When 2 p.m. rolls around at the office, it’s primetime for a pick-me-up. Some of us reach for a second cup of coffee; others succumb to a sugary treat. But what if there was another way—a better way—to recharge our brains during the 9-to-5 slog?
There are always the birds outside your window. That’s right, whether you’re in a billion-dollar high-rise or a suburban stripmall, just outside your office window is a world like no other, where Red-tailed Hawks dive-bomb pigeons, American Kestrels battle Common Ravens, and hummingbirds flash by.
For some, the excitement is almost too much. “It’s a distraction,” says Nathaniel Miller, director of conservation at Audubon Great Lakes, which is located in a large building on the Chicago waterfront. “We have to close the blinds during important meetings so people pay attention.”
For others, maintaining the appearance of working is part of the thrill. “Office birding is more fun when it’s illicit, when you can sneak a bit of your hobby out of your professional day,” says Nick Lund, a senior manager with the National Parks Conservation Association and author of “The Birdist's Rules of Birding" columns. “It’s more satisfying to look out the window and see if you can get four species while still participating in the meeting.”
So, how can you get in on the chicanery?
First things first: You don’t have to arrive at the crack of dawn to see a bird from your window. While the morning does tend to busier overall (birds are out looking for breakfast and, in spring, a mate) you can find birds at almost any time of day. Here are some further tips for boosting your returns during working hours.
Know What Kinds of Birds to Look For
If you’re staking out a window in a multi-story building, keep your eyes peeled for raptors such as Peregrine Falcons, Red-tailed Hawks, American Kestrels, and Cooper’s Hawks. “They nest right here in the skyscrapers of Chicago,” Miller says of Peregrines. “If you give it 10 minutes, you have a better chance of seeing one.”
On luckier days, you might catch a raptor scanning for prey from a perch on a nearby building. “Cooper’s Hawks come in and hunt pigeons and sparrows,” Martha Harbison, network content editor at Audubon, says. She points to a rusty water tower across the street from her Manhattan office. “They’ll sit there and rustle their feathers, then swoop.” In fact, if you can’t find a predator, just observe its prey. When pigeons sense an attack, their behavior shifts; a single flock might split in two or simply scatter.
For an office that overlooks water or trees, the entertainment might include eagles, warblers, owls, woodpeckers, and a variety of waterbirds. Sara Fuentes, a board member of the Audubon Society of the District of Columbia, a chapter of the National Audubon Society, has seen Bald Eagles flying during meetings near the Potomac River. The suburbs offer an even better spread. “I think I’ve gotten almost to 80 species from my office,” says Nick Hawvermale, an engineer who works near a pond in Westchester, New York. He’s recorded Green Herons, Brant, and Wood Ducks by simply peeping through his window.
But no matter where you work, be sure to stay on high alert during spring and fall migration, when hundreds of species are cruising past offices around the country. For instance, Manhattan’s Bryant Park—a nine-acre scrap of land that’s surrounded by towering skyscrapers—becomes a hotspot for American Woodcock between March and May. Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, birders can spot loads of Yellow-rumped Warblers in city parks in October.
Keep a Stash of Basic Birding Gear at Your Desk
To get started, you only need a good pair of eyes—or ears, if you’re as gifted as Fuentes. “I was working [at my office] and heard a Blue Jay call,” she says. That was enough to tip her off so she could also spot it on the wing.
But for those of us without superpowers, it’s fine to fall back on the basics: a pair of binoculars and a field guide. (If you’re in the market, check out Audubon's binocular guide, download our free Audubon app, and then see what other guides might be good for you.) “If I go to [indoor] meetings I will generally have my binoculars with me,” John Rowden, director of community conservation at Audubon, says. “It’s standard equipment.”
Want to up your office birding game even more? Try installing a spotting scope by the best window. (And yes, there’s a guide for those as well.)
Turn a Sighting Into an Office Party
Office birding is better when you share the experience with your desk buddies. If you’re gazing out the window on your walk to the bathroom and spot something spectacular—a raptor death spiral, for example—let the entire office know. Send an email or drop a note in your favorite messaging app (why not create a #spotted hashtag or channel?). “Somebody will notice [a bird] and it with either go out in email or Slack, and everyone will get up,” Harbison says. “It’s like a little stampede.”
If your coworkers don’t seem to give a hoot, a) we still think you’re cool and b) there are millions of other birders out there who might care. Whether you’re close enough to get a smartphone shot or have a camera with a long lens, nab a photo of what you see and upload it to eBird, a crowdsourcing platform that collects data on bird sightings for sporting and scientific purposes.
“If people are observing birds from their windows, it would be great to capture that information—particularly in urban environments,” Rowden says. “Our understanding of urban conservation needs to grow.”
Make Your Office More Bird-Friendly
Big, glass windows are the key to good office birding (sorry, basement dwellers). But they also pose a huge risk to birds; each year, 365 to 988 million avians die from crashing into windows in North America. So what can you do to make sure your thrill doesn’t kill?
For starters, if your building allows it, try adding removable decals to any exterior-facing glass (if you're crafty, perhaps you'll enjoy these DIY ones.) You might also want to move plants away from the windows; for birds speeding by buildings, your favorite office succulent might look like attractive habitat—until it’s not. If there are feeders near your building, see if you can have them moved a safe distance from any windows, as feeding stations can lead to an increase in bird strikes.
Another trick is to simply close your blinds when you leave for the night. While you’re at it, turn down the lights, especially on spring and fall evenings. “The collisions are really bad during migration because so many birds are traveling through,” Miller says. And because most of them migrate at night, illuminated buildings have a higher chance of attracting and disorienting them.
If All Else Fails, Cheat a Bit
That’s what working from home is for, right? “I’ll be in the middle of a call and stand up and watch a hummingbird,” Rowden, who works from his home office in Los Angeles, says. To upgrade his view and attract more species, he plants native vegetation around his home. “Fortunately, I work for Audubon so it’s not that big of a faux pas to just completely lose focus and stare out the window,” he adds.
Or better yet, follow Lund’s advice: Make up an excuse to leave the office and go on a real birding foray. “The first time, fake sick. It’s the best,” he writes in Birdist Rule #88. “After that, you’ve got to mix it up.” (Kids, dogs, repair people, and grandparents are all fair game).
Of course, you could risk it all and invite your boss along. Just be sure you both set your calendars to “busy.”