Insights

The Broad View
The siren birdsong of the outdoors

After months of limited travel, sheltering in place and avoiding public gatherings, many of us are more than ready for a change of pace. This might be the perfect time to get outside and reconnect with the natural world.


Of course, depending on where you live, you may not have ready access to wooded areas or you may be hemmed in by coronavirus-related restrictions. But there’s a straightforward way to take in some fresh air, enjoy nature and maybe even add to scientific understanding: bird-watching.


It turns out birders don’t need to go to exotic islands or remote wilds to experience spectacular avian sights. In fact, urban and suburban environments feature some of the best places to glimpse birds.


“You often find birds along edges — the edges of a lawn, the edge of a road,” says David Allen Sibley, author of the Sibley field guides for bird-watchers and, most recently, What It’s Like to Be a Bird. “Nonbirders imagine that you want to get deep into the forest. That’s generally not true. You want to be walking along the edges of a field and checking the margins.” He also recommends looking where marshy areas meet the land.


Among Sibley’s favorites are warblers, colorful migratory songbirds that visit his home in Massachusetts as they migrate north for the summer. It’s part of an annual journey that takes them from Central and South America to Canada and Alaska.


“Anywhere in the Northeast, you can wake up one morning in May and outside there will be 15 species of warblers that weren’t there the day before,” he says. “They’re all singing, they’re very active, flitting around and catching insects. With these bold patterns of black and orange and yellow and red — it’s really magical how they just show up one day.”


That sense of mystery and wonder has a strong allure, says Jennifer Ackerman. The naturalist and author of The Bird Way explains that we still don’t understand even the basic ways that birds navigate the world.


“Birds have spatial abilities and memory that go so far beyond ours,” she says. The rufous hummingbird, for example, can memorize the precise location of hundreds of flowers and the optimal time to return to them. Similarly, many birds have an internal GPS that keeps them on track even if they’re displaced by hundreds or thousands of miles. “This mysterious way of knowing, we’re starting to nibble around the edges of it,” Ackerman says. “It is a way of knowing that goes beyond ours. I find that utterly fascinating.”


Research is demonstrating that birds likely learn and adapt in ways we didn’t think were possible before, she adds. Even something as well documented as birdsong is proving to have greater depth than once suspected. “Birds learn their songs, so they have different dialects, like how we have different regional accents,” she says. Bird-watchers can compare different songs from the same species and find learned, regional variations. More recent studies have shown that, in many species, both sexes sing — overturning decades of conventional wisdom that only males croon.


Amateurs are a great help in uncovering some of these secrets, Ackerman says. One way they can advance scientific understanding is through citizen science programs at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.


For example, a recent survey of 20,000 backyard observers gave researchers new insight into how birds interact and form hierarchies at feeding locations.


Setting up a backyard feeding station is relatively easy. Native plants are an important component, Ackerman says: “Native species draw full communities of organisms that support bird life.” Sibley recommends leaving out water and using devices that break up window reflections to help limit bird crashes. If birds begin chipping at your paint, it means they’re calcium-hungry. Leaving out some crushed eggshells will help the animals and keep your paint looking fresh.


And feel free to mix up the food, Ackerman says. “I use a black oil sunflower feeder,” she notes, but she will change the offering depending on the time of year and what kind of birds she wants to attract. “Some people put out mealworms and fruit,” she says, “but you have to be careful to keep your feeders nutritious and clean.”


Bird-watching is “a very democratic process,” Ackerman says. “Anyone can do it and contribute.”


Learning to watch


Sibley recommends that first-time birders gather two tools: a good illustrated guidebook and a pair of binoculars.


The important thing is to become acquainted with the images of birds and get a sense of what each species looks like. Having that knowledge aids with identification.


And binoculars are key to letting bird-watchers get a good look at their quarry. However, Sibley warns against getting a set that will be too powerful, as the narrow field of view will make it difficult to actually see the bird. He recommends a waterproof pair with 7x–8x magnification.


Illustration courtesy of David Allen Sibley.



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