Want to become an ornithologist? Start in your own backyard.

Related posts

Birdwatching at home is a powerful way to learn about your local ecosystem. Here’s how to attract a variety of species and identify their behaviors.

(Illustrations by José L. Soto/The Washington Post; Nicholas Lund; iStock)


Every day, bird lovers can watch tiny wildlife documentaries unfold from their own windows – the search for food, the predator-prey relationship, even how climate change is altering a species’ typical habitat. .

“The great thing about birds is that they’re everywhere,” says Nicholas Lund, who leads outreach for Maine Audubon and shares his brand of avian humor as the bird. “They are not just found in national parks or protected areas – they will come to you.”

With the right approach, you can make these visits much more likely: “Think about what you have to offer the birds,” says Lund. “It could be a place to nest, it could be food and it could be shelter.” Once they start flocking, you can experience the joy of identifying each species and their unique behaviors.

A bird feeder is the fastest way to create a backyard feast, but it’s not the only one. As Lund points out, “Not all birds even eat seeds.” Woodpeckers, for example, prefer suet, orioles like oranges and grape jelly, and hummingbirds enjoy nectar, or sugar water, which you can make at home.

The best long-term approach to bringing birds to your garden is to add native plants.

Many birds love seed plants, and just about any plant will naturally provide insects, another essential food source. In his books ‘Bringing Nature Home’ and ‘Nature’s Best Hope’, Doug Tallamy, professor of entomology at the University of Delaware, identifies ‘power plants’ – such as sunflowers in the mid-Atlantic and goldenrod. native gold just about everywhere – which attract attractive insects like caterpillars (avoid using pesticides, of course, since “pests” are exactly what attract birds.)

Once you have this natural buffet set up, you can also fill a few seed feeders. These supplies are widely available at pet stores, hardware stores, and specialty stores such as Wild Birds Unlimited.

Different birds gravitate to different feeders – some like tube feeders, others prefer platforms or just to eat seeds off the ground. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology offers many species-specific recommendations. You can also research the types of seeds that certain birds prefer, but just about any seed will bring them to your garden. Some feeders, like the Bird Buddy, have a camera that sends close-up photos and videos to your phone.

Many backyard beekeepers aren’t there for the honey

There are some risks to feeding wild birds from a feeder, however, including the possibility of inadvertently spreading disease. To prevent this, Audubon experts recommend scrubbing your feeders with a 10% non-chlorine bleach solution several times a year.

Collisions with windows are another hazard. The Cornell Lab suggests placing feeders within three feet of the glass or more than 30 feet to ensure bird safety; if a feeder is too far from a tree or other cover, it can expose small birds to hawks looking for their own lunch. (Cornell Lab’s Feeder Watch has more details on determining proper feeder placement.)

Although the adjective “squirrel proof” has been associated with many bird feeders, you will usually find squirrels attached to these feeders as well. Adding a baffle — essentially a dome — above or below a feeder can make it harder for a squirrel to land. Some feeders have weight-activated springs that block access when triggered by a squirrel. Lund sprinkles a small seed on the ground, to make feeders less tempting for lazier squirrels. But know that feeding the birds probably also means feeding the squirrels.

Create a bird-friendly habitat

Giving birds a comfortable and safe place to hang out is another way to bring them into your garden.

“In spring and summer, when birds start nesting, habitat becomes really important for a bird – and by habitat, I mean living space,” says Purbita Saha, avid birder and deputy editor of popular science. “If you want to attract songbirds like wrens, chickadees and sparrows looking for shelter, you can pick up a small brush pile by picking up downed branches from the last winter storm.” Some species, such as Eastern Towhee and Common Yellowthroat, nest in brush piles.

You can also build or purchase a birdhouse (aka birdhouse), which essentially mimics a tree cavity. Birds can be incredibly particular about the height, size and orientation of the opening, so seek advice from Cornell’s Nestwatch site, which also has tips for dealing with predators and competitors like bees and wasps. . Birdbaths are also more than decoration – they help birds take care of their feathers and eliminate parasites when water is scarce; in the winter, place a birdbath in the sun, or find one that plugs in, to keep it from freezing.

Let the bird watching begin

Now that your home is a destination for the feathered set, you can learn the ins and outs of observing and identifying them.

Tykee James, president of DC’s Audubon Chapter, tells people to start with a “Familiar 5,” as a basis for further learning: “Identify a few birds that you know very well,” he says, “and then learn to understand their habitat, the markings of a male and female, and get to know their song.Are they in your garden because they migrate or are they locals looking for food and shelter? (James suggested that as a DC resident, my Familiar 5 might be Rock Dove, European Starling, House Sparrow, American Robin, and Pileated Woodpecker.)

To help you spot these birds, pick up one of Sibley’s many field guides, the must-have books for seasoned birders. If you prefer a digital option, try Cornell’s Merlin Bird ID app, which offers surprisingly accurate suggestions based on photos or a few moments of birdsong you submit – “Shazam for the birds,” as some say. have called.

Lund and James recommend a guidebook or paper journal for taking notes and sketching. Many birders have a “life list” that includes every species they have ever seen. But if you’re not so obsessed with all the counting and labeling, that’s okay. “For some people, this aspect of playful birdwatching really drives their passion, but it’s a double-edged sword that drives others away,” says James. “Birdwatching is not a competition. Sometimes it’s just a matter of stopping and sharing a moment with a bird.

Saha agrees: “Birdwatching is more than counting,” she says. “It’s about understanding how birds use the landscape, how they interact with plants, how they eat different insects on your property…all of this helps you understand your own local ecosystem. This is the power of bird watching at home.

To better capture these details, get a sturdy pair of binoculars, because even in a small garden, the magnification allows you to see things you can’t see with the naked eye, like birds dancing and such. mating rituals. Lund recommends the Nikon Pro Staff series, which includes a few models in the $150 range, all of which should last for generations.

Last year, Lund saw his 700th species in the continental United States, but he’s just as much fun tracking the birds around his home. “I saw 112 species in my backyard, and the most recent was a mallard,” he says. “In other circumstances, I’m not so excited to see a mallard. But when I see one in my garden, I’m fist-pumping, jumping up and down. And when the migrating birds pass by, I might be lucky enough to see a Cape warbler or a blue-headed vireo just stopping for a day or two to refuel…en route from North America. South to Canada.

Scott Kirkwood is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.

Related Posts

Next Post