Welcome to the Cult of Backyard Birdwatching: A Reflection

During the muggy glow of a recent South Carolinian thunderstorm, I saw the slender flitting body of a hummingbird and felt a tingling wave of elation. It was the proud culmination of what I thought was a futile effort to seduce local hummers into visiting my balcony.

My ramshackle setup has steadily grown over the months of quarantine. My feeders are shoddily tied to the railings of my balcony by shoelaces. My favorite and most visited is a wood platform feeder I fill with mixed seeds. It has the added amusement of showing only the bobbing heads of my smallest visitors when they are shuffling around and picking through the offerings.

My current bird feeder setup

During the pandemic, many of us continue to turn to activities that can nurture us. Each bird that I see visit keeps me tethered to the outdoors when I often don’t have the energy for meaningful engagement in nature. Their visits serve as a crystal bell stroke, a quick moment of meditation.

I’ve always been fascinated with birds but certain memories seem to have amplified that interest. Take for example, my aunt and uncle’s idealic spit of land on the Maine Coast. They would hang finch socks and I remember standing close by and just hearing the loud “whhhhiirrrr” of wings as finches flew by inches away from me. They also regularly put out hummingbird feeders, and were visited by scads of the little creatures. The visits often devolved into veritable wars however, as hummers are very territorial and squabble over available nectar stations.

Another important instance that stoked the fires was an ornithology class I took at the Isle of Shoals Marine Lab. The whole experience started with our instructors bringing us out to the rocky outcroppings of Appledore Island to census the population of screaming herring gulls protecting their nests of spotted babies. We watched colonies of common, roseate, and arctic terns. We learned that common eider females pool their offspring into large floating rafts of babies – called crèches – to better protect them. But my favorite memory was the bird banding station.

Appledore Island Migration Station‘s Amazing Logo

The station is a little building housed on a corner of Appledore Island which advantageously serves as a stopover for many birds during long seasonal migrations. Mist nests – designed with small pockets that safely entangle visiting birds – are strung up nearby. Station staff check the nets regularly. I remember watching them carefully remove birds and then gingerly place them in paper bags which they attached to a belt with clothespins. In the station, they would record various biographical information about each bird and attach delicate bands meant to help keep track of the birds longer term travels. My absolute favorite part of the process was weighing the birds. They would be unceremoniously placed in a weighing cone with beak sticking out of the pointy end, and little feet visible at the other to keep them safely immobilized on the scale. I had the occasional opportunity to release birds afterwards. I would carefully tip the cone over so the bird was sitting in my hand, and then wait for it to snap out of its momentary daze and fly off to continue its instinctually driven journey.

Bird entangles in mist net, credit: Pixabay

But even armed with unbridled enthusiasm, I’ve had little past luck at attracting birds to my backyard. I’ve tried at several houses over the course of time, and I remember my earnest effort at one in particular. At one of the multiple places I lived during the course of my PhD, we (I typically lived with 3-4 other people) had a wild backyard overgrown by greenery. Unexpected plants were always popping up during the year courtesy of either the house’s original owner or some former occupants. Banana trees and elephant ear plants thrived in the semi-tropical environment. We often had visiting wildlife including occasional Eastern cottontails. Understandably, I thought this would be my opportunity to successfully put out feeders.

In one instance, I attached a suet feeder to a tree and within a day or two it was gone. And I don’t mean just the suet was gone. The little green plastic coated wire cage that held it was gone. The chain that attached the cage to a tree limb was gone. I envisioned some sticky-fingered raccoon propped nearby, gorging itself on rendered fat and sunflower seeds. And, in a scenario familiar to many, squirrels made quick work of anything else I put out.

It’s only now, living in an apartment complex, set in a neighborhood with golf courses and exceedingly curated green spaces that I’ve been able to lure birds to my second-story balcony. The possibility struck me when a pair of noisy mockingbirds started landing on the railings and broadcasting their annoyance at sharing their space with me. It’s likely they had an established nest nearby. I experimentally put out some small piles of seed and noticed other varieties of birds start to come by. I’ve kept a list of who in particular I’ve seen since putting out feeders and so far the manifest after those initial mockingbirds includes grackles, brown thrashers, pairs of cardinals, mourning doves, house finches, tufted titmice, chickadees, a bluejay for a hot second, and my coveted hummingbirds.

John James Audubon’s painting of mockingbirds

One of my current delights is waiting for sightings of particular large nervous cardinal fledgling that broadcasts its presence with rapid stuttering chains of anxious chirps. If dad, complete with his bloom of red crest, isn’t lurking nearby, I generally can expect him soon after. The fledgling then seems to insist dad stuff his beak full of seeds even while within steps of the feeder. When I tell my sister about these sightings as she is propping up a bottle for her littlest, Otty, she nods in solidarity with the avian parent.

Tapping into this new world has let me start to make observations and understand the local birds better. Brown thrashers like to peck at the seed cakes I put out so violently they make the metal feeder ring out in protest. Chickadees are so much smaller than I remember – they are the pipsqueaks among the locals. My hummingbird sightings have so far coincided with overcast skies when the blistering air starts to cool. But during a time when the whole world seems to be on fire, the most gratifying benefit is the constant reminders to stop and find some stillness.