Bird watching soars during pandemic

A northern flicker chases away a house sparrow trying to steal breakfast at a backyard bird feeder. People across the country are discovering the joys of bird watching.  | Mike Sturk photo

Participation has increased significantly in a project that converts backyard enthusiasts into conservation researchers

Bird watching and backyard feeding are flying high.

The pandemic has opened up a bright new world into backyard birds as many people, socially distancing at home, are staring out their windows.

“One of the really great spots about the pandemic is watching birds from home. It’s a great source of entertainment and solace. They make us feel happier and more relaxed. So it’s a great thing to do as we all need a little pick-me-up during the pandemic,” said Kerrie Wilcox of Birds Canada in Port Rowan, Ont.

Wilcox is Canadian leader of Project FeederWatch, a citizen science initiative that monitors bird numbers and their health throughout North America.

She said FeederWatch turns people’s bird feeding hobby into research conservation. On designated days of the week, people count the numbers and species of backyard birds and then send their tally in online.

“FeederWatch is 34 years old and have fantastic data sets. We track their movements in the winter and long-term trends. We can see which birds are doing well and which ones need our conservation attention,” she said.

During the pandemic, numbers of contributors to the monitoring program have soared. It runs from November to April.

“Participation in project FeederWatch has grown almost 30 percent compared with last year. We had 3,100 participants this time last year and now we have over 4,000 in Canada,” Wilcox said.

“I think it’s attracted more people with young families because it’s something they could do with their kids at home and I suspect people working from home too. There’s just a lot more interest in backyard birds because we’ve been spending more time at home.

“I get a lot of emails from people saying they signed up their kids. I spoke to somebody yesterday that signed up her seven-year-old so that while she was homeschooling her, they could participate.”

Meanwhile, 14-year-old Liam Bennett of Binbrook, Ont., has managed to feed two birds with one scone, while distance learning from home.

Long interested in science and bird watching, Bennett, a Grade 9 student, said the pandemic created an opportunity to enter data for Project FeederWatch while completing 40 hours of volunteer community work as part of his high school curriculum.

“I finish online school and then I watch the birds for about 30 minutes each day. I write down the tallies on Friday night and then go onto the website and submit the tallies to Bird Studies Canada,” he said.

“I think it’s a pretty good idea to spend some free time because it’s helping the scientists understand a lot of problems and the environment.”

Deanna Landry of Halifax keeps binoculars on the windowsill as she participates in the bird identification program. She and her family keep a lookout for cardinals, sparrows, chickadees, Baltimore orioles, blue jays and northern flickers that frequent the platform and tube feeders hanging from trees.

“This is my first time taking part. I’ve been feeding and enjoying birds in my backyard for a long time. But this year, partly because of COVID and being around more, I thought, ‘you know what, I’m going to do it this year’,” Landry said.

“It’s been really fun. We’re really enjoying it because our adult kids that have been away at university and working are all home with us and they’re into it as well. Our best count day was 14 birds.

“This was the year that we said, ‘OK, we’re going to take it up a notch and pay a little more attention and be a little more scientific about it and contribute.’”

Landry is also focused on improving her photography skills with a better camera and lens.

“People appreciate your pictures and your comments and like to contribute their own and give encouragement,” she said.

“People have amazing photography, great cameras, and they’re always posting beautiful pictures of things they’re seeing right in their own backyard.”

LeeAnn Latremouille, a regional co-ordinator of the Saskatchewan Breeding Bird Atlas, has also seen numbers of birdwatchers shoot up during the pandemic.

The five-year program assesses the status and distribution of birds that nest throughout the province.

“In 2019, I gave 29 in-person bird identification workshops and had 253 participants. I gave beginner bird ID workshops in May and had 522 people attend those workshops. That just blew me away,” she said.

“So I think there’s a strong appetite for learning about the outside world around us presently because people are forced to stick closer to home these days or within their own province, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing for learning about the world that’s around you.”

Latremouille said birdwatchers come in all sizes and ages. They range from kids with a passion to experts who identify birds for a living, to people who simply enjoy nature and looking outside.

“It’s always fun for me when I go do surveys. A lot of people don’t think of themselves as bird watchers, but many are very happy to tell you about birds that they’ve got,” she said.

“I’m often on the roadside counting birds and naturally folks pull up and wonder if I’m experiencing (car) trouble or not. And when I tell them what I’m doing, almost invariably people will respond with, ‘oh, I have such and such bird in my yard’, or ‘there’s this nesting over there.’”

While they may not identify as birdwatchers, Latremouille said farmers fit the bill because of their connection to the outdoors and landscape.

“I would consider them not like hobbyist birdwatchers, but they are watching the nature and birds around them…. Maybe they wouldn’t consider themselves avid birdwatchers, but they definitely take in the birds around,” she said.

Latremouille compares birdwatching to a treasure hunt in that people never quite know what they’re going to see and there’s always the possibility of finding something unusual.

“If you’ve ever had a bird feeder, you’ll know some of the antics that the birds get up to are just hilarious. Watching wild critters be wild critters is endlessly entertaining and realizing that you have some interesting wild critters right in your own backyard is, I hope for a lot of folks, kind of fascinating,” she said.

“The birds don’t realize there’s a pandemic going on. The birds don’t know that there’s anything scary going on necessarily for people or that we’re preoccupied or concerned about.

“And so it’s really soothing to be able to step out into nature and nature is still there. It’s still doing its thing. So for people it’s been a source of comfort and a source of stability. You can go out and bird watch and the birds are doing the same thing pretty much as they did last year or the year before.”

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