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A concise guide to birding in your own backyard

Binoculars are not necessary, but they can be helpful for spotting various species. (Shutterstock)

Inside my home on the West Coast, I often hear my neighbors. Whenever a nasal honk-honk-honk alerts me that they’ve fluttered into my yard, I rush outside to watch red-breasted nuthatches scurry over tree trunks. Often, a pair of pigeons alight on nearby rooftops, their cooing a gentle nudge that a larger world still exists beyond our fraught lives.

I’m not alone in looking to the sky to feel grounded. “Unquestionably, interest in birding has exploded during the pandemic,” said Jeffrey Gordon, president of the American Birding Association (ABA).

When birding-related tourism cratered in the spring, many birders shifted focus to their patch, or local birding spot. Other people started seeking birds for the first time. While the coronavirus has stolen our ability to travel, we only need to migrate to our backyards, balconies or windows to notice beautiful animals with fascinating lives — some of whom can still connect us with faraway places.

“You can go birding an unlimited number of ways. You can spend hours looking for your target species, or you can watch birds in your feeders. You can travel long distance, or you can bird from your laptop,” said Jason Ward, chief diversity officer for the American Bird Conservancy and host of the popular Topic series “Birds of North America.”

Especially today, birding lets us admire nature close to our own nests and cultivate mindfulness during challenging times. And by noticing the wee travelers who sometimes migrate thousands of miles to our backyards, we can sense our place within larger natural patterns.

“You’ll see the area around you with new eyes,” Gordon said. “Because birds are so mobile, they provide this incredible changing kaleidoscope of discovery as you move through the year.”

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There are about 47 million birders in the United States from all different backgrounds, yet diversity and access issues persist; Ward and other nature enthusiasts and scientists launched the annual Black Birders Week following a racist incident in Central Park in May.

“We’re shifting the narrative to celebrating diversity, since birding is better off if it’s more diverse,” Ward said. “We’re trying to make sure birding is always accessible for everyone.”

Find your patch

Birds are readily visible from your home, but if that doesn’t work, nearby parks and nature preserves offer surprising abundance. On a typical day birding in Atlanta, Ward sees more than 40 species.

Even small backyards and urban jungle pocket parks host resident and migratory species, which all vary depending on location, as well as time of year for the latter. Some migratory birds linger for entire seasons, while others touch down for brief layovers on their journeys along one of the four flyways that stretch north to south across the United States.

“There are still plenty of great birds to see during winter,” said Robin Irizarry, program associate for Audubon Pennsylvania and co-chair of urban programs for Wyncote Audubon Society. Near his Philadelphia home, scarlet tanagers and Baltimore orioles have departed for South America and the tropics, but white-throated sparrows and dark-eyed juncos that summered in Canada are dropping in for the season.

Create a safe space

Before enticing birds to your home, determine whether it’s a good idea since you’ll be responsible for managing their habitat, even if it’s just a feeder.

“If you’re in an area where cats are allowed to roam or birds are likely to crash into glass, you shouldn’t attract them,” cautioned Kimberly Kaufman, executive director of the Black Swamp Bird Observatory (BSBO) in Oak Harbor, Ohio, citing the two top causes of human-caused wild bird mortality.

Even if you don’t live in a high-risk place, protect birds by leaving your cat indoors or investing in a secure “catio.” Apply window treatments such as etching and inexpensive sticker grids. And avoid pesticides, which poison other wild neighbors and travel up the food chain to birds like owls and hawks.

Use high-quality bird seed — not bread, even for ducks and pigeons — tailored to the species you want to tempt. Keeping feeders clean is crucial; scrub them at least every season and remove gunk after it rains. Clear spilled leftovers from the ground.

And seek expert guidance for your location and target species. Specialty stores such as Wild Birds Unlimited and local bird groups are reliable resources and available virtually or by phone.

Invite your neighbors

“If you have even a small backyard, it’s easy to attract birds to your space,” Kaufman said. “It will become addictive. One feeder inevitably becomes more because it’s wonderfully easy and enjoyable.”

Irizarry has counted 104 different species in his backyard. He uses a variety of feeders, including hopper-style feeders suitable for many birds, tube feeders where birds like goldfinches cling and hummingbird feeders — also an option for apartment dwellers without a yard.

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Plant native perennials and shrubs, which provide food and nesting sites, as do bird houses in areas where development has cleared habitat. Like feeders, place them in a predator-safe area. Check that openings are the correct size and keep them clean.

“Birds appreciate water, especially in the winter,” said Gordon. “It’s important for drinking and cleaning feathers so they can insulate properly.” Since they love water above the ground, create a little tree or balcony spa and keep it filled and clean.

The National Audubon Society’s backyard birding guide has additional pointers.

Bird's-eye viewing

While we can gear up for birding, it’s not necessary to spend a fortune, Ward said.

“You need eyes, ears and curiosity to get your foot in your door. Binoculars aren’t a must-have, but you can purchase them to take things to the next level,” he said, comparing them to a time machine — an especially thrilling perspective for kids. “They allow you to look millions of years into the past, since there’s a Jurassic Park quality to birds.”

Once you’re ready, a trustworthy pair can be game changing in identifying and learning about birds. Costs range from $30 to $3,000, and while a $30 pair probably won’t last long, you can find a decent pair for around $100.

Kaufman advised seeking expertise. “Understanding how binoculars function is really important,” she said. “If they don’t work for you, they probably aren’t set up properly.”

Since high-quality cameras have become more affordable, you don’t need an expensive rig to capture engaging images, she added.

Smartphones are indispensable birding tools. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Merlin app assists identification and coaches beginner and intermediate birders. Audubon’s Bird Guide app includes more than 800 North American bird species. And your images, sound recordings or videos of flighty subjects can help with identification.

Don’t forget a field guide — the “Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America,” by Kenn Kaufman, is written for beginners. Many of these resources also provide information about these animals’ complex lives and interactions, since even common birds like pigeons have captivating behaviors.

“During springtime, it’s exciting to see birds like house wrens build nests and raise young just about anywhere,” Irizarry said. “At feeders, we can watch birds try to push each other off and jockey for position.” Some of his favorites, white-breasted nuthatches, find spots on tree trunks to cache sunflower seeds.

“The more time you spend observing birds and being outside actively looking for them, the better you’ll get and the higher your chances of seeing something really neat,” he added.

Be patient

“Birding can be incredibly easy, and if you never take it beyond appreciating that they’re beautiful, active and interesting, that’s okay,” Kimberly Kaufman said. “It can be challenging, which is part of what makes it so appealing. It takes time to get to know these birds, but once you do, the rewards are life changing.”

Remember that the birds’ welfare comes first and to follow the ABA’s code of ethics. Don’t approach nests too closely or disturb habitat. Avoid scaring birds away, both for their sake and for other birders.

Just observing them is fulfilling, Ward noted. “Birding gives us an opportunity to be captivated and allow them to teach us things like patience and appreciation. The fact that it’s such a fleeting relationship makes it fun.”

Find your flock

Social media is a good way to connect with other birders, find resources and grow your skills. The ABA’s “What’s This Bird?” Facebook group assists with identification. And the Cornell Lab’s eBird allows users to create lists, track sightings and support community science by building collective knowledge of how birds move and live on our planet.

BSBO offers a “Birds at Home” virtual learning series. You can also join local bird groups and Audubon chapters online, and once it’s safe, the birding community will be eager for you to join walks, festivals and counts.

“Birding is the ultimate treasure hunt,” Kaufman said. “Once you discover these treasures, the next best thing is sharing that joy with others.”

Williams is a writer based in Nevada. Her website is erinewilliams.com.

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