Birding from Home
John M. Marzluff—
I’ve been birding daily since entering quarantine at my home in western Washington. My bird feeder is full-frame from my office window, my wooded backyard offers a bit of solace and place to stretch out, and my deck commands a view of the open sky. From these suburban perches, I’ve tallied forty-five species so far. Hooded mergansers are raising their brood on the neighbor’s pond. Wilson’s and black-throated gray warblers are staking out territories in my brush and the upper reaches of the maples, respectively. The sweet music of Swainson’s thrushes fills the air at sunrise and sunset. While my patch seems to ooze birds, it isn’t unusual: a friend from Baltimore just sent a copy of her report from the ’burbs—forty-eight species!
Do these impressive tallies mean that the COVID-19 shutdown has given birds a break? This question seems to be on many people’s minds. Reporters call to ask if bird counts have ticked up. They are curious if crows are more frequent or if they are having a rough time without people. Are birds singing more or louder? Everyone seems to be noticing birds and wondering why.
In response, I suggest that it isn’t the birds that have changed, but us! It is spring, the singing season! Southern migrants are heading north, bringing new colors and songs to our yards. Resident woodpeckers are drumming, and the first young of the year are leaving the confines of their nests. Hawks and jays are hunting. It is the time of plenty—warming temperatures are bringing a profusion of insects, nectar, and seeds that the birds eat. Birds are doing what they always do at this time of the year. But, with no sports, limited travel, and bright spring days, we are tuning in to nearby nature to fight our boredom.
Perhaps our inactivity is allowing some species to venture closer to humans. Recent sightings of wolverines, a scarce resident of wild America outside of Alaska, scavenging a beach near my home likely reflect the lack of people, pets, and cars on the sand. But many birds regularly associate with us, flocking to our homes, places of work, and centers of commerce. In many settings, the diversity of bird species peaks in suburban areas because of the vibrant mix of habitats nearby (we tend to juxtapose greenspaces, built spaces, open fields, and ponds in our suburbs). This finding, based on years of research, led me to call American suburbs SuBIRDia.
The fascination that winged creatures bring us, especially in these Covidian times, can be more than enjoyable. It can be a powerful motivator to reflect and consider how we might act to perpetuate their existence. Examining the challenges that birds face suggests a handful of good practices that homeowners can employ to sustain bird populations.
The two most significant sources of mortality for birds are outdoor cats and windows. If you own a cat, keeping it inside, housed in a catio, or on a leash is the number one thing you can do to protect birds. Making your windows visible and less able to reflect natural objects, such a trees, that might fool a bird into collision is the second most crucial action. Screens, netting, or UV reflective stickers on your windows allow birds to recognize them as barriers rather than throughways.
The complexity of your yard directly affects the variety of birds it can host. A yard of turfgrass offers little for birds, but one that sports small grassy patches among shrubby or treed space has much to offer. Reducing your lawn or letting it go feral during the spring and summer nesting seasons is a great way to improve the suitability of your yard for birds. Native plants are most important, as they provide insects that all birds require to raise their nestlings, but even non-native plants that provide cover, fruit, nuts, or nectar are useful.
The abundance of common birds is enhanced when we provide food, water, and shelter around our dwellings. Augmenting such resources is vital because large populations evolve, whereas small ones often drift to local extinction. The ability to change is essential as birds adapt to the challenges of city life. A seed, suet, or nectar feeder is also a beautiful way to gain an up-close look at birds. If you feed, check with your local bird food store, Audubon Society, or online for simple guidelines to reduce risks of attracting rodents or spreading disease.
You might be shocked to see a bird-eating hawk dash through your yard and grab a pretty finch from mid-air. The sight of a crow plucking nestling robins from the nest you have been watching might be equally shocking. But remember that these native predators are part of the ecosystem. They deserve our respect and tolerance, even if their methods seem brutal. I rejoice when the circle of life plays out in my yard, as I take it to mean that the wild community that I’m part of is intact.
As you watch birds, remember that your actions can have lasting effects on them. Let the music of grosbeaks remind you to fill your bird feeder. As warblers and orioles work the high canopy, increase their safety by making sure they can see your windows as an obstacle. When you marvel at a towhee scratching in your garden bed, expand their habitat by reducing your turf lawn and grant them longer feeding times by keeping your cat restrained. What you do will be repaid each spring with delightful song and throughout the year with the flash of a woodpecker’s crest, the cheery notes of a chickadee, or the mystery of an owl’s hoot.
John M. Marzluff is Professor of Wildlife Science at the University of Washington and author of Welcome to Subirdia: Sharing Our Neighborhoods with Wrens, Robins, Woodpeckers, and Other Wildlife and In Search of Meadowlarks: Birds, Farms, and Food in Harmony with the Land.