BirdWords: The Avian Escape

Western Kingbird

Our world may have begun as a garden, but it’s not seeming quite right these days.  Coronavirus and the other horsemen are trampling the flowers, and the misshapen economy will make next year’s seeds a stingier find.  And even then, you may not be able to grow much because of climate change.  Is there any help beyond Netflix and sedation?

Yes: bird-watching.  It’s accessible, versatile, and beautiful.  And a whole lot healthier than couch-bingeing.

But how do you start?  Local Audubon activities are shut down, but the website, wintuaudubon.org, remains a rich resource.  I’ll highlight a few and put them in context.

First, where can you watch birds?  Since you’re at home, that can be an excellent place.  If there are trees and shrubs around, then you are apt to find a variety of birds.  You can put out feeders to attract them into a handy viewing area.  For information on feeders and seed, click on the website’s “Attracting Birds” under the “Places to Bird” tab.   For your own good viewing, or if you have children under, say nine, who can’t yet handle binoculars, then consider putting the feeders up close to a window.  Window collisions are killers, but if feeders are placed within three feet of the window then slower flight speeds around the feeder make harmful collisions rare.

Of course, don’t expect the birds to be tidy.  And recognize that, depending on your local traffic, it may take birds some weeks to find your feeders,  But then the word will spread.

If you’re able to get outside, birding can enrich your walk.  Here in the North State we have numerous parks and trails that support both wildlife viewing and physical distancing.  Turtle Bay, Mary Lake, Clover Creek, and the River Trail are among the in-town birding hotspots.  Again, see the “Places to Bird” tab for more information.

You’ll need a pair of binoculars.  Without them you will not see the rich colors of the birds.  Fortunately, optics have improved in recent years, and excellent binoculars are available at reasonable prices–sometimes better prices than the reviews indicate.  I recommend starting with the “How to Choose Your Binoculars” article under the “Get Outside/Binocular Guide” tab at audubon.org.  It gives a straight scoop on quality, usefulness, and price.  Then read reviews and shop.

At home or on a walk, it’s nice to be able to know what you are seeing.  Scroll down the right column of the Wintu Audubon home page to find the Shasta County Bird Checklist.  This printable list shows the seasonal abundance of our birds.  For another useful resource, you may want to download the Merlin app, which uses the date, your location, and your answers to just a few questions to identify the bird.

Of course, bird watching is more than bird identification.  Close observation can reveal what a bird eats, how it gathers its food, whether it has a nest nearby, how it is taking care of itself, or how it gets along with its neighbors.  The website allaboutbirds.org can feed your understanding with species by species information about the birds.

Wintu Audubon hopes to be running programs and bird walks again this fall.  In the meantime, binoculars, a field guide or online app like Merlin, perhaps a feeder, and some time let us see a world that is at least as real as the one sinking us into the couch.

See wintuaudubon.org for more on bird-watching in the NorthState.

Dan Greaney
Dan Greaney has a long history in outdoor education. He has worked as a naturalist with the National Park Service and in outdoor schools serving the East Bay and Tulare, Sutter, Los Angeles, and Shasta County Offices of Education. A long-time birder, he currently serves as president of the Wintu Audubon Society.
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17 Responses

  1. Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

    If you’re an African-American birder, one of the big advantages of doing your birding at home and focusing on developing a yard list is that you won’t likely encounter a Central Park Karen.

    https://cbsn.ws/2X8eSBc

    eBird, from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is a nice listing app. There are also apps for bird ID, including Merlin from The Cornell Lab, and the app versions of various bird ID handbooks.

    • Avatar bruce vojtecky says:

      Steve, that is a remarkable Central Park episode. Karen was breaking the rules by not having her dog on lease and the man, who happened to be Black, asked her to leash it and she called the police on him. Reminds me of the SF episode where, I forgot the ladies name, called police on a black teenager selling water bottles by City Hall.

  2. Thank you, Dan, for this post. It’s exactly what I needed today.

  3. Avatar Bob McCall says:

    Under the category, “there is an app for that“, the Merlin Bird ID app is a great way of helping you identify the birds you don’t recognize at first.

  4. Avatar bruce vojtecky says:

    Dan, are you friended with Steve Callen? If so I don’t have to tell you about his birding, paintings and books.

  5. Avatar Doug Cook says:

    Does anyone know how local feral cats are affecting bird populations in the north state? I constantly see people feeding feral cats at the Sundial Bridge. Not sure that is a good idea.

    • Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

      The part of Turtle Bay where people have cat-feeding stations is called “Turtle Bay Bird Sanctuary.” How Turtle Bay allows it to occur absolutely blows my mind. I don’t see the value in a natural history museum pandering to the feral cat lunatics.

  6. Avatar Jennie Morgan says:

    I just received my copy of the new book “What It’s Like To Be A Bird,” by David Sibley. I’m a long-time birdwatcher, but I believe this book would engage any level birder. It’s terrific. Someone before me mentioned the Merlin Bird ID app, and I heartily recommend it.

  7. Joanne Snyder Joanne Snyder says:

    Great article. I put a bird feeder out years ago and was introduced to some birds I had never seen before like grossbeaks and towhees. I’ve just moved to an area that has lots of birds. What is the best say to identify a bird you can hear but not see? I once sang a bird song to a birder who knew right away what bird I was hearing. This is not a practical method of bird identification. Thank you.

    • Avatar Dan Greaney says:

      Joanne–All of the digital field guides–Merlin, Audubon, iBird, Sibley, National Geographic–as well as allaboutbirds.org, include recordings of the bird songs and calls. Of course, you need some idea about which species to check. Use ebird.org/explore and click on bar graphs to find what is common in your county. Sometimes it’s easier to study the recording first and then find the singer. Enjoy!

  8. Avatar Karen Calanchini says:

    For years, we had flocks of Yellow Finches here all summer, eating black thistle from a feeder. They arrived in early spring, with not much color to them. As the weather warmed, they changed from dull to a beautiful golden yellow, such happy little birds.
    They arrived this year, and we were ready with 50 lbs of their beloved black thistle seed. One day, a couple of weeks ago, they were gone. They have not come back. Anyone know where they went and why they left so abruptly/

  9. Avatar Dan Greaney says:

    Karen–You were visited by American Goldfinches, and finches are notoriously wanderers. I’ve had similar experiences with their smaller cousins, Lesser Goldfinches. Curiously, both of the goldfinches seem now to prefer my sunflower/millet mix over the thistle seed. Keep some thistle out, and store your bag dry and sealed against moths. It will keep, and the goldfinches will return on their own schedule.

  10. Avatar Karen Calanchini says:

    Dan, is the sunflower/millet mix a commercial product? Where do you source it? Thanks for the info. Now I know the correct name of our beautiful friends. They also love our bubbling water feature in the rock garden and are so polite, taking turns to drink from it.

    • Avatar Dan Greaney says:

      Karen, there are several commercial mixes. Avoid any with “red millet.” which is fill that the birds don’t eat. I’ve seen good mixes at Costco, Tractor Supply, and Winco.

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