SOUTH COAST — Birding is suddenly hot.
The National Audubon Society and Cornell Ornithology Lab both report that the number of people downloading online bird identification programs doubled this spring over last.
Apparently a lot of people are finding that watching birds from their windows and in their yards is a social-distance-friendly activity with a lot of perks.
Birds are beautiful, of course, sometimes sporting bright colors or vivid patterns. Even those that at first seem dowdy often have subtle highlights or delicate designs that are revealed upon closer inspection.
Identifying birds is a big part of birding. More than just feathers, bird identification also involves closely observing many other features, including: body shape and size; habitat; flight pattern; the length, shape, and color of the bill. Calls and songs, nests, and other characteristics may play a role in identification, as well. The combination of learning the differences and developing the skill of distinguishing details provides birders plenty of problem-solving challenge.
Checking a just-identified bird off a prepared list is a sort of collection activity, but birding is more than appreciating good looks and figuring out who’s who.
For a start, features used in identification are also clues to the birds’ lives and can give interesting insights to nature. For example, the chickadees and the nuthatches take turns at by backyard suet feeder. They’re about the same size, though their shape and markings are different: the chestnut-backed chickadee is plumper, has blocks of gray/brown/white/russet (with a black cap and bib), and has a shorter bill; the red-breasted nuthatch is more spindle-shaped, has more muted coloring (gray above and light below, with bold black and white stripes through the eye), and has a more probing bill.
Bird watching includes observing birds in their native habitat, discovering for oneself what they do and deciphering -- or wondering -- how they do it. Both chickadees and nuthatches are lithe enough to feed upside down from the bottom of the feeder if necessary -- though the nuthatch seems to be better at the upside-down part. While they both eat mostly insects, chickadees hunt more on twigs and leaves with their tiny bills, while nuthatches hunt more by probing in bark with their longer bills. (How the heck can a nuthatch swallow uphill while feeding upside down?)
Where to begin?
Look, listen, and ask: What is that bird? How is it different from that other bird? What is it doing? What is its life like? …and all the other questions you can come up with.
There’s a lot of help available without leaving home: Books such as "Sibley’s Field Guide" or "Peterson’s Field Guide," websites such as Cornell University School of Ornithology’s www.allaboutbirds.org, and computer/phone applications such as Merlin and ebird offer easy entry.
In most places you’ll be able to watch birds through your window or while sitting on your porch, but you can improve the odds by feeding them. Note, however, that feeding birds can bring potential harm, too, by increasing crowding, spreading disease and luring predators. For guidance on backyard bird feeders, visit: http://library.fws.gov/bird_publications/feed.html or http://www.birds.cornell.edu/pfw/AboutBirdsandFeeding/abtbirds_index.html.
Beautiful and fascinating, birds offer an opportunity to look and listen, to observe and learn.
And some of them might come to your house and entertain you.
Marty Giles is owner/operator of Wavecrest Discoveries, long-running nature guiding service on the southern Oregon Coast. Like the majority of personal service businesses, most Wavecrest offerings are currently suspended in adherence to state distancing guidelines. You can nevertheless visit via email or online, firstname.lastname@example.org, or www.facebook.com/wavecrestdiscoveries Questions and comments about local natural history are always welcome. www.wavecrestdiscoveries.com.
NOTE: Our backyard friends are in trouble.
An extensive study of North American birds, published last fall in Science, showed a 29% drop in the number of birds between 1970 and 2018: Nearly a third of our birds vanished in the last 50 years. Other resources identify loss of habitat and toxins, such as pesticides, as very probable causes. You can help by maintaining bird-friendly native vegetation, not using toxins in your yard, and buying organic.