Birdwatching is one of America’s favorite pastimes, and springtime is the season when millions of people normally take to the great American outdoors to count and photograph birds, engage in citizen science projects to assess populations, and bolster their life lists with new sightings.

This spring, while the outdoors now consists of just the backyard for many birders, more and more people have been discovering the joys of backyard birding as a way to enjoy nature and to de-stress during the pandemic.


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Bird organizations are arranging a “Global Big Day” on May 9 where birders across the world will contribute sightings to a database known as “eBird” run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The event will coincide with World Migratory Bird Day with the theme “birds connect our world.” These events take place each year, but they take on a special meaning in 2020. While most people can now only experience nature in a more limited way, many are also feeling more connected to fellow bird enthusiasts through their shared pursuit than ever. These people are finding that a few minutes watching birds at the feeder or flying overhead can be a therapeutic break from remote working, Zoom meetings, and child care during the day.

Sharing sightings in friendly competition to see who can see the most species in their yard has become known as "lockdown listing" and birders from across the U.S. are vying for the best list of birds recorded in their backyards. Top yards in Washington, D.C., have already reached 50 or 60 species since the lockdown began. But with colder winds in recent days, the main push of spring migration from the south is yet to arrive, and the peak period for aerial bird traffic is expected to take place between now and mid-month. During this time, colorful warblers, orioles, buntings, and grosbeaks can show up in just about anyone’s yard, and the possibility of seeing something rare or unusual is greater than at almost any other time of year.

For those not yet acquainted with backyard birding, getting started can be as simple as ordering a feeder and some seed online, setting up a bird bath, or putting up a bird nest box or two. 

But if you do decide to jump into “bird therapy,” there are also things you can do to help the birds in return. Last September, bird groups released sobering science showing that North American bird populations had declined by nearly 30 percent. As well as encouraging people to appreciate nature in their yards, birds can act as "canaries in the coal mine" and these declines suggest that natural habitats are being mismanaged on a large scale. Everyone can play a part in helping to solve the problem though.

While many bird species do depend on large areas of natural habitat, they must also navigate the commando course of urban and suburban developments to reach these habitats as they make their annual migratory journeys. The vast majority of migratory songbirds migrate at night to avoid predators, and they can be confused or attracted by city lights and “trapped” in urban areas. Keeping lights low, cats indoors, placing decals and other visible items in front of windows to reduce bird collisions, and creating a pesticide free natural bird habitat in your yard can help birds survive the challenge of migration, so they can return to their nesting areas and breed successfully. For more information see www.abcbirds.org.

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Michael J. Parr is the president of the American Bird Conservancy.


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Published on May 04, 2020