As Virginians contribute to our national collective effort to slow the spread of COVID-19 through social distancing, a simple window or short walk offers an opportunity to connect to the rhythms of the natural world by observing common bird species.
“If you go outside in the morning right now, you can hear the ‘dawn chorus,’ the cacophony of bird calls as males are setting up their territories in spring,” said Robyn Puffenbarger, a Virginia Cooperative Extension Master Gardener passionate about birdwatching. “You can tell the change of seasons by their calls. I find that incredibly relaxing.”
Extension Master Gardeners are trained volunteer educators who work within their local communities to encourage and promote environmentally sound horticulture practices through sustainable landscape management education and training.
Puffenbarger began observing birds after a mysterious species visited her table on a picnic and she was curious as to what species it was. She recommends birding as an easy way to learn about nature and a great way to pass time while social distancing.
Dana Hawley, professor in the Department of Biological Sciences in the Virginia Tech College of Science agrees.
“You don’t have to leave the house to see birds, and you don’t even have to know what type of bird you’re looking at to enjoy watching a bird’s behavior as it interacts with its environment,” Hawley said. “And the benefits may go beyond simple enjoyment. Recent studies suggest that connecting with nature may directly improve our mental and physical health. Activities like birdwatching, which can be done from a window or porch, may be one of the easiest ways for us to lower our stress and anxiety levels in a time of national crisis.”
How to start birding
For Virginians practicing social distancing, all you need to begin observing birds is a window.
“If you have trees outside and you look for birds in the morning, you will likely see bird activity pretty quickly,” said Hawley. “The next few weeks are a great time to spot birds moving in the trees because the leaves haven’t come back yet, so it’s a lot easier to see the treetops.”
While where you live will determine which birds you are most likely to see, there are a few common species all Virginians can begin looking for.
Hawley recommends looking for the following common birds:
- Blue jay
- Eastern bluebird
- Carolina chickadee
- Crow, two species are common! Listen to hear the difference between Fish and American
- Tufted titmouse
- Downy woodpecker
- European starling
- American goldfinch
- House sparrow
- House finch
- Mourning dove
- Rock pigeon
- Northern mockingbird
- Northern cardinal
“Right now, goldfinches are molting so their feathers can look fun and mottled, like they’ve had yellow paint splashed on them,” said Hawley. “You can also look for indigo buntings and migratory warblers, which can be a little harder to spot. Many warblers are just passing through at this time of year, so this is a great time to see them before they continue north to nest.”
If you’d like to attract some of these species to your backyard, a birdbath or bird feeder is a great way to bring in more birds. For a list of bird food appropriate for attracting different types of birds, click here. To lure in warblers like yellow-rumped warblers — affectionately called “butter butts” for the yellow on their backside — which normally hang out high in the trees, Hawley recommends putting out mealworms on a raised platform.
“It takes practice to be able to identify birds, so if you are just starting out don’t get discouraged. The more you practice, the better you get at spotting birds and identifying them,” said Hawley, who adds that you don’t need to know a bird’s species in order to enjoy watching it interact with its environment.
If you find that you enjoy observing birds, there are a number of free bird identification apps that you can download with a smartphone, as well as online courses like those offered by Cornell Bird Lab.
“Birdwatching is a great excuse to get outside, take a chance to breathe, and put things in perspective,” said Hawley. “Birds are a reminder that we are part of something bigger.”
“Birds are everywhere. Even in the most urban environments, birds are there,” said Puffenbarger. “There are no large mammals in Antarctica, but there are birds.”
In the future, as the need for social distancing wanes and communities begin the process of recovery, birding can also be a social hobby.
The Virginia Cooperative Extension Master Gardener program offers training on backyard ecology and gardening for wildlife — including birds — and the chance to connect with other local gardening enthusiasts. The Virginia Master Naturalist program also offers volunteer opportunities for those passionate about wildlife. Bird clubs and organized bird walks also connect beginning birders with experienced birders who can share tips and tricks for birding in your area.
Interested in learning more about gardening? Virginia Cooperative Extension Master Gardeners can help. Master Gardeners bring the resources of Virginia’s land-grant universities – Virginia Tech and Virginia State University – to the people of the commonwealth. Contact your local Master Gardeners through your Extension office or click here to learn more about gardening in Virginia and the Virginia Extension Master Gardener program.
– Devon Johnson