Science

You Have No Choice but to Become a Backyard Birder

A guide for how to start engaging with the most accessible and most delightful nature out there.

A yellow bird in a tree.
Go find these guys! (This particular guy is a yellow warbler, and they’ll be migrating north in a few weeks.)
Getty Images Plus

With the world on lockdown, public spaces closing, and only so many episodes of Tiger King to keep us entertained, we’ve got little left but to stare out our windows. Thankfully, the optimistic isolationist will find a whole amazing world of wildlife out there, enough to keep you busy until this is all over (and even beyond). It’s time to become a backyard birder.

Birding is a perfect hobby for the quarantined. It requires little more than eyes and ears and some open sky. Like a good sitcom, you can follow the exploits of the main cast (the resident birds in your neighborhood) and enjoy a rotating collection of guest stars (migratory birds passing through in the coming weeks). You can be an active participant by feeder or building bird boxes, or you can just watch the action unfold. Plus, I mean, what the hell else are you going to do?

Here are a few tips to help you make the most of your new, forced hobby.

Learn Some Birds

Depending on where you live and what kind of habitat you’ve got, it’s possible to see upward of 200 different bird species in your backyard. In reality, you’ll see many fewer than that, but it helps to be prepared.

You’ll want to start with finding some kind of guide to help you figure out what you’re looking at. Paper field guides like the Sibley or Crossley guides are great, but apps are even easier to access given our present circumstances. The digital Sibley app is by far my favorite, with clear illustrations and birdsongs for each species. I also suggest that beginners download the Merlin app, which uses A.I. to identify birds from photographs with incredible accuracy. All the information can be a little overwhelming, but the best way to start is by scanning the different little maps to see what birds are most likely to be seen in your area.

It helps to have some binoculars, because birds are small and far away and because getting a closer view greatly enhances your appreciation of their beauty and behavior. Those old clunkers you inherited from your grandparents will do, but upgrading to a nicer pair (these Nikon Monarchs are a favorite) are a vast improvement in terms of weight and optic quality. Going without binoculars is fine, too, and can actually help you focus on the basics: What is the bird’s overall color? Is it bigger or smaller than my fist? Do any markings or patterns show up? All that info can help you figure out what you’re looking at.

Get in the Rhythm

If there are any silver linings to all this, it’s that spring is an excellent time to be a beginning birder. We’re at the start of spring migration, that glorious time when billions of birds of all shapes and sizes flutter their way north from the tropics to breed in the warming north.

April and May are peak months for birds both passing through your backyard or past your window on their way to nesting grounds elsewhere. Also, if you play your cards right, you might even get a couple nesting and raising young right outside your window. New species will be arriving every day. The coolest way to keep up with migration is via BirdCast, which looks at weather patterns and species’ historical migration times to forecast exactly which species will be showing up in your area during a given week.

There’s also a daily routine you should learn. Birds are loudest and most active—and so are easiest to see—in the mornings. Getting up early is the hardest part of birding for me, but, again, it’s not like we’ve got anything else going on these days. Alternatively, birds spend most of the rest of the day feeding, so if you’ve got feeders in your backyard, you’re golden all day long.

Prepare Your Backyard

There’s a ton you can do to make your backyard more attractive to birds, though the most helpful project is one that the fewest of us focus on: planting native plants. Most all birds need insects, mostly juicy, easy-to-catch caterpillars, to raise their young. And lots of them. A single pair of tiny chickadees, for example, needs between 6,000 and 9,000 caterpillars each spring to raise a single clutch of eggs. But because most insects evolved to rely on only a few species of plant, introducing non-native plants means caterpillars can’t survive, and then birds can’t feed.

So, plant native plants. They can be a bit tricky to find—most nurseries focus on pretty cultivars instead of natives—but start with the Native Plant Database from the National Audubon Society to help you figure out what will work in your yard, and what birds it might attract.

Next, put some feeders up. There are a ton of options to choose from, and all are pretty good. One tip here is to look at the seed you’re buying and avoid mixes that contain milo, a big red seed that is used as filler but is avoided by most birds. Nature stores have better selections than big chain stores, and those smaller businesses could sure use your dollars right now.

Finally, you’re just in time to hang some bird boxes. Many bird species will take up residence in boxes, which mimic natural cavities in trees, but birds are actually pretty particular about moving in. Before you start throwing up bird houses please check out Cornell’s NestWatch site, which tells you how big to make the hole, which direction the box should face, how high off the ground, and other tips to make your real estate the most attractive.

Prepare Your Not-Backyard

Don’t have a backyard? That’s OK too, there are still plenty of birds to see from your apartment window. Spring migration also means raptor migration, and hawks, eagles, falcons, vultures, and other birds of prey are currently on their way up. Unlike most smaller birds, raptors migrate during the day, making them easier to see as they pass over cities. Some species are also resident in urban areas, where they hunt pigeons and starlings. Look for the fierce Cooper’s hawk as it uses buildings and other structures as cover during its ambush-hunts, or the famous Peregrine falcon as it dive-bombs unsuspecting prey from above.

Feeders work in the city, too, and there are ones that can be suction-cupped to a window. In general, though, the variety of species that will come to a feeder in the city, especially one high off the ground, is much lower than suburban counterparts. So, get ready to make some friends with house finches, mourning doves, and house sparrows.

Feeling ready now? Excited to take advantage of this forced quarantine to develop a deeper appreciation for your local nature? I sure hope so, because you have no other options. But really—birds are the perfect way to remember that even the smallest backyard contains a big world, and one that’s worth watching.