A Beginner’s Guide to the Meditative Act of Bird-Watching

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Photo: Getty Images/Oliver Rossi
I'm spending my quarantine in Madison, Wisconsin—and for the first time in nearly six years, I'm surrounded by birds. New York City is my home, and before COVID-19, plucky pigeons offered my closest contact with winged creatures. Long walks—urban and otherwise—have awoken the inner-explorers in many of us, it seems, and so I tapped the National Audubon Society for a 101 on how to start bird watching.

I asked John Rowden, PhD, zoologist and director of bird-friendly communities at Audubon, why interest in birds is on the rise right now. The heart of the matter, he says, is that we're all living a quieter life right now. "A lot of us are in places where it's just quieter because there's less traffic, there's less noise. And so, it's just giving people a chance to actually experience their environment, even if their environment is contained in a smaller area," he says. Latching onto birds and their beauty in these hushed moments basically acts as visual meditation (which really explains why I followed a cardinal around for 20 minutes while I was getting "fresh air" a few days ago).

Bird watching, adds Dr. Rowden, also doesn't have a high bar of entry. You don't need any special equipment, knowledge, or a guide to get started. It can be as simple or complex as you choose, and there's a lot of freedom in that. Below, you'll find the easiest ways to get started watching and identifying birds and learn how to record your findings so that, one day, you can look back on right now as a time replete with nature.

How to start bird watching right now: the simple way

Dr. Rowden says that, if you so desire, your birding habit can be as basic as... watching birds, from anywhere: your window, your patio, the sidewalk outside your house.

"Welcome to birding!" he says. "One of the messages I totally want to convey is that there's this perception of birding as being kind of technical and nerdy, and there's certainly that side of it, but I think that just experiencing birds in our environment is great," says Dr. Rowden. And if you're not sure what exactly you're looking for, exactly, once you've spotted a beaked animal, Dr. Rowden says to just be curious about the behavior of the blue jay or chickadee in front of you. That means your mode of bird-ogling can be as simple as see a bird, appreciate the bird (those feathers! that beak! wow!), and move on with your life.

"I think that birds are really a unique group of organisms because If you think about it, they're the only non-domestic, non-human animals that we really have a lot of exposure," he says. "They're kind of beautiful to me because they're living their lives alongside us and doing all the things that we do. So they're finding a mate, they're creating a nest, they're finding their food, they're sleeping, they're doing their daily activities."

"Birds are kind of beautiful to me because they're living their lives alongside us and doing all the things that we do." —John Rowden, PhD, of The National Audubon Society

If you're really enjoying that, the next step is learning how to listen for birds on your balcony or in your neighborhood. "A lot of birding is actually done by ear," explains Dr. Rowden, "so you're more likely to hear a bird before you see it in a lot of cases because they're in the trees or they're flying, and it's maybe hard to get a good view of them." This is when the Audobon Bird Guide App will come in clutch. This will allow you to put a name to the creature you're seeing, even if you only have sound to go on.

Then, of course, if you're really feeling the desire to get an up-close-and-personal look, you can always invest in a pair of binoculars and/or a bird feeder. The Audubon Society has purchasing guides for both binoculars and feeders, but Dr. Rowden notes that you do have two responsibilities if you purchase a feeder. First, make sure you pick the type(s) of seeds that are palatable to the birds in your area and make sure you're consistently cleaning the feeder so that you don't accidentally get the birds sick. Then, you should be good to watch to your heart's content without leaving your home.

If you find yourself seeking a way to record the birds you find, Dr. Rowden says you have options. "The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has a database called the eBird, which is generally how I track my bird observations. You can get an account there and you can feed your observations into add to that, which then will forever remain in a record of what you've seen, when you've seen it, and even how you've seen it," he says.

Marking down your observations through this platform will actually help researchers and scientists track bird movements, so they can study how populations have moved and changed in a world that's very much altered by COVID-19. "Over time, we want to understand how birds are responding to changes in the environment and you know, there's a lot of thought, and speculation, and some data that are trying to be collected during this time to see if COVID is actually impacting populations," says Dr. Rowden. "Is this is the reduction in noise and potentially light affecting birds?" Pretty cool, right?

Of course, you may find yourself wanting to be a bit more relaxed about your birding. And, in that case, sketches, journal entries, voice recordings of you describing the birds, and photographs (without the flash) are all more artsy options. Now seems as good of a time as ever to try writing bird haikus, if you ask me.

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