Posted March 20, 2020
Written by Mike Perrin
During this time of crucial social distancing leading to many hours indoors, it is easy to lose touch with the rejuvenating, refreshing, natural world. Substituting time indoors with time outside in natural areas is an excellent way to escape your home. But what about when you get back from these excursions? When I am stuck inside, I find myself brooding over the newly arrived Common Grackle and Red-winged Blackbirds’ blatant disregard for social distancing as they hangout in large groups. These are some tips I turn to in order to connect with the natural world, escape the confines of my home, and expand my curiosity for our fascinating feathered friends.
Sit with a cup of tea or coffee, grab your field guide (or mobile app*), and watch the neighborhood birds visit your feeder. Two typical birdfeeders that people have are tube feeders and suet feeders. Tube feeders are often filled with seeds (sunflower, safflower, thistle), nuts and/or dried berries. Suet feeders hold blocks of rendered beef fat, sometimes with nutty or fruity fillings. If you do not have a bird feeder or bird seed, there are many DIY tutorials online that show folks how to make feeders out of recycled materials and seed/feeding stations out of common pantry item like peanut butter and Cheerios.
In the Wareham area, you can expect to see songbirds such as Black-capped Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, White-breasted Nuthatches, and House Finches at your tube feeder. Some crowd favorites like the Blue Jay and Northern Cardinal will likely visit your feeders, though cardinals are extra round and require a platform or double-pronged perch to utilize the feeder. At the suet feeder, you can expect to see woodpeckers like the Downy Woodpecker and Red-bellied Woodpecker. Careful, though— Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers are often confused for one another!
Feeders are a great place for humans to observe social behaviors between bird species and individuals. Pecking order is a real phenomenon in the avian world! If you spend enough time watching the interactions at the feeder, you can begin to guess which birds are more dominant than others. This can be observed through interspecific interactions, interactions between different species; or intraspecific interactions, interactions between individuals in the same species. Some interspecific interactions include Blue Jays chasing smaller birds off of the tube feeders, and the larger Red-bellied Woodpecker will often force the smaller Downy Woodpecker off suet feeders. Intraspecific interactions include larger chickadees chasing smaller chickadees and the family-feeding-frenzy foraging approach of the House Finches. If you watch the feeder for long enough, you may even be rewarded by the sight of a Cooper’s Hawk or Red-tailed Hawk busting into your yard, trying to take a bird at the feeder (a sad, but truly rad experience).
You might also observe the specific diet of the birds visiting the feeder. Finches will ignore suet and mostly eat thistle and sunflower seeds, woodpeckers will eat suet and focus on nuts and berries at the tube feeder, and grackles will come to your feeder and eat EVERYTHING (TIP: When it is safe to shop freely again, try feeding grackles safflower seed. Other birds tolerate it while the grackles and squirrels will not, then they will find another feeder to terrorize). Watch to see where the birds take the food! Some birds will munch away on the spot, while others will take their meals elsewhere.
As an obsessive “chaser” and “lister” of birds, eBird is one of my favorite birding resources. eBird is a citizen science project through the Cornell Lab of Ornithology where participants enter bird checklists to “hotspots” (i.e. parks, natural areas, beaches, backyards) on the eBird map. Once the checklist is uploaded to the proper hotspot, anyone on the website can view the checklist. For instance, if you decide to escape the house and take a walk at WLT’s Marks Cove Natural Area and confidently ID two Black-capped Chickadees, one Great Blue Heron, and two Northern Cardinals, you could go to the eBird.org webpage, find Marks Cove Natural Area on the map, and submit this checklist to the hotspot. Cornell uses this massive dataset (seriously, so many people are entering data on eBird) to track trends in population sizes of common species and track how climate is affecting range and migration. As is the nature of citizen science projects, anyone who can positively identify a bird species is able to enter data, even if the checklist only has one or two species.
There are three extremely useful features for eBird.
One: the map. The eBird map shows you hotspots in your area that are best for birdwatching, i.e. where you will see the greatest number of species. You can search by county to see where the most fruitful hotspots are in your area. With Spring migration around the corner (occurring in early and mid-May), you can plan some spots to see beautiful and buzzy warblers coming back from Central and South America.
Two: the individual hotspot pages themselves. When you click on a hotspot on the eBird map, you are brought to a compilation of the most recent checklists. You can learn what other birders have been observing at the hotspot in your neighborhood or in your county, or you can day dream of travel and peruse what birds are being spotted elsewhere on the globe. You can also click on the names of the birds listed to learn how to ID them by sight and sound, and also to learn about their life history.
Three: the “Explore Species” feature. This feature allows birders to search the hotspots in their area for reports of a specific bird. A “target bird” is a species that a birder is seeking to observe out in the field. My first target bird was the Pileated Woodpecker, a crow-sized woodpecker with a bright red mohawk. I trekked into the forested natural area on my college’s campus and searched for hours, eventually being rewarded with great looks at a male pecking away at a dead pine and letting out a bellowing “yuk-yuk-yuk-yuk!” This fueled my future obsession for birding and I will never forget this event. If you are flipping through field guides indoors and stumble upon a bird you really want to see, go on eBird and see where you might find it! For birds with stunning good looks in the Wareham area, check out Long-tailed Ducks, Eastern Bluebirds, and Yellow Warblers.
Once you create an account and submit checklists, eBird will also organize your sightings into specific birding “lists”! The most commonly kept list in the birding world is the “life list.” Life lists constitute any new bird you have identified by sight or sound. Your life list can be broken into different regions, i.e. American Birding Association Area life list, Massachusetts life list, and Plymouth County life list. For an extra challenge, some birders try for “year lists” in the same fashion, but from January 1 to January 1. Tallying a life list is a fun way to document sightings, keeping track of species you’ve seen, and add an element of friendly competition.
One of the best ways to learn how to identify birds is to draw them, including their unique field marks! Field marks are characteristics of shape, color, or behavior that help with identification on a species level. For instance, I mentioned that Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers are tricky to tell apart. Downy Woodpeckers have smaller, stubbier bills that are roughly the same length as their heads, while Hairy Woodpeckers have bills much longer than their heads; in this case, the length of the bill is the field mark. If you are artistically inclined, you can sketch the rough outline of the bird and include field marks to draw an accurate and useful representation of the species. If you are like me and love birds but lack all ability to draw, I still encourage trying! While failing to create a beautiful picture, focusing on the field marks will still add to your knowledge and ability to differentiate between species. And with so much indoor time on our hands, you will only get better with practice!
While you are cooped up inside, you can find inspiration to draw the common backyard birds at your feeder, the most recent “life bird” you observed, or the brilliantly colored, oddly accessorized birds featured in nature documentaries. Many of the species found in New England are sexually dimorphic, meaning the males and females look different (sometimes drastically different). You can draw each sex on the same sheet of paper to create a guidebook illustrated by you! Essentially, there is no shortage of birds to draw or inspiring sources to pull from.
Bird art does not stop at drawings and sketches! You can carve birds from wood or soap, create collages from National Geographic Magazines, or paint a bird using watercolors. There are also amazing bird artists you can research, including John James Audubon, the namesake for the Audubon Society! With so many different mediums, try out a few different styles!
In addition to bird art, there are many wonderful poems written about birds. From the divine glory of doves to the deathly presence of vultures, writers and artists alike have channeled their curiosity for birds since the beginning of time (as shown by cave paintings!). Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Walt Whitman, Mary Oliver, and Elizabeth Bishop are well-respected poets who often write poems about birds. There are also many book and articles about living as a person of color and/or queer person in the predominantly white birding community. J. Drew Lanham, Jason Ward, and the Queer Birders of North America are some big names tackling these extremely important yet often neglected aspects of birding and birding culture.
This article only highlights three of the countless ways to engage with birds while remaining indoors. Do not be wooed by the party going on at your feeder; please practice social distancing to prevent the further spread of COVID-19.
Other ways to engage with birds:
- Watch “Birds of North America with Jason Ward” YouTube channel
- Watch Nature documentaries on Netflix (Birders, Our Planet, Dancing with the Birds)
- Explore Mass Audubon webpages to explore ways to get involved with bird research and protection in your area
- *Download the free Merlin Bird ID App to help you identify bird
- Read books (not field guides) about birds including the popular titles: The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman, Kingbird Highway by Kenn Kaufman, and The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature by J. Drew Lanham.
Article by Mike Perrin, TerraCorps/AmeriCorps Land Stewardship Coordinator, Wareham Land Trust. Email Stewardship@WarehamLandTrust.org with any questions, comments, and concerns. Or just email me to chat about cool bird sightings!