Thoughtful, uncompetitive birding in your backyard or neighborhood.
The New York Times wrote a long article a couple of weeks before Christmas about a different way to observe birds. Millions of people are birdwatchers. There are clubs and groups worldwide that are organized around the hobby of birdwatching. It is one of the fastest growing hobbies in North America. In Canada, more people birdwatch than garden. Serious birders compete to view as many birds as possible, the rarer the better.
Slow Birding: The Art and Science of Enjoying the Birds in Your Own Backyard by Joan E. Strassmann, an animal behaviorist and professor of biology at Washington University in St. Louis, was published last October 2022. In this book, Strassman guides anyone interested in how to become a slow birder. She also tells wonderful stories about the most common birds that many of us have right around our residences or in the neighborhood. For example, the white brows on a male white-throated sparrow indicate that he is likely to cheat on his mate.
One of the exercises that Strassmann suggests involves the common blue jay. Blue jays love acorns. If you have an oak tree nearby, go look for some acorns underneath the oak. If there are empty caps, that means a blue jay has removed the cap from the nut to make for easier transporting to its food storage area for later dining.
I remember being on a treadmill at a gym one afternoon next to a window. I was looking out at a bird feeder hanging among trees. For 30 minutes I watched birds feed from the feeder. I observed some birds being chased away by other birds, clearly there was a hierarchy of some sort. Listening to the birds chat with each other, I was fascinated, but new to birding so I did not understand the wealth of information that was available to me just by watching. If I had known anything about birds, I would have understood what I was witnessing. It was an experience that has stayed with me.
The book presents a new approach to bird watching, with no list-keeping or competition. Slow birding is based on intense observation, intense listening, and intense connection. You are going to gain knowledge about the daily routines of everyday birds, and what there is to learn is very interesting. Many feel that slow birding is a result of changes from the pandemic. When we were locked down, our own backyards were the only birding area ornithologists had to observe birds. Birding became more meditative and focused.
Did you know that birds are always hungry because they live on the brink of starvation? Having a backyard bird feeder will not only provide your local birds with food especially during the lean winter months but will allow you to have your own slow birding lab. You might see the birds who guard the feeder by facing upwards to watch for predators, allowing other birds to feed safely. Please note that if you set up a bird feeder, you must be vigilant about keeping it stocked in the winter or the birds who have come to depend on being fed from it will starve before they can find another source of food. In the spring bird feeders are important to support birds on their long migrations north. Depending on where you live, it might be advisable to remove your feeders in the summer, when there is more food for birds, but you might also attract bears. Audubon has a helpful article on feeding birds.
Strassman has a comprehensive index at the back of her book with many bird species, U.S. locations and habitats, scientists and their discoveries, and much more.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has a website called All About Birds that will help you identify birds and distinguish between the genders.
Previous ASE article about birds and bird watching: