Birders use a lot of phrases and acronyms with their particular (some might say “peculiar”) hobby. For example, if you see a species for the first time and it actually stays in one place long enough for you to not only fully take in its beauty but, more importantly, to identify all its diagnostic field marks, you call that an “SSL” or soul-satisfying look. The “soul-satisfying” part of birding is what draws people to this field of endeavor and keeps them coming back as devotees for their lifetime. Given the stress over the past year from COVID-19, our souls very much need the solace of nature and birds.
With the current travel constraints, it seems that only the birds have been able to fly to far-flung places, but the pandemic has done something wonderous for the “sport” of birdwatching. It has brought people everywhere into their backyards and local parks to discover, enjoy and learn to value that most visible category of wildlife—birds. Most people get hooked on birdwatching through a family member, trip or one-time experience that changes the rest of their lives and even the course of their careers. My love of birds began in childhood at the birdfeeders outside our house and tagging along with my ornithologist/professor father on his Breeding Bird Surveys and Winter and Christmas Bird Counts.
Luckily, all you really need to watch and learn about birds is a pair of binoculars (and they don’t need to be expensive), a bird identification guide or phone app, perhaps a feeder, an observation spot far enough away to not cause disturbance and patience, patience, patience. The advantage of apps is their inclusion of bird vocalizations so you can learn to “bird-by-ear.” Most professional birders do more birding by ear than by sight, particularly during the breeding season when birds are singing and most monitoring efforts like the annual Breeding Bird Survey take place. But even during the winter each species has a diagnostic call that can be recognized if you pay close attention. All the clues taken together—including size, shape, color, markings, behavior and sound, plus where you were and when you saw the bird—will help you identify the birds that live in or move through your area and the habitat in your yard or community that is so important to their survival. Then you can learn how to use eBird to enter your observations, so your memorable sightings will be turned into important community science data to help support avian research, conservation and education.
Thus, during these stay-and-work-at-home days in Santa Fe, New Mexico, I have not been lonely. That is the magic of birdwatching; it’s possible wherever you are at any time. Every day I am kept company by the birds, both regulars and rarities, that are outside my windows and on our nearby state land, Preserve and Greenbelts. The cold months have been filled with our “resident” (year-round) species like the Woodhouse’s scrub-jay, juniper titmouse, bushtit, western bluebird, dark-eyed junco, canyon towhee, and the occasional greater roadrunner (our state bird) and scaled quail. We are also fortunate to be visited occasionally by the beautiful pinyon jay, a keystone species that depends on and perpetuates piñon-juniper woodlands but whose population has declined 85% since the 1960s. And it’s good to keep an eye out for the unexpected, which is the part that can get you addicted to watching birds. A sage thrasher has been hanging around lately, and our junipers were recently filled with flocks of cedar waxwings (groups of which are referred to as museums), one of the most elegant of our North American birds, stuffing themselves with berries. Such a plethora of smaller birds can also draw predators, like a Cooper’s hawk determined to have that junco for lunch. And I heard the curve-billed thrasher singing the other day, the first time after the long winter, signaling the breeding season can’t be far away!
As the length of daylight increases and we transition into spring, I know what to expect because I have kept a log of the birds I’ve seen in my yard, with the FOY (First of Year) return date noted for each migratory species. With great anticipation, I await the potpourri of avian surprises that will come tumbling through my yard, stopping to feast at the sugar-water hummingbird feeders, black oil sunflower seed feeders, oh-so-popular peanut butter log or to drink and bathe at our water tray and bird bath. “Our” Say’s phoebe may return in April, but the migratory magic really begins in May, when our property of native vegetation becomes a small but safe “stopover site,” in the parlance of bird conservation, for long-distance migrants like the Bullock’s oriole, western tanager, and black-headed grosbeak. These flashy birds have come up from Mexico and Central America and will grace our yard to rest and refuel for a couple days before they continue north to their breeding grounds. I always wonder—where, exactly, did they spend the winter and where, exactly, will they nest? Cutting-edge technology may be able to tell us this about some individuals, but that doesn’t dampen my curiosity.
A number of these migrants, like the black-chinned hummingbird and ash-throated flycatcher, will make our property their final destination and join the resident species for the breeding season, setting up territories, building nests and tending to their broods. This return of birds is celebrated every year in May (and in October on the nonbreeding grounds) through World Migratory Bird Day, Partners in Flight’s hallmark outreach and education event throughout the Americas.
All is not rosy in the bird world, however. Talk to any birder who is of a certain age, and you’ll hear them lamenting how they used to see huge flocks of this species and whole fields of that species but now they see only a small number. The loss of bird abundance is not just an impression. It is backed up by science. New research published in the journal Science verifies that America’s birds are in crisis. In October 2019, a paper published in Science, Decline of the North American Avifauna, documented that nearly 30% of our birds—2.9 million—have disappeared since 1970. This dire assessment has motivated and galvanized bird lovers and conservationists across the country and Western Hemisphere.
- Make Windows Safer;
- Keep Cats Indoors;
- Use Native Plants;
- Avoid Pesticides;
- Drink Shade-Grown Coffee;
- Reduce Plastic Use;
- and Do Community Science.
The most exciting thing is that every person can make their yard a place that supports wintering, migrating and/or breeding birds, especially if you have native vegetation. Birds need food, water, shelter, space and protection from threats, and that’s a pretty simple formula. But backyards alone won’t be sufficient, as birds also need large, protected landscapes with diverse and healthy habitats throughout their full annual cycle. When you’re looking at habitat, it’s helpful to remember that birds are an important indicator of environmental health, and if you’re seeing a lot of birds or different bird species, you are probably in a balanced ecosystem since it is supporting robust bird populations.
Defenders of Wildlife has tackled the issues of bird conservation through many avenues, supporting research on the status of imperiled bird populations, defending important legislation like the Migratory Bird Treaty Act through litigation and commenting on proposed federal agency management actions that might negatively affect birds. We are also supporting and advocating for the protection of at least 30% of U.S. lands and waters by 2030, known as 30x30, which will help the conservation of vital habitat for birds and other imperiled wildlife. We know that the Endangered Species Act has led to the recovery of many species, including the peregrine falcon and bald eagle, our national symbol, which went from only a few hundred pairs in the U.S. in 1970 to over 300,000 today. We also know that other important environmental laws, like the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, have helped recover waterfowl populations. There is always the need for more funding and action, more political and community support, more staff and volunteers. But we have what we need most, if we can only harness it: the love everyone has for the beauty and song of birds.
Because the deck is usually stacked against conservation, and we’re further challenged by the world’s population and increasing effects of climate change, I am often asked by those outside my profession if I find it depressing. But how can I be melancholy when watching and listening to the lovely songs of beautiful birds in the fresh air? And how can I not be buoyed up knowing that my colleagues are working hard—right along with me—to protect these amazing species? From Canada to the Neotropics, we have shared responsibility for shared species, to ensure the habitat is there for future generations of birds and the people who love to watch them. And now that more people are learning about and enjoying birds during this pandemic, we have a bigger team!