People seeking to change up the social distancing routine need not look any further than an age-old past time.
Before my home became my office and my cafe and my observation deck two months ago, I didn’t notice birds so much as I simply accepted their chirping as part of the morning soundtrack of daily life. Their songs were background noise; their variations were overlooked.
Now, I’m training my ear to discern the record-scratch warbling of a house finch from the high-pitch catcall of a black phoebe. I’ve taken 5:30 a.m. walks around the block to better hear the dawn chorus during this migratory and mating season.
Like so many people quarantined by the coronavirus crisis, I am beginning to bird-watch.
We’re all bird-watching these days
Google searches for “birds” reached an all-time high in the U.S. last week, and searches for “best binoculars for birding” have spiked 550% since March, according to Google Trends. Downloads of the Merlin Bird ID Wizard app from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology were up more than 133% in May compared with the same time last year.
In lockdown, many sports fans without teams to cheer for have become bird enthusiasts. My boyfriend’s group text chain has gone from a safe space for football trash talk to a haven for sharing bird pics with pseudo-macho captions like “That alpha cardinal right there!”
Men in Blazers soccer podcast host Roger Bennett recently tweeted, “I have become obsessed with the bird calls that now dominate the early New York hours. American Birding Association, out of Darkness Cometh Light. You are the Light.”
But I realized I needed help finding that light, because despite setting up a feeder and actively hoping for birds to visit my small bit of outdoor space in Santa Monica, California, I made no feathered friends up close, thereby limiting my ability to behold the birds’ plumage and identify their species.
How can you bring the birds to your yard or near your apartment? Allison Shultz, assistant curator of ornithology at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, has advice.
Fill your feeder with the right stuff
Black oil sunflower seeds are “a good bet no matter where you are,” Shultz says. “That’s going to attract a lot of sparrows and finches and chickadees.”
If you want to see other kinds of birds, Cornell Lab’s Project FeederWatch is a good resource, because it matches bird feeders and seeds with the regional birds who appreciate them.
Tube-shaped feeders work well, but if you don’t have those, Shultz suggests making a DIY feeder with things available at home: a toilet paper roll, nut butter, a paper plate, seeds or unsalted nuts, and string.
Put the birdseed near a hiding spot
Birds want shelter from predators, so a feeder is “ideally next to some shrubs, a tree, somewhere that the birds can go and hide,” Shultz says. Keep the feeder out of hungry squirrels’ reach by placing it far from where the rodents could jump or behind a barrier they can’t climb over.
Either place the feeder outside a window that you can observe from inside, or, if you sit outside, make sure you’re about 6 to 10 feet from the feeder, “somewhat separate,” she says.
“Once the birds find the feeder, they’ll get used to you being out there,” she says.
Let the birdies know about the food
To get the message out, “scatter some seeds on the ground or maybe on top of the feeder, just to kind of say, ‘Hey, this is here,’ ” Shultz says. “Wait for the birds to find it.”
And if you’ll be sitting near the feeder, try to be quiet, calm and limit sudden movements.
Use your ears and your cleaning products
Although up-close visual examination is helpful when trying to identify bird types, Shultz says to “use your ears before your eyes” when bird-watching, because “it’s often easier to hear something before you see it.”
Keep your feeders clean so that they don’t make your beaked buddies sick. Every two weeks, rinse them with a low-concentration bleach solution. (Swollen eye conjunctivitis spread through bird feeders starting in 1994 and killed up to 60% of house finches on the East Coast.)
Online resources can help ID your birds
The Cornell Lab has plenty of bird-watching resources, including a migration forecaster. For crowd-sourced answers to specific questions about birds and nature, there’s iNaturalist. For Los Angeles residents, Shultz’s museum offers a birding guide.
The proof is in the birding!
I set out to follow Shultz’s advice last weekend, but the only black oil sunflower seeds readily available were sold in a 20-pound bag. I ultimately bought a smaller bag of thistle seeds, Schultz’s secondary recommendation.
Back at home, I filled my feeder with thistle and moved it a few feet farther from an outdoor table, but made sure it remained close to foliage from a neighboring tree. I sprinkled seeds all over the feeder and porch planters, and threw some extra seed in the air for good luck. I immediately regretted the last move, quietly apologized to my downstairs neighbor for the fallout and hoped for the best.
Twenty minutes later, the best arrived.
A chirper with a gray coat, a rusty tail patch and song reminiscent of a spurting sprinkler appeared. A California towhee (according to the Merlin ID app) munched on the planter seeds. He returned (I like to assume it’s the same bird) later that day with a friend, and again the next day. Other birds who have since joined the backyard party: a squeaky, dark-eyed junco pecking for seeds and a pair of mourning doves who are messy eaters but elegant cooers. They keep coming back, and I keep putting out more seeds.
My home that’s an office and a cafe and an observation deck? I consider it a bird sanctuary now, too.
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