Q&A: Billie Cantwell, President of the Knoxville Chapter of the Tennessee Ornithological Society

The 2013-14 president of the Knoxville chapter of the Tennessee Ornithological Society, Billie Cantwell is passionate about birding, which she says is now the fastest-growing hobby in the country. In addition to its birding trips and hikes, work days at local wildlife refuges, and Discover Birds programs in the schools, her chapter is also teaming up with Ijams Nature Center to bring the Wonder of Hummingbirds Festival there Saturday, Aug. 24, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Is this your group's first hummingbird festival?

It's the third annual festival, but our first full-day one. We had a half-day festival the first and second years, and we had to turn people away each time, it was so successful. This year, it's going to be a whole day of nature. We're trying to get people into loving our area and loving what's in our backyards.

What are some highlights?

Master bander Mark Armstrong [a past president of the chapter] will be banding ruby-throated hummingbirds. It's a lightweight band that doesn't bother the bird. When we band birds, we weigh them, we measure them, we note the date and where they were banded. Then, when someone sees a banded bird and reports back, it lets us know how far and where the birds have been traveling. We'll also have David Pitts from UT Martin, talking about bluebirds and talking about how you can find hummingbird nests in your yard. I can't wait to figure out how to do that.

What hummingbirds do we have in East Tennessee?

The ruby-throated hummingbird is the bird that breeds here in the summer, but we also have a winter hummingbird, the Rufous Hummingbird. We're trying to get the message out to people to leave those feeders out during the winter months.

Why do hummingbirds capture the imagination?

Their size, for one thing. They're just so fast, too. They can hover, and they can stop on a dime. They're beautiful: When the sun hits them, the red in their feathers just sparkles. They're feisty, too. They have no problem scaring away bigger birds.

The Tennessee Ornithological Society also co-sponsors the annual Sandhill Crane Festival at Hiwassee Refuge each winter. Has your group weighed in on the proposed hunting season for these cranes in Tennessee?

We are totally against it. We're not against hunting—we're just against hunting this species of sandhill crane. This is a subspecies that has never been hunted. It's come back from the brink of extinction on its own, and we don't know what we've done to help it. Also, there are [endangered] whooping cranes that can travel with the sandhill crane. If even two or three of those cranes were killed by mistake, it could devastate their population.

How long have you been all about the birds?

It started as a child but I didn't get serious about it until my 40s. I have 14 hummingbird feeders out right now. For the last three years I've also been able to see bluebirds. I put meal worms out for them, and even though I may not see any when I go out, I do a little whistle, and within two or three minutes, they're there.

What's the most exciting thing about birding?

Every day, when you come home to your own backyard, it's a whole different world.

For more information about the festival, visit ijams.org, and for more information about the Knox chapter of the Tennessee Ornithological Society, visit tnbirds.org or the group's Facebook page.