You’re probably spending a lot more time at home than you’re used to, doing your part to follow social distancing rules and slow the ongoing spread of covid-19. But only humans need to follow these rules—birds don’t. It’s the perfect time to start paying attention to them.
Editor’s Note: This guide refers to birdwatchers currently living in the Northern Hemisphere.
Birds around the world are in the midst of their annual dash from their wintering grounds to the habitats where they breed, stopping to rest and refuel along the way. The local birds are preparing to breed, too, singing and showing off for potential mates. Fortunately, you can witness much of this spectacle from the safety of your home. But where do you start?
First thing’s first: You gotta learn about some birds. You might already have a field guide; if not, you can download the free Audubon Bird Guide App or Cornell University’s free Merlin Bird ID, which can help you easily identify birds based attributes like colour and size. You could also shell out $US20 ($31) for the Sibley Birds app, which contains lots of drawings, detailed information, multiple sound recordings, and what month each bird is scheduled to arrive in your state—for me, it’s well worth the price. Google can help you find region-specific apps (Collins Bird Guide is great for Europe).
You might even consider buying a physical book; Sibley, Crossley, Peterson, and National Geographic make some of the most popular ones in the United States—just make sure you get the right one for your region.
And now for my biggest pro tip: There’s no need to memorise all of the world’s 10,000 birds, or even the hundreds of bird species likely to be seen in your area. Whenever I go birding someplace for the first time, I check Cornell’s eBird website to create bar charts of which birds have been seen in the county and how often for each week of the year, so I can create a much smaller list of the the birds I might see in the area for the given time period. You can then focus on the calls, habitats, and appearances of the birds you’re likely to see, rather than being distracted by birds that might require a trek beyond your social-distancing limits.
A pair of binoculars will make birdwatching much more exciting. Birders will debate which optics are best, but if you’re just dipping your toe in, I highly recommend the $US123 ($191) Celestron Nature DX 8×42 binoculars. Audubon has an extensive binocular guide here. You can also just forego the binoculars; observing, appreciating, and learning about birds doesn’t require any special gear.
Looking out your window, you might want to start by trying to spot and hear the ubiquitous birds that spend the winter or the whole year in your area—birds like robins, nuthatches, chickadees, bushtits (in western North America), cardinals (in eastern North America), and mourning doves. You should also pay attention to the maligned crows and gulls, as well as the North America’s non-native species like starlings, house sparrows, and rock pigeons. These birds may seem ordinary and boring at first, but they have distinct personalities and habits that are a delight to learn.
Once you have the common birds down, you can follow Cornell’s BirdCast in order to see Doppler radars that track migratory bird activity. If you’re able to visit your local park, pond, or shoreline (maintaining distance from other humans, of course), you might run into some of these travelling birds as migration picks up; it typically peaks in late April through May. Again, you can rely on those eBird bar charts to figure out when certain species will arrive in your area. If you’re totally stuck in your house, you might even spot some of these migrants in your yard, flying overhead, or feeding in your street trees.
You’ll be surprised by what you find. By just paying attention to your surroundings, you’ll start to notice things you hadn’t before and see your home area through new eyes. It doesn’t matter how good the habitat is; even a planter in midtown Manhattan might draw catbirds, white-throated sparrows, and mourning doves. I’ve spotted 39 species from my apartment in Brooklyn in the past year, including woodpeckers, hawks, migrating songbirds, and even water birds like a common loon and a flock of great blue herons—and many of those species I only noticed once social distancing began. If you take the time to learn bird flight calls, you can use BirdCast to pick a particularly birdy night, then step outside and listen as nighttime migrants pass overhead and call out to one another.
But birding is not just about racking up as many species as you can. Part of the fun is paying attention to bird behaviour. Notice their songs, like how cardinals in your backyard sing a different tune than the cardinals on the other side of town, or try to identify what birdsongs the local mockingbird is trying to copy. Other birds may be demonstrating breeding behaviour, carrying twigs to build their nests, mating, or even feeding their nestlings. Consider taking photos of them—you can point your phone camera through your binoculars for decent pictures if you don’t have a camera with a zoom lens.
You can also find ways to attract birds to your home. If you’re allowed, the best way is to plant local native plants that attract the insects that resident and migratory birds like to eat. You might also consider buying a bird feeder; I have this one, which I fill with this seed blend, and if you don’t have a place to hang it, you might also consider a suction cup feeder. Various hummingbirds can be found across the U.S. throughout the summer, which you can feed as well. Just make sure you consider the best practices for hanging your feeders and clean them every week or two. If you don’t want squirrels, you might consider getting a squirrel feeder as well; I toss nuts far from the bird feeder to keep them away. Or just let the squirrels eat the birdseed and enjoy having another animal to look at. Finally, consider ways to treat your windows so birds don’t accidentally fly into them.
And hey, while you’re at it, why stop at birds? It’s high time to learn about the trees and bushes around your home, as well as the insects that come to feed on them. There’s no telling what you might find.
It’s been a difficult spring, and for most of us, the next few months will be even more challenging. I’ve found that staring at the birds through my window (or appreciating them while maintaining a 6-foot distance from others in the park) is a great way to take my mind off things.