Here’s How to (Safely) Bird-Watch During Lockdown

Birding can be a lark, but don’t run a-fowl of safety guidelines

A male pine warbler perched in a redbud tree.
Even if you're stuck in the city, birding is a great social distancing hobby—you can start from your window. Pictured: A male pine warbler perched in a redbud tree. Teresa Kopec via Getty Images

Public interest in birding is soaring during the COVID-19 pandemic. As the Associated Press reports, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has seen downloads of its free bird identification app, Merlin Bird ID, increase 102 percent in March and April compared to last year, and unique visits to the National Audubon Society’s website are up by a half-million.

“There’s a sudden interest in birds, and for good reason,” John Fitzpatrick, executive director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, tells Mary Forgione of the Los Angeles Times. “It’s a great, hopeful hobby.”

In addition to governmental social distancing regulations, birding organizations and experts are encouraging members to take the necessary precautions to be safe while birding. These measure include limiting unnecessary travel in favor of birding from home, writes Ted Floyd for the American Birding Association’s (ABA) blog. “Every single one of us can tell a story of a good bird, or even a great bird, found right around home,” Floyd, editor of ABA's Birding magazine, writes.

Birding can be done in any environment—even in densely populated cities.

“If you’re not already a bird-watcher, you probably don’t really notice birds, but they are around us all the time, even in a city. With a little practice you’ll be amazed at what you can see,” writes David Sibley, author of The Sibley Guide to Birds, in a New York Times op-ed.

In urban environments, Sibley suggests checking the tops of trees, bushes and overhead wires for birds. In general, “edges,” like patches of weeds, or the boundary of a lawn, are good places to find birds. In Slate, Nicholas Lund, a manager for the National Parks Conservation Association and an avid birder, suggests using binoculars and digital resources such as Cornell’s BirdCast, the Merlin Bird ID app, and the digital Sibley guide to aid in tracking and identifying different species.

Also, as some states begin to reopen beaches to the public, the National Audubon Society is calling on beachgoers to keep an eye out for nesting birds—and warns not to get too close. In a statement, the Society notes that because of social distancing measures, Audubon staff and volunteers have not yet installed signage on beaches to indicate nesting spots.

“Shorebirds are beginning to nest right now, and both the nests, eggs, and little hatchlings can blend right in with the color of the sand,” says Karen Hyun, vice president for coastal conservation at the National Audubon Society, in a statement. “Social distancing is not just important for people—it’s important that we keep our distance from nesting birds too.” Among other measures, Audubon recommends that visitors give nesting birds at least 150 feet of space and remove trash or food scraps from the beach, which attract animals that might eat nesting chicks.

Many birders across the country are also participating in socially distanced birding competitions. Organizers for the Great Wisconsin Birdathon, which runs from April 15 to October 15, have instituted new rules to encourage backyard birding, solo teams or teams that collaborate from different locations. This way, birders can compete without gathering in groups, reports Mike Ivey for the Wisconsin State Journal. Similarly, birders taking part in the World Series of Birding were allowed to participate from their homes in 18 states instead of flying to New Jersey for the competition, reports Jon Hurdle for NJ Spotlight.

For those who can’t leave the house, online birding alternatives are also available. The Audubon Society recently launched a page on its website, “The Joy of Birds,” where avian enthusiasts can explore uplifting bird-related content: sweet pictures of baby birds, livestreams of migrating sandhill cranes, features on the “kinky” mating rituals of the crested auklet, and more. Visitors can also explore over 300,000 photos and 20,000 audio recordings of different species from the free Internet Bird Collection, hosted by Cornell’s Macaulay Library.

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