California Scrub-Jay. Photo: Morgan Heim

The Backyard Birds That Brought Life Into Focus

The COVID-19 pandemic has provided photographers all over the country with the opportunity to view nature through a new lens—one aimed intensively at their own homes. We asked three professional photographers to document the birdlife around them during their stay-at-home orders. Beginning today and over the next few weeks, we will publish their images, as well as a personal essay reflecting on each photographer's experience. We also plan to feature a selection of reader submissions in a future article, so share your own photos for the Bird From Home project on Instagram and other platforms by tagging them with #BirdFromHome. —The Editors 


The Backyard Birds That Brought Life Into Focus

When a globe-trotting photojournalist finally stops moving, she discovers the rich world that awaits her at home.

I’ve just unceremoniously dumped my husband on the arm of my backyard patio chair. A Steller’s Jay has landed on the fencepost at the end of the yard and is posing in glorious afternoon light. Philipp’s voice continues to emanate from my phone resting on the chair. He’s currently stationed as a biologist for Tuzigoot and Montezuma Castle national monuments almost 1,400 miles away. Until the jay showed up, we’d been having a video chat. “A bird just landed on the roof above you,” he says, now pointed squarely at the sky.

I look up to see one of my daily regulars, one half of a California Scrub-Jay couple. It’s not long before its mate shows up. I’d recognize those floppy tail feathers anywhere.

This is what has become of my afternoons, weather permitting. I live in solitude, just me and my dog, Javier, in the small coastal town of Astoria, Oregon. Normally at this time of year I’d be traveling for work as a conservation journalist. I had hoped to visit my husband in Arizona for the month of April, but as in much of the country, plans changed, jobs disappeared. In the wake of disappointment and initial panic brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic I’ve been seeking new outlets for my energy. Did I mention it’s just me and my dog? I’ve started to talk to him more than usual.

In a lot of ways, during shelter-in-place, I am discovering my home for the first time since moving here three years ago. I’ve never gotten to experience spring at home. I didn’t know its patterns and rhythms during this critical time of year. The pear tree blossomed in late March and the Black-capped Chickadees and scrub jays take turns perching amongst its branches. Gangs of robins hop and tussle in the grass dressed in their pompous Benjamin-Franklin waistcoats, looking sternly for worms and other goodies. I’ve learned that while they spend their days barking and chasing each other, and sometimes the scrub jays, they sing from the rooftops at night.

My email used to be the first thing I would check in the morning. Now it’s my window. And while I know Eurasian Collared-Doves are a poster child for the spread of non-native species across North America, I am grateful for their muffled cooing. It’s one of the first sounds that greets me almost every day.

One afternoon, a regular high-pitched beeping alerts me that a smoke detector needs changing. But when I venture into the hallway the beeping stops. I turn to go back to my office when I hear it again. Then the silence returns. The beeping does not come from the smoke detector. An Anna’s Hummingbird is cycling through sonic divebombs outside my second-floor window. He rises high into the sky before rocketing down towards the earth. The sound is created by his tail feathers as he sweeps through the lowest part of his dive, no doubt performing for females hiding in the bushes below.

My house has become a multi-tiered blind through which to spy on my avian neighbors. I’ve developed strategies for opening windows, creating little viewing stations, and refined the exact way to tiptoe up to the window when I see a flash of feathers. More than once a pair of chickadees has come to investigate a birdhouse in the garden. (Just the fact that they look feels like a compliment.) The basement is perhaps one of my best vantage points. I find myself sitting atop the washer and dryer peering out my basement window at the robins hopping in the grass. One of them practically comes right up to me.

As the weeks progress, so do our relationships. I’ve taken to sitting on the back patio to work, and a pair of Pine Siskins fly down to the feeder despite my proximity. I decide to set up a remote camera, and as I’m adjusting the lens, a siskin returns mere feet away. The crows chase ravens in the sky above. And when my neighbors remove the hedges by their driveway, the crows begin harvesting leftover twigs and vines for a nest they are building in another neighbor’s sequoia tree. I know pretty soon they will label everyone an interloper.

I have been so surprised by the amount of birds that come to my little corner—Rufous and Anna’s Hummingbirds, Varied Thrush, Spotted Towhee, American Goldfinch, Steller’s Jay, American Robin, Black-capped Chickadee, Pine Siskin, American Crow, Northern Flicker, Downy Woodpecker, Dark-eyed Junco, and my beloved California Scrub-Jays.

The floppy-tailed one lost his tail feathers today. I frantically Google “lost tail feathers” and feel relief learning they should grow back in a few weeks, if he can avoid whatever took them. This evening a Bald Eagle soared over my house; a resident pair nests in a tree across the street. I always knew there was a lot of activity in our backyard, but it had seemed more like background music while I was busy looking elsewhere. Now I realize it is the show.

When my husband and I talk we swap stories of the animals we saw that day. I’ve been such a consistent presence that the birds have started to treat me as just another part of the environment, flitting about the yard even when my dog and I are enjoying the ritual backyard video chat with Philipp. They help me pretend he’s not so far away. They make me feel I belong. They give me, in this new anchorless everyday, routine and rhythm. At last, I am at home.

A mated pair of California Scrub-Jays are among my favorite visitors to my yard. Photo: Morgan Heim
Black-tailed Deer graze on the slope outside my house. Photo: Morgan Heim
Black-headed Grosbeak. Photo: Morgan Heim
American Crow. Photo: Morgan Heim
A Townsend's Chipmunk regularly used our fence to run the perimeter of our yard and access different feeding spots. I've found our low-clung fence to be a popular wildlife highway. Photo: Morgan Heim
Capturing quiet moments with a Eurasian Collared-Dove at the end of a busy bird day. Photo: Morgan Heim
Citronella ants forage in my garden. Photo: Morgan Heim
Black-tailed Deer in my backyard. Photo: Morgan Heim
A Black-headed Grosbeak feeds from an Audubon window feeder at the back of my house. Photo: Morgan Heim
Usually the Cedar Waxwings stay up pretty high, but on one evening this bold bird came down for a closer inspection. Photo: Morgan Heim
A California Ground Squirrel that lives in burrows on the slope next to the house comes into the yard to forage and hang out with the fake animal friends. Photo: Morgan Heim
Battles erupt as Pine Siskins all try to fit at the feeder at the same time. Photo: Morgan Heim
A pair of European Starlings have nested under the eves of my neighbor's house. Though one of the most notorious invasive bird species to move across North America, I can't help but wonder at their beauty and tenacity. A cacophony of hungry voices echo from just beneath the roof as parents diligently deliver insect morsels to the nest throughout the afternoon. Photo: Morgan Heim
A California Scrub-Jay hop-flies up the tiers of my neighbors' home. Photo: Morgan Heim
A yearling Black-tailed Deer greets another deer. The pair exchanged several "kisses" before continuing to graze along the slope by my house. Photo: Morgan Heim
Eurasian Collared-Dove. Photo: Morgan Heim
With my husband deployed to a national monument in Arizona, it's just my dog, Javier, and I. He is like my shadow, and a constant source of comfort during these isolating times. Weather allowing we'll spend a little bit of time hanging out in the backyard. Photo: Morgan Heim
Varied Thrush. Photo: Morgan Heim
A European red slug ventures out after a spring rain on the Oregon coast. Photo: Morgan Heim
Classic coastal Pacific Northwest weather shrouds my surrounding hillside in mist. I'm lucky to live in a small city, but still be surrounded by a truly wild sense of forestland full of trees like Sitka Spruce, Giant Sequoia and even a few Coast Redwoods. Photo: Morgan Heim
Spotted Towhee. Photo: Morgan Heim
An American Robin stands sentinel atop my neighbor's house. Photo: Morgan Heim
Black-tailed Deer. Photo: Morgan Heim
A view of my little oasis on the Oregon coast. Photo: Morgan Heim
Northern Flickers. Photo: Morgan Heim
Clouds float by my house at sunset. Photo: Morgan Heim