Birding the Backyard

A writer finds a new hobby.

This is the first column in a series on backyard birding. 

I’m sort of a professional amateur. I jump headfirst into specialties that ought to take ages to really dig into. Over the years, I’ve picked up sewing (both quilting and cross stitching), genealogy, book collecting, baking, and gardening. This is not to say I’m quick to adopt each skill—I’ve labored over wedding gifts with my bare hands until they were no longer bad, and thanks to a long, obsessive phase where I planted every leftover seed or pit, I’m still nursing an 8-year-old, 7-foot-tall lemon plant.

So birding, with its nuances and specificity, is a natural fit. But until recently, I spent most of my adult life in cities—first Pittsburgh, then Brooklyn. My Greenpoint loft was on the second floor of an old sewing factory in an industrial area known as the IBZ (Industrial Business Zone), just a few feet away from an EPA Superfund site hailed as one of the nation’s “most polluted waterways.” Not the best setting for birding.

But during my last five years in Brooklyn, I lived in a small house, with its own very tiny backyard and a window looking out. My first spring there, I bought a small feeder and watched the birds hop from my next-door neighbor’s large tree over to my yard for a meal. I didn’t spend much time trying to identify my visitors—it just didn’t occur to me. But I did succumb to a few poignant bouts of alley cat-induced heartbreak (I don’t eat animals because I love them too much).

To really catch the birding bug, I needed to leave the city. Which is what we did, about three months ago. My husband and I had a baby—our only—in February of last year, and wanted to find more outdoor space for our daughter. We scoured the suburbs until we found a secluded house in Westchester County. In the flurry of our move, I forgot my bird feeder and my squirrel feeder in Brooklyn.

I searched for a new feeder, but the multitude of options online quickly felt overwhelming. As week two of being feeder-less wore on, I gave in and ordered the same feeder I had had in Brooklyn, chosen purely for its aesthetically pleasing brass. Three days later, I had the feeder, but I’d forgotten the S hook. Three days after that, I was in business. I hung the feeder up 10 feet from my kitchen window, filled it with the same black sunflower seeds as always, and went inside to watch.

I don’t know how birds spot feeders. Can they smell them? Do they know what bird feeders LOOK LIKE? Do they network with other birds to let them know when a new source of bird seed appears? Do they think of their food as “bird seed” or just “seed”? After a few hours though, there they were: birds.

It was obvious from almost the first appearance of the first “bird” that something very different was afoot. Without pigeons, 50 percent of the species I could identify were eliminated. I did see cardinals—my other bird. But there were more birds—so many different KINDS of birds. They were so clearly distinct from one another, not just in appearance but also in attitude, in behavior and song.

As I stood watching from my spot from the kitchen, it occurred to me, finally: I must get to know these birds. What are they and who are they? Would they like me to feed them something better or different, if it were up to them? Would they prefer a different style of feeder? What if I set up a live-streaming bird cam so A LOT of people could watch the undoubtedly very special birds in my front yard. What’s going on in the BACK yard right now?

I texted my sister-in-law Katie, a birder, a blurry iPhone photo of a deep gray little bird variety I was seeing in droves at the feeder: “Dark-eyed Junco!” she replied seconds later. Her knowledge amazed me. It was just stored there in her brain: She recognized the bird. It had a name. It was a specific being. I was suddenly and deeply appalled at my own lack of information. “I must find out everything,” I said to my husband. “I need to know their names, all of them.”

I got a color-coded bird identification book. The first birds I identified on my own were Blue Jays. That’s embarrassing, but I had to check the book to be sure.

That was more than two months ago. Now, as we welcome spring, my daughter and I sit in the kitchen each morning and we watch the birds at the feeder, chowing down on their breakfast as we eat our own. The other morning we identified a new bird: the Black-capped Chickadee: “Black cap and bib?” I read from the book: check. “White cheek?” Yes. We listened to a recording of its song to be sure. I gleefully wrote it down in the tiny notebook I keep on the windowsill, next to the bird book.

Spring is a good time to embark on new projects. My daughter, who is just learning to walk and talk, squeals when she sees the birds take off from the feeder. She laughs at the squirrels who hang upside down, scattering sunflower seeds all over the ground each morning. I’m a writer who, at the age of 37, has discovered a fascinating new pastime in her own yard. Naturally, I'll be writing about it here, for Audubon.

Next time, Laura investigates how to stop her house of many windows from becoming a death trap for birds.