I am living under the flight path of major construction. A Swainson’s hawk is plucking cottonwood branches from one neighbor’s tree and taking them over my house to another neighbor’s tree to build a nest.
Lately, a gang of 60 or 70, puffed up and strutting around in shiny black feather jackets, shows up along our back wall – no motorcycles for them – they’re common grackles. They even scare away the bully robin that keeps the house finches from the black oil sunflower seed we’ve put out.
A pair of northern flickers has been visiting the seed cake feeder. We know they are male and female – he has the red mustache. The black and white pair of downy woodpeckers are visiting regularly. The male has the red neck spots.
One small, yellow-breasted stranger shows up every day at the nyger thistle seed feeder. It’s a female lesser goldfinch, not a regular species here. We recognize that her yellow, black and white feather scheme is arranged differently from the American goldfinch’s.
I look forward to the springtime antics of birds in my backyard, but this year, millions of people are discovering them for the first time in their own yards and neighborhoods. Suddenly, it’s cool to notice birds and nature. It’s almost cool to be called a birdwatcher.
Would you like to be a birdwatcher, or a birder? Here’s how.
Step 1: Notice birds
Watch for bird-like shapes in the trees and bushes and on lawns. Watch for movement. This time of year, birds are making a lot of noise and song. See if you can trace the song to the bird with his beak uplifted and open.
Step 2: Watch the birds for a while
Are they looking for food like the red-breasted nuthatches climbing tree trunks and branches?
Are they performing a mating ritual like the Eurasian collared-dove males that launch themselves from the top of a tree or utility pole, winging high only to sail down again in spirals?
Are they picking through the grass like common grackles do, looking for grubs to eat? Are they flying by with a beak full of long wispy dead grasses for nest building like the house sparrows do?
Step 3: Make notes about what you see
Or sketches, if you are inclined.
Step 4: Bird ID
But if you want to talk to other birdwatchers, you need to do a little studying.
You are in luck if you live in the Cheyenne area. In 2018, Pete Arnold and I put together a picture book of 104 of our most common birds, “Cheyenne Birds by the Month.” You’d be surprised how many birds you probably already know. Go to www.yuccaroadpress.com/books/ to examine current purchasing options.
You can also go to www.allaboutbirds.org/. You can type in a bird name or queries like “birds with red breasts” (which covers all shades from pink and purple to orange and russet). If you click on “Get instant ID help” it will prompt you to download the free Merlin app. It will give you size comparison, color, behavior and habitat choices and then produce an illustrated list of possibilities – nearly as good as sending a photo to your local birder.
The best way to learn birds is to go birdwatching with someone who knows more than you. But because that probably isn’t possible this spring, settle for a pair of binoculars and honing your eye for noticing field marks – the colors and shapes that distinguish one bird species’ appearance from another’s.
Keep in mind that even expert birders can’t identify every bird – sometimes the light is bad and sometimes, and often for a species as variable as the red-tailed hawk, it doesn’t look exactly like it’s picture in the field guides by Peterson, Kaufman or Sibley.
Step 5: Go where the birds are
In Wyoming, that is generally wherever there is water – and trees and shrubs. At least that’s where you’ll find the most bird species per hour of birding. But the grasslands are special. Drive down a rural road, like nearby Chalk Bluffs Road, and watch to see what birds flock along the shoulders and collect on the barbwire fence: meadowlarks, lark buntings, horned larks. Watch out for traffic.
Step 6: Invite the birds to visit you
Plant trees and shrubs and flowers and use no pesticides. Put out a bird bath, put out a feeder. Keep them clean. Keep cats indoors. I have more detailed advice on bringing birds to your backyard here: https://cheyennebirdbanter.wordpress.com/2018/11/01/basic-wild-bird-feeding/.
Step 7: Join other birdwatchers
Some of the nerdiest birders I know will say they prefer to bird alone, but they still join their local Audubon chapter. In Cheyenne, that’s the Cheyenne-High Plains Audubon Society. People of all levels of birding expertise are welcome. Sign up for free email newsletters today and join when you are ready.
Step 8: Give back to the birds
People do not make life easy for birds. Our activities can affect birds directly and indirectly. Today, I read that the popular neonicotinoid pesticides affect birds’ abilities to successfully migrate if they eat even a small amount of treated seed, or an insect that has eaten treated plant material.
Writing letters to lawmakers is one option, but so is planting native plants and recording your bird observations through citizen or community science projects like the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird, as well as taking part in other conservation activities.
Step 9: Call yourself a birdwatcher or a birder
You can do this as soon as you start Step 1, noticing birds. Not everyone does. Welcome to the world of birdwatching!