You Should Be Looking at Birds
For a long time I have told people, with an amount of frustration, that I liked bird-watching before it was cool to like bird-watching. This isn’t actually true, as it has always been kind of cool to like bird-watching. Basically, all the cool guys of history have liked it.
Aristotle was super into bird-watching. He was also arrogant (as many of the great thinkers throughout time have been and still are), so he made sweeping false statements about birds. He saw birds disappear in the winter and, even though many early scientists were already onto migration, he told everyone that some birds actually didn’t leave in the winter, but rather hid. He took it a step further and said that some birds transformed into other birds — and still other birds transformed into entirely other things. European redstarts, Aristotle said, reshuffled themselves into European robins in the winter. And the geese that arrived in Greece in the fall, he was sure, bloomed from barnacles that grew on sea driftwood. To this day, we still call that species “barnacle goose.”
The renowned ornithologist John James Audubon was, by all accounts, relatively well-liked. (I know this because I Googled “Did John Audubon have friends?” and the internet said yes he did. He was also married, so two for two.) Pretty much all the famous ornithologists in the early years look like the bad boys of science. (There are a few ladies in there, too: Shout out to Florence Augusta Merriam Bailey, who wrote the first modern birding field guide; and Margaret Morse Nice, who studied the heck out of song sparrows and recorded hierarchies in chicken populations decades before a man coined the term “pecking order.”)
The list of cool-guy celebrity bird-watchers is long and diverse. (That’s kind of misleading. They’re almost all straight, upwardly mobile, white guys. But they come from diverse lines of work!) Cool guy president Jimmy Carter is a birder. So is the cool guy of literature Jonathan Franzen. Coolest all-around guy Paul McCartney decorated his early homes with bird pictures (specifically, he was into ducks) and wrote the song “Blackbird.” Look at all these cool guys who have been into birds!
And my mom watches birds. A lot of moms in Oregon watch birds because if you’re a person who stays home in the Pacific Northwest, you’d be crazy not to. Oregon is lousy with birds. There are more pine trees than anyone knows what to do with. Well, any human. The birds are great at knowing what to do with all those pine trees.
You don’t need anything but stillness, bird seed, and a little bit of outdoor space (a window sill is enough).
My personal mythology includes a story that is not necessarily true about sitting with my mom at the kitchen window and watching birds while she romantically mused over species names and drew quaint pencil sketches of unique sparrows in a genuine-seeming field notebook. In the fantasy version of this story, I am small enough to curl my legs up underneath me on a kitchen chair, and she is the kind of mom who has made me hot chocolate in the morning, and we are the kind of mother-and-daughter who can be quiet at a window. All three of those latter details are definitely fictional, but I liked the optics.
Here are some things that definitely were true about my upbringing as it surrounded birds:
- My mom did have a lot of bird feeders, and they did, indeed, hang outside our kitchen window. Which was a nice kitchen window — much bigger than any kitchen window I’ve had as an adult — with a view of Mount Hood that I entirely took for granted.
- One of the bird feeders was a suet feeder, and it attracted, usually in the afternoon, what seemed like tens of thousands if not trillions of bushtits. Bushtits are, consequently, the cutest living thing. They are ping-pong balls with thistle-thin beaks and anime-black eyes and they bop around and you just want to grab them and cuddle them, which you cannot, because they are fast. As children, my sister and I could, indeed, stare at these birds for a long time. We lost our minds over how freaking adorable they were. We devolved into baby talk while we gushed at them: “Ohhh, wook at da baby widdow oodie woodie woos!” “Oodie woodie woo” became the catchall term for all cute things in the world, and we used it so much that it was my first, seventh, and one hundredth internet password. These days we have to have passwords that are $tuK282019$918321!!Bdjaidio!!!!Jaidfa or we are automatically locked out of our computers. But in the beginning of the internet, your password could be “oodiewoodiewoo,” or, later, “00diew00diew00,” and that was a good password.
- My friend Devon had zebra finches and I went over to her house after school three times in elementary school and while I looked at her zebra finches, I thought, “I like birds.”
- When I told my mom about Devon’s zebra finches she told me that she also once had zebra finches, in an apartment in New York, early in her marriage with my dad. They were named Pooper and Tooter, and according to the story, they were allowed to fly around the apartment. I liked the optics of this, too.
- My mom absolutely, at some point in her life, kept a bird journal and wrote down the names of birds. She also definitely, to this day, has a penciled-all-over Sibley’s Bird Guide, and she bought me one of my own when I graduated high school and went to college. I still have that exact same one. It has had to be taped along the spine a lot of times; it does get a lot of use.
In college, I decided that it would really add to my accumulating manic-pixie-dream-girl cred to be a little too into birds, and to join the Audubon Society. I learned what cedar waxwings were, and when I took boys out to the lake in Walla Walla, I would make up a name for whatever waterfowl was out there and wait until the boy would say, “Oh look! Ducks!” And I would say, “Actually, those are so-and-sos,” and I imagined the boys would be impressed and also curious about me. They’d think, “She is so INTERESTING. No girl has ever taken me to a lake and schooled me about waterfowl. We should kiss.” Mostly, this was for show.
I pause here to say that I am posting this at the beginning of April 2021. That means two things: 1) It is about to be migration season; and 2) we are well into our second year of a global pandemic, and everyone has to stay inside and not go to bars or concerts or even movies or even really grocery stores if they can help it. Maybe we are done with reading, baking, television, and Instagram. So if you didn’t already jump on the bandwagon last year, I might argue to you that nothing you can do will give you quite the same kind of pleasure as looking at birds will give you.
And it is so, so easy to look at birds! It is way easier than making sourdough bread.
The honest-to-god truth is that I didn’t really understand looking at birds until I met my husband, Luke. I definitely tried to get him to like me by being quirky about my love of birds, as I had done hundreds of times in the past. But Luke called my bluff, and he got into it, too. And then, in a blink, it was out of control. We were both honest-to-god super into looking at birds. This seriousness started with a well-documented trip to a bird festival in southern Louisiana, where we very nearly died in a lightning storm while camping on the beach, and we saw a swarm of indigo buntings and believed — I am not sure it was mistakenly — that we’d seen God.
If you want to get into bird-watching, the one thing you probably need to buy is birdseed. If you can get your hands on it, something that’s mostly just sunflower seeds will go the furthest in attracting the colorful songbirds we all covet. They do sell birdseed at Costco, and Petco, and all hardware stores.
Luke taught me that actual bird feeders are sort of a formality; you can just throw the birdseed all around and the birds will figure it out. You can also easily rig a bird feeder using a plastic bottle. Or there’s the peanut-butter-on-a-pinecone method that is fun for kids to make and all the way biodegradable.
You do not need binoculars (although, sure, that’s a fun addition; just don’t assume you’ll figure them out quickly), and you do not need a fancy scope. You don’t need anything but stillness, birdseed, and a little bit of outdoor space (a window sill is enough). Put the food out, then sit still. Read a book. Give it a day. And when the birds show up, watch them. House sparrows — which will show up first and are heartbreakingly undervalued — are fascinating and strange and have an incredible social order. Notice the tiny differences between the birds you see and start to look them up online. The online birding community is weirdly nice; sort of like you’re back in kindergarten again and everyone wants to share and help each other learn stuff.
The time it takes to notice a bird — like, really notice it — is time spent outside of yourself.
Also: Turn off all the music and podcasts and TV shows and oven fans in your house and listen. See if you can start to match sounds of the birds with pictures of the birds. You should be able to differentiate between robins, sparrows, starlings, pigeons, and cardinals pretty quickly. That feels like a big accomplishment. Then you can start watching videos about, say, how chickadees have a million different calls and they’re all for different purposes.
Here are six birds to start with:
Aristotle and his thinking ilk have historically liked looking at birds because they’re mysterious and funny and because they make you ask questions:
- “Why does she have that piece of string?”
- “Are they pecking each other in anger or are they in love?”
- “Does this pigeon like me or is she protecting a nest back there?”
- “What does a nest for one of those little brown jobs look like, anyway?”
I have a weekly scheduled “unusual bird interruption” alarm that goes off on my phone every week in my classes. We watch a bird video for something like two minutes. Afterward, I always say, “If you’re stuck or having a hard time in the world, remember that we share the earth with these creatures! They’re out there, every minute of every day, living their lives, being amazing, and it’s bigger than whatever little thing is going on in our individual lives.” Well, something like that. Lately I’ve just said, “We share the earth with these CREATURES!” And I hope they get it.
For the past several years, I’ve been collecting the emails I get from students — former and current — where they send me pictures of birds they’ve seen out their windows or while on walks. I take it as such a triumph: It means they’re looking while they are living. The time it takes to notice a bird — like, really notice it — is time spent outside of yourself. We all need it.
And this, too: It shouldn’t be just straight cis upwardly mobile white guys who look at birds. My favorite famous nonwhite bird-watcher is Corina Newsome, who posts on Instagram as @hood__naturalist. You should spend an hour watching this awesome conversation with six Black birders on “Birding While Black” that was recorded last year for Instagram Live. Also, check out the #blackbirdersweek hashtag on Instagram and Twitter. Be a part of the movement to make bird-watching radically inclusive.