards said. “You never know what’s going to come up. It’s kind of like a scavenger hunt.”

She is excited to meet other birders her age at Cornell. Edwards is young for a birder in northeast Louisiana. Most of the other birders in the area are in their 50s or older, Brown said.

But, birding is also the fastest-growing outdoor activity in the country, Ann Bloxom Smith, a volunteer at Black Bayou who has helped teach Edwards how to bird, said.

“That’s got to be something that crosses all age lines for that to be happening,” Smith said.

Friends have started to take an interest in birds because of Edwards’ passion for the animals. She has taught members of her cross-country team to identify some of the birds they see often, such as mockingbirds.

“Sometimes when we’re running, she’ll be like, ‘What is that, you guys?’” Andrea Hernandez, 17, a senior at West Monroe High School who has known Edwards for three years, said.

Hernandez is one of the first people Edwards took birding at Black Bayou.

“She had books about it and she had her knowledge about it. She was researching. You can tell she really has a passion for it.”

Robertson said Edwards will tell funny stories about the birds they see. She laughed as she remembered staying up all night once and, as they watched the sunrise, a cedar waxwing flew by. Cedar waxwings eat fermented berries, Edwards told her, so they get drunk and fall out of trees.

“My friends show interest in it because I talk about it all the time,” she said.

It’s her friends’ interest in birds and the environment that keeps her motivated.

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Information from: The News-Star, https://www.thenewsstar.com

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