Hooked on a Hobby: Midlife's Secret Sweet Spot

Turns out my daily ritual—studying the crows outside my window—isn’t just amusing, it keeps me healthy

At 7:15 a.m., you can usually find me perched in a window seat, drinking my second cup of coffee and waiting for a crowd of loudmouths to show up for breakfast.

It started a few months ago, when I complained to a neighbor about the boisterous crows marching up and down the lawn. I love the way our feeders attract a rainbow of birds — cardinals, goldfinches, ruby-throated hummingbirds, rose-breasted grosbeaks, bluebirds and an array of flashy woodpeckers. But crows? "So … common," I said. "And gloomy."

My neighbor was visibly offended. "That's because you don't know anything about them," he replied. "They're smarter than people."

So I hit Google, reading an article here, watching a video there. I decided to experiment, and began feeding the crows when I went out with the dogs each morning, sprinkling a handful of their kibble on a rock wall. (My pooches disapprove, by the way.) Within 90 minutes, a handful of crows were warily approaching the food, landing tentatively in the grass. Eventually, they hopped up, grabbed a mouthful and flew off, noisily conversing as they did so.

They were so…social. Since then, I've been positively crushing on "my" crows, occasionally spicing up their meal with delicacies like fish guts (which sparked a screaming match between my crows and the neighborhood bald eagles), or a handful of fresh cherries. Like my coffee, feeding the crows has become an essential part of my morning.

Turns out this daily ritual isn't just amusing, it keeps me healthy. While experts have known for some time that all hobbies are linked to longer life and fewer problems, they are discovering that interacting with nature is even more effective at increasing happiness and neutralizing stress. More than that, new hobbies are a badge of honor for those of us in midlife: British researchers have found that 87% of people past their 50th birthday describe themselves as eager to take up new interests. We're avid.

Crows Could Captivate You Too

To find out why crows seem to have so much more personality than other birds, I do some digging. "Crows have very complicated social systems, and the American crow — the one seen most in the Eastern part of the North America — appears to have social systems more like humans than any animal I know," explains Kevin J. McGowan, Ph.D., a crow expert and instructor at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. "They live in family groups. They stay with their parents for a number of years. They know each other as individuals. They live in neighborhoods, and there is a neighborhood watch. You may not be invited into my nest, but you can come over and help me chase off a hawk."

All that is really unusual, says McGowan, who is also the New York regional editor for the National Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Count. "Most birds don't have that kind of cohesion."

He suggests I feed them less, and consider switching to unsalted peanuts, still in the shell. "It's okay to offer a food supplement to attract them so you can view them, but you don't want to become a major food source. Think of it like treats."

And he explains my breakfast visitors are probably a family group, and that if I'm patient, I'll eventually be able to figure out who's who. Their initial wariness each morning isn't likely to fade, he says; it's inherent to all scavengers. "They want to make sure whatever they're about to eat is really dead, so no one wants to be the first to touch it," he says. "Usually the adults go first. And the one who walks in tall and unconcerned? That's likely the dad. So watch, and see the different ways they approach."

And he tells me to be open to the ways they interact. "They want to be seen, so they fly into your line of sight and perch near you," he says. "They don't just quickly learn faces, they can even pick out cars. It took one group I was feeding between just five and 10 encounters to learn my new car."

But finding out whether they can tell my Honda from my husband's Ford isn't my goal, nor is having birds chase me for peanuts. In fact, I don't have a goal, which is what makes taking up new hobbies in midlife so much fun. I may ratchet up to the next level and join a birding club. Or I may stumble on to something next week that means more to me, and let the crow family eat breakfast without a spectator. I've got nothing to prove — hobbies are about leisure, not work.

Tags: well being