For this final blog post for the course, I’d like to switch gears a bit and talk about a problem facing today’s children and youth. That problem is called Nature-Deficit Disorder. I think from the title, we can all make a solid guess as to what this means.
In 2005, Richard Louv published “Last Child in the Woods”. I remember picking the book up from a used book sale at my local library. It was an interesting and eye-opening read about an issue I knew existed, but never had a name for.
With this book, Louv coined the term Nature-Deficit Disorder to explain the costs of human’s increasing distance from nature. Louv describes the disorder as the following;
“Nature-deficit disorder describes the human costs of alienation from nature, among them: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illness. This disorder can be detected in individuals, families, and communities.”
~ Richard Louv, “Last Child in the Woods”
According to the Children and Nature Network,
“An expanding body of scientific evidence suggests that nature-deficit disorder contributes to a diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, conditions of obesity, and higher rates of emotional and physical illnesses. Research also suggests that the nature-deficit weakens ecological literacy and stewardship of the natural world.”
Children and Nature Network
Now, you may be thinking. Where do birds fit in? Well, birds are one of the venues that can help children (and adults too!) with NDD by helping them find interest in the natural world.
Ways to Introduce Children to Birding
The great thing about birding, is that it requires very little equipment (depending on how serious into birding you want to get). To get started birding with children, all you need is a pair of binoculars and an identification book.
Start in your own backyard. Set up a bird feeder for your child/children that will attract common backyard birds such as Northern Cardinals, Black-capped Chickadees, Chipping Sparrows, Mourning Doves, and Blue Jays. Once your child is able to identify these birds, try venturing out to local forest trails, ponds, parks, etc where your child could encounter these same birds and maybe even spot a new species. Seeing the same types of birds at their home as well as out and about in the world around them will hopefully spark their fascination with birds and the natural world in general.
Find local nature groups and clubs that organize birding walks. Getting exposure to other people, especially other kids, who are interested in birds will help grow their appreciation for nature.
Kids love games! Try to make birding into an engaging and rewarding scavenger hunt. You could set a goal for the number of different species your child should try to find. Or you could make a specific list of species you can check off when you see them, or even try to find a bird for every color of the rainbow.
The Benefits of Birding for Children
Birding grows a sense of wonder and appreciation for nature. This may seem obvious, but it is vital. Birds are the most easily observable type of wildlife. If kids are able to observe and learn about birds, this could spark an appreciation for birds, which grows to an appreciation of nature in general.
Increased mindfulness and peace. In our fast-paced technology dominated world, time to breathe and live in the moment becomes harder and harder to come by. Especially for children with growing minds, having time to relax and recharge is vital to healthy development. Birding is great because you never know what you’ll see. You could go to the same woodland trail every day and see different bird behaviors on display. It is ever changing and engaging.
Improvement of physical and mental health. Walking and hiking outdoors to find birds to observe can help fight a great deal of negative health impacts kids face from Nature-Deficit Disorder. Some of these health impacts are heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and depression. Furthermore, being exposed to the natural world, such as when birding, decreases ADHD symptoms.
As you can see, there are clear benefits for children to engage in birding in the natural world. Birding can take place at any time of the year, in any season. The fun part about birding throughout the seasons (depending on where you live), is that you see different birds throughout the year.
I have been focusing my blogs on a lot of bird conservation topics such as protection of endangered species, decreasing window bird strikes, and spreading awareness of the dangers of outdoor cats. However, all of these topics are null and void if no one cares about birds. Sure, you can develop a love and passion for birds and the natural world at an older age, however, think about how much good the human population could do for birds if children grow up learning about them. By the time they are adults, they could change the world for birds and for our planet.
Outdoor Cats – Harmful to Birds and to Cats Themselves
So this is one topic that I knew from the start that I needed to cover in a blog post. It is one of the most highly debated and divisive topics in bird conservation. Both cat owners and bird conservationists/birders are very passionate on their beliefs and it is a struggle to convince either side otherwise. This debate isn’t a new one. However, in the past few years it has become increasingly clear the impacts outdoor cats have on wildlife, especially birds.
Now, you probably can guess which side of the debate I’m on if you have read any of my blogs. However, I do not want to take this whole post just to give my personal opinions and stories on why outdoor cats are a threat to wildlife and bird conservation. I want to focus mainly on the pros and cons for the cat specifically. For anyone reading this blog who is on the side of bird conservation doesn’t really need to learn anything from this post. We all know why outdoor cats are a danger to birds. Cats either catch and injure or catch and kill birds. A whopping 2.4 BILLION birds are killed annually in the United States alone. According to the American Bird Conservancy,
“Outdoor domestic cats are a recognized threat to global biodiversity. Cats have contributed to the extinction of 63 species of birds, mammals, and reptiles in the wild and continue to adversely impact a wide variety of other species, including those at risk of extinction such as Piping Plover. The ecological dangers are so critical that the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists domestic cats as one of the world’s worst non-native invasive species.”
My hope for this blog post is that cat owners of outdoor felines will read and understand these facts I present and make a change for the sake of their cat. I hate to say it, but many of us won’t change our ways unless there is some benefit to us and our family. Cat owners have to see that owning cats with an outdoor lifestyle really impacts the well-being and survival of their cats too, not just the birds!
Before jumping into the cons and how you can recreate the pros of the outdoor cat lifestyle inside the home, I want to leave you with some numbers. About one fourth to one third of American’s 86 million cats are outdoor felines. That should give you an idea of how large a threat outdoor cats are to birds and other wildlife.
Dangers for Outdoor Cats
Disease– With around 60 million feral cats in the US, there are plenty of diseases that outdoor domesticated cats are exposed to. Some of these diseases are Feline Leukemia, Feline AIDS, and upper respiratory infections.
Parasites – Although not as life-threatening as the diseases listed above, there are many parasites that outdoor cats can pick up such as ticks, intestinal worms, ringworm, and ear mites. They can not only cause moderate to severe symptoms in the cat, but they can also be brought back to the home and infect the humans of the house.
Cars – While many are under the impression that cats instinctively avoid busy roads, this is unfortunately not the case and cats are frequently hit by cars.
AnimalCruelty – I’m sure we are all aware by now that humans can be cruel. Not only to our own kind, but also to other species. Free-ranging outdoor cats are at risk of people shooting at them with BB guns or trapping and abusing them “for fun”.
Wildlife – Outdoor cats are commonly attacked by native wildlife that have adapted to urban life. Animals such as coyotes, foxes, and raccoons commonly attack outdoor cats. The injuries sustained from these attacks are often very serious and fatal.
Now, after looking at that list, you would think that cat owners would see how dangerous it is to allow their cats to roam free outdoors. However, the main argument used by cat owners as a negative to indoor cats is lack of exercise and increased boredom. Sure, a cat might get more exercise and more mental stimulation if they have the outdoors to roam free in, however, the risks outweigh this factor. There are ways to decrease boredom and increase exercise in indoor cats. Interacting with them and playing daily helps mental stimulation, as does getting another cat companion or providing places to climb and perch on throughout the house. There are also two options growing in popularity for getting outdoor time; walking on a leash and/or installing a “Catio”. I know, I know; not all cats will walk on a leash.
But don’t count your cat out until you give it an honest effort!
Thats where the Catio comes in!
They can be small and simple…
Or as large and complex as you’d like!
The cat gets outdoor time, but avoids all the negative risks to its safety as well as avoiding the temptation to stalk and hunt birds and other wild animals.
So, to end this post that I could definitely make a lot longer, I want to encourage outdoor cat owners to really consider the facts. For the sake of your cat, as well as the native birds and other wildlife, please consider keeping your cats indoors!
I’d like to leave you with this quote by Pete Marra, who has determined that outdoor cats are the #1 human-influenced cause of dead birds.
“They [birds] pollinate plants, spread seeds, control insects, and protect environments from the effects of climate change; they are the glue that binds healthy ecosystems together. Birds are critical.”
Remember when I said the more people learn about bird species and find birds interesting, the more willing they are to care about protecting them? Well, I’m hoping to help make that point with this post. I want to teach you a little bit about, quite possibly, the bird with the cutest chicks to ever walk our planet. Through photos I have taken this past week after spending time with these special birds and data and research from experts on this species, I want to share with you this conservation story and why it matters.
I present to you, the Piping Plover chick.
Come on, who wouldn’t want to try and protect these little guys after seeing them, especially once you observe them in person?
These little cotton balls on long legs are under a week-old and are always under the watch of their attentive parents.
The Piping Plover is a federally threatened species and in the state of Maine, they are actually classified as endangered.
Now, you might be wondering what caused these petite shorebirds to end up on the endangered and threatened lists. Surely large predators like seagulls, skunks, fox, or raccoons would be the reason for their decline.
Well, like with many declining species, the blame falls on us. Human development and other human impacts have threatened the plover’s success during their breeding season. There are several ways that humans have negatively impacted the Piping plover species, but there are important steps we can take to ensure their recovery.
How To Help
Report nest locations to the states Fish and Wildlife service so that experts can protect and monitor the site and allow the young to grow into healthy, strong individuals to carry on the breeding population in that state.
Give wide distance to posted nesting areas on beaches. Staying away from nesting sites helps to lower the stress level of these vulnerable birds and helps the parents care for their young and protect them from predators other than humans.
Keep your dog on a leash when visiting a beach where plovers are nesting.
When visiting the beach, bring all trash and food with you when you leave. Leaving food and garbage from a day at the beach can attract predators such as raccoons and skunks that prey on Piping Plovers. Removing possible attractants helps to lessen the level of predation on these fragile birds.
Watch where you step when enjoying the beach. Piping plover nests and eggs are very well camouflaged and part of their decline is due to accidental crushing of nests and eggs by humans, dogs, or vehicles on beaches.
Piping Plovers Recovery trends
Luckily, Piping plovers in Maine are seeing their strongest breeding numbers in 2020 than researchers have seen in years. According to the Portland Press Herald,
“Maine Audobon has spotted 100 pairs and 61 active nests in the state. Last year, the group found a record 89 nesting pairs and 175 fledged chicks. The number of endangered birds have been increasing in recent years.”
Perhaps this year’s high numbers are in part due to decreased human presence on public beaches in response to Covid19. Whatever the reason, researchers and experts are continuing to monitor and protect the breeding pairs as best they can in order to ensure a bright future for the species.
I want to leave you with this educational 7+ minute video from Maine Fish and Wildlife and Maine Audubon about Piping plovers in the state of Maine. The video is from 2011, so some data and statistics aren’t up to date, however, the facts about Piping Plover behavior and protection efforts are still accurate.
To quote biologist Judy Camuso from the video,
“When we’re managing for plovers, we try to balance the needs of people and the birds at the same time… But we’ve really been very successful at producing young for piping plovers and being able to accommodate human needs as well. So, I think as long as people do their part, and we (Maine Fish and Wildlife) do our part, we’re going to have a successful piping plover program for many years to come.”
So, if you are taking a little trip to a local beach in your state and there are nesting Piping Plovers, do you’re part to make sure the birds are safe and comfortable to allow for the young to grow up and contribute to the overall population!
Many of us have bird feeders at our homes and where there are bird feeders, there are bound to be window strikes. According to the American Bird Conservancy,
“Up to a billion birds die in collisions with glass each year in the United States. Although most people have seen or heard a bird hit a window, they often believe it is an unusual event. Add up all those deaths and the number is staggering.”
One billion birds is truly a devastating blow to a large population of our Earth’s wildlife that already face a long list of threats to their survival (most, if not all of which are human related). I myself usually hear three or four bird strikes at our home each year (when our bird feeders are stocked). The tendency for most people to assume bird strikes are a rare occurrence is dangerous to this important conservation effort to lower window strike occurrences. If people think it’s rare, they won’t see the need to implement or advocate for the simple yet important measures around their home and place of work to help make glass more visible to birds.
Why are windows “invisible” to birds?
When you think of a piece of glass on its own, that would be invisible to us in our environment just as it is to birds. The difference with humans is that we have reference points and framing to give us context and show where the glass is. We can see door and window frames and immediately know there is glass present. Birds, however, cannot pick up on these clues which means glass is an invisible barrier to them. The objects and scenes that are reflected in glass windows actually attract birds and results in the massive annual death toll of birds just from window strikes.
So what are we to do? There is no quick and easy fix that is 100% effective, but there are ways that we can help bring down the number of birds we lose each year to deaths related to window strikes. Those of you reading who are students of UNE like I am, are (hopefully) raising your hand in excitement because our wonderful campus has adopted one of these methods to help reduce bird window strikes that we will discuss in this list.
How can we help?
After my simplified list of methods, you will find a wonderful resource from a trustworthy source, the American Bird conservancy. If you are inspired after reading this blogpost to advocate for bird safe glass at your place of work, this website will give you prices and links to all the popular options. Also, I will provide an article from the Birdwatchers Digest below that goes over smaller scale steps homeowners can take to prevent bird strikes on their property.
Install a window screen that allows birds to bounce off of a window and not injure themselves
Apply vertical strips of chart tape to outside of window
External awnings can eliminate reflections that confuse birds
Apply bird shaped or other nature themed shaped decals to your windows
Rearrange bird feeders and baths so that they are within 3 feet of a window (too close to do serious damage), or place them much farther away at 30+ feet so that the birds are likelier to see that the window is part of the house
What to do with an injured bird from a window strike?
Calmly and gently catch the bird and place them safely in a cardboard box covered with a towel.
Keep the box in a quiet and dark place that is free from loud noises or a lot of activity.
Check on the bird every half an hour, but do not hold or touch the bird
If the bird seems like it has recovered from the shock and is ready to take off, place the box in a safe place and open to allow the bird to fly out.
If the bird does not seem to be recovering from the shock and isn’t ready to be released after several hours, contact a local wildlife rehabber that accepts avian patients.
With this post, we are venturing into conservation territory. Bird conservation is very important and has many different paths. I hope to take you down several of these paths that I have experience with myself and feel are important for people to know about due to their large impact on world bird populations in future blog posts. Stay tuned for the next blog where we will discuss a bird conservation win that is happening right here in the state of Maine on beaches not far from our beautiful Biddeford campus.
Calling someone a bird brain has been used as an insult for many years. However, I have never liked this saying. Being a human fascinated by animal behavior, especially birds, I never understood why it was used in a negative way. Sure, some bird species aren’t the most intelligent creatures on the planet (looking at you Emu), but there are some incredible behaviors and lifestyles exhibited in many species that brings them to the top of the most intelligent animals list right alongside apes and dolphins.
When birders or ornithologists are asked about bird intelligence, the corvids first come to mind. Corvidae is a family of passerines (perching birds/songbirds) that encompasses crows, ravens, jays, magpies, jackdaws, and more. The corvids are incredibly interesting and complex birds that are the basis of many animal behavior studies and I will focus on examples of their intelligence for this post. However, before we dive into the fascinating world of Corvids, I wanted to throw some other cool examples of bird intelligence at you.
Roadrunners have been observed waiting underneath or above hummingbird feeders to snag the small birds as they come to feed.
The great Skua, a large sea bird, has been observed hiding among newborn seal pups to sneak milk from their mothers
Green-backed Herons catch insects to use as bait to lure fish to the surface of the water
Vultures in Zimbabwe staked out spots along barbed wire fences near minefields and waited for gazelles to trigger the explosives.
Also, keep in mind that labeling behavior as intelligence in birds is a bit complex. There are some seemingly incredible behaviors that birds exhibit, and while they are pretty impressive, they are innate rather than learned. A bird that then takes an innate or learned behavior and applies it to a novel situation is where intelligence begins to be examined in that species. For example, many bird species know instinctively that sticks are good for best building (depending on the species), but an intelligent species might realize that the stick could be useful in other ways such as a tool to forage for grubs.
Examples of Corvid Intelligence
(I could write a whole textbook on corvid intelligence, so I selected a few of my favorite examples to ensure this blog doesn’t turn into a book.)
Caching – This behavior is defined as the act of foraging and storing food at cache sites in an individual’s home range for future retrieval. Several bird species other than members of the corvid family display caching behaviors such as chickadees and woodpeckers. However, Crows and Ravens are especially intelligent in this regard. Other species may forget the location of some of their caches, but crows and ravens are much more skilled and methodical in their caching. They not only bury food at specific sites, but they also incorporate an object to the site like a twig or leaf to help them remember where their food cache is. The individual creates a mental image of their cache so they will not forget its location.
Furthermore, individuals will pay attention to others in the area and will try to only cache their food when no one is looking. If another individual spied on their caching site, they will take advantage of the opportunity for an easy snack and dig up other their neighbors caches. They can also exhibit deception by pretending to bury a food item in a fake cache if they are in the presence of others that are spying on them!
Here is a great video showcasing caching behavior!
Funerals – Many people might have heard the fact tossed around the crows and ravens have funerals for members in their community that have died. Like most wild animal facts that spread around social media, the fact is somewhat true. However, it is not exactly as it seems at surface level. While many people view it as mourning behavior, crows will flock to dead individuals in order to gain intel. It is risky to approach a corpse, however. That is why researchers believe that crows who approach dead individuals are trying to figure out what killed the bird and if the threat is still in the area.
Human facial recognition – Through a fascinating study at the University of Washington, it was found that crows can actually recognize human faces and remember the threat level of the individual. Researchers wore unique masks and then trapped, banded, and released young crows at different sites. Over the next five years, researchers walked down paths near these release sites with either a neutral mask (one that wasn’t worn when the young were banded) or one of the “dangerous” masks that the researchers wore when banding the young crows. At first, around a quarter of the crows scolded and dive-bombed the people wearing the dangerous masks.
This % of individuals recognizing the humans increased, and at the three-year mark, 66% of the area crows were now scolding and dive-bombing the dangerous mask wearing researchers. This is an indicator that crows were communicating the threat of the specific masks to other crows. The passing down of knowledge to conspecifics and future generations is a sign of intelligence of a species and the possibility of culture.
If this blog was interesting to you and you want to learn more about bird intelligence, I highly suggest the book “The Genius of Birds” by Jennifer Ackerman. It is an incredible read chock full of examples of fascinating bird behavior. In addition to the book, below is the link to a great documentary about corvid intelligence.
Information presented in this blog was a combination of my own knowledge in the field of animal behavior as well as the following sources:
In our current world, the internet is the main source of news and information for most people. The access to information on just about any subject is instantly available at our fingertips. However, this doesn’t mean that we can trust everything we read online. As with every subject, or area of expertise, there is false information in circulation and the world of birds is no exception. I’d like to take some time to go over common bird myths and misconceptions and help clear them up for the sake of the birds.
Bird Feeder/Bird House Myths
Myth #1 – Bird feeders in the fall disrupt migrating bird behaviors. Birds will migrate regardless of the availability of food at a bird feeder. Most species migrate based on the weather, daylight, and their genetic instincts and use these as cues, not the availability of food. Stocked bird feeders during fall migration is actually a benefit as it offers individuals a valuable energy boost to help them through their long migration routes.
Myth #2 – Feeding birds makes them dependent on human handouts. While birds may make local bird feeders a regular stop in their daily foraging route, many studies have shown that wild birds only get about 25% of their food from feeders. They may choose feeders for convenience, but if feeders are empty, they can easily find other food sources.
Myth #3 – You should avoid leaving warm water in your birdbath when temperatures go below freezing because birds will bathe and freeze to death from wet and iced up feathers. This makes sense and I see where people are coming from when they believe this claim, however, don’t underestimate the intelligence and instincts of birds. They will drink from a heated birdbath in winter, but most individuals will avoid bathing in the water when the temperature is below freezing to avoid getting wet feathers that lead to frozen feathers.
Myth #4 – It is important to take birdhouses down during the winter because birds won’t use them, but other creatures will use them. The reality is quite the opposite! Birdhouses can offer a great roosting shelter for birds in the winter months and species such as Eastern Bluebirds will pack into birdhouses like sardines to keep warm during especially cold nights.
Myth #5 – Birds feet stick to metal feeders. Even though human fingers may get stuck to cold metal in the winter, bird’s feet are not the same. Their feet are well protected from cold metal as they lack sweat glands in their feet that would produce moisture to freeze to metal. Furthermore, their legs and feet are equipped with a specialized scaly like tissue that has low blood flow in order to minimize cold damage.
Myth #6 – Peanut butter at bird feeders lodges in the throats of birds and causes them to choke. Many birdwatchers with feeders believe that peanut butter is sticky and will glue beaks and throats shut, killing the bird. This has never been found to be true, and peanut butter is a very nutritious offering for birds. It is high in calories and fat which is great for energy.
Myth #7 – Birds will starve if you suddenly stop feeding them in the winter. While bird feeders can offer a quick and easy food source for birds during the winter months, the feeder is not the only source of food during this unforgiving season. If this were true, a lot of birds wouldn’t survive the winter as there wouldn’t be enough food from feeders to go around. Studies have shown that chickadees, a common winter feeder visitor, only get about 25% of their daily food intake from feeders.
Myth #8 – Red dye is an important part of hummingbird food. Yes; hummingbirds are attracted to the color red, but this does not mean it needs to be in their food. Most hummingbird feeders have a lot of red on them to attract the hummers, so it is an unnecessary addition to the sugar water food.
Myth #9 – You shouldn’t feed birds in the summer. While there are a lot more natural food sources during summer months than winter, that doesn’t mean you should stop offering food to birds. The spring and summer months are when birds are extremely busy caring for their mates and nestlings. The food from a feeder is a supplemental resource for busy birds that are competing with local individuals to care for their young.
Myth #10 – Birdseed never goes bad! Like most food, birdseed can in fact spoil if not stored properly! Seeds are a magnet to rodents, and often become moldy and dried out after a long time storing.
Bird Behavior/Biology Myths
Myth #1 – If I touch a baby bird that has fallen from the nest, the parents will abandon it. This is an extremely widespread myth that many people still believe. Birds have wonderful sight and hearing, but their sense of smell is very minimally developed. Except for a few species, most are not able to detect specific odors. There is no evidence that common backyard species like Robins can sense human scent on one of their young.
Myth #2 – Owls can spin their heads completely around. This is a common misconception that has survived thanks to television and movies. All birds possess a greater range of motion of their heads that swivel on their spine than mammals have. For owls, their blood vessels, ligaments and muscles keep their head from spinning completely around. In reality, their range is about 270 degrees which is still pretty impressive in my opinion.
Myth #3 – A singing bird is a happy bird. As humans, we tend to anthropomorphize animal behavior. People assume that a bird that is singing means that they are happy. However, singing in birds isn’t as emotionally driven as we might think. It all comes down to reproduction and the ultimate goal of passing on one’s genes. Males of certain species can sing aggressively to warn nearby males to stay out of their territory. Males also sing to attract mates, as females often prefer males who sing more complex and varied songs.
Myth #4 – Birds are unintelligent. Thanks to the phrase bird brain, many people assume that birds are unintelligent, dull creatures. However, for many species this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Certain bird species are some of the most intelligent animals on the planet, and we will actually dive into greater detail on bird intelligence in a future blog post. While their brains may look simple compared to mammals, that doesn’t mean they aren’t intelligent. A variety of bird species have been known to create and use tools, recognize human faces, and recognize relatives they haven’t seen in years.
Myth #5 – Ostrich bury their heads in the sand. Despite this popular saying used when someone is avoiding conflict, Ostrich do not stick their heads in the sand when stressed. This myth started with Greek historian Diodorus Siculus who also claimed that Ostrich had cloven hooves and flung stones at predators; claims that are also extremely incorrect and a bit comical. In reality, Ostrich will lay close to the ground to hide from predators and from a distance it could appear that the ostrich is burying their head in the sand.
Myth #6 – Penguins only live in cold climates. While the photos we often see of penguins show a snowy habitat, there are penguins that live in warmer climates. Species such as the Humboldt, Magellenic, and Fairy penguins live in non-snowy ecosystems. Penguins are known to live on the southern edges of Africa and Australia, as well as the Galapagos islands near the equator.
Hopefully you learned something new about birds through my avian blog version of MythBusters. Tune in next week to learn more about avian intelligence with a focus on Corvids (if you’re scratching your head at this word, read next weeks blog!).
For my first few blog posts, I have shared with you all some tips and tricks to getting involved with the birding community, whether it’s through identifying birds or bird photography. Now I want to tell you all some stories. Remember my first ever blogpost where I introduced you to some birding jargon? One of these terms was spark bird. The spark bird stories are important to the overall community of birding and bird conservation. If people aren’t moved and enthralled by birds, they won’t care about protecting them. If you spend enough time exploring nature and observing the behavior of creatures around you, sooner or later you may have a spark bird-like encounter. I want to share my personal spark bird story, as well as the spark stories of some fellow birders.
My personal spark is kind of a two-parter. This is a common theme for many birders, including a few birders who’s stories I will be sharing later on.
My first spark bird was the plucky Black-capped Chickadee. I’d venture to say that this small bird is the spark bird for many birders. They are abundant and very comfortable around humans. They are the welcome crew of the forest and are the first to start singing and calling when a human enters the forest. They are very curious and their small size, yet big attitude makes them beloved by birders around the country.
The black-capped Chickadee was the first bird I can remember really having an up-close moment with. I was in 7th grade and had recently acquired my first digital camera. It was late fall, and I was walking down my driveway after being dropped off by the school bus. I noticed small birds flying to and from the pine trees and our garden. Our garden was mostly gone by as we had a few early frosts (normal for Vermont), and nothing was left alive. However, there were still the tall, brown remains of the large sunflowers we had growing at the edge of the garden. The small birds were flying to the dead sunflowers, and back to the pine trees. I ran to the house and grabbed my camera and sat outside at the edge of the garden watching and photographing the birds that I eventually recognized as chickadees when I got close enough. They seemed to not care one bit that I was observing them feeding and flew right beside me and above me as they made trips from the sunflowers to the pine trees.
That time I spent with the chickadees captivated me. I had never gotten so close to wild birds before, and I was thrilled with some of the photos I had captured. I continued observing them off and on for a few weeks until the sunflowers had fallen over. This experience was my spark into really being fascinated by birds. After that, I would try to find birds around my yard to photograph. I didn’t care where I went, or what birds I found, I just wanted to observe birds and take photos of them.
My second spark came in 2016 after graduating from high school. Up until this point I still loved birds and photographing them, but I wasn’t exactly a birder. However, one rainy morning, I was driving down Route 15 on my way to a friend’s house to care for their dog and cat while they were away on vacation. I looked to my right at the cornfields and in a dead tree I saw a bird. From it’s stance, at first glance I knew it was a bird of prey. My second glance told me it was a Barn Owl and I pulled over as soon as there was a driveway to turn around in so I could go back to get a better look. When I slowly pulled over across the road from the tree where the owl perched, I was awestruck. I snapped out of it in time to grab my camera and fire off a single shot before the individual gracefully took off across the cornfields and into the woods.
To someone who doesn’t know birds, this sighting wouldn’t seem that extraordinary. However, to me this sighting was once in a lifetime. Barn owls are my all-time favorite bird. Something about their mysterious beauty and elegance in flight captures my soul. Not only are they my favorite bird, but they are extremely rare and not native to Vermont. There were only four sightings of individuals from 1985 to 2010, and according to eBird identification specialists for Vermont, I captured the only known photo of a Barn owl in Vermont.
This encounter with a rarity sparked my passion for being completely obsessed with birds and birding. I submitted my sighting to eBird, a website where birders from around the world submit checklists of species they see at different birding hotpots. This database is not only beneficial for birders, but for biologists and researchers studying different bird trends across the world. When I saw that Barn Owl, it really clicked why birders are so passionate. After that encounter, I began birding at every opportunity I had at hotspots within a couple hours of my hometown. The rest is history!
Now that I’ve introduced you to spark birds through my own personal story, I want to share some spark bird stories from fellow birders. I am part of several birding groups on Facebook such as Vermont Birding and World Girl Birders. On these pages, I asked for willing birders to share their spark bird stories and below are the results!
I love Alyssa’s spark story because she not only was struck by the American Redstart’s beauty, but she was amazed by it’s strength exhibited during it’s remarkable migration journey!
From Alyssa D. : Spark bird was at the age of 5, a gorgeous male American Redstart. It was less than 10 feet away from me, hopping on the ground, with the sun shining on it. I was in awe. Later I would learn that he traveled from Central America to here, managing to escape predation, collisions, poisoning, etc. Nothing short of remarkable, and quite impressionable at any age (let alone for a child).
From Naomi P.: “My Spark bird was a Gorgeous bush shrike in South Africa!”
For some people, all it takes is a beautifully colored bird like the stunning Summer Tanager to spark their love for birding!
From Bonnie G. “My spark bird was a Male Summer Tanager outside of my window, I had never seen such a beautiful bird!”
Many birders have an initial spark with nature that doesn’t involve birds, that leads to their future avian specific spark such as with Kyle. He was not only thrown into the world of birding after these encounters, but also started photographing them and his work is very well done!
From Kyle T: So, I actually have two spark “birds”, and one of them isn’t even a bird. The initial spark came on my lunch break one day. On this day in late February, my spark was ignited when a Bobcat ran in front of me and I got a photo of it mid-sprint. The adrenaline from that encounter lasted all week, and I wanted more. I started setting out on the weekends to find more animals, and soon learned that birds were more abundant than large mammals. I knew some basic birds already – robins, cardinals, red-tailed hawks – but the first bird that I photographed and had to take back to ID online was the Cedar Waxwing, my second spark. I found a small flock eating berries in a tree over at Ethan Allen Homestead, and struggled to get good photos of them with my newly purchased super telephoto lens. Waxies would go on to become my favorite bird species, and one of my favorite photo subjects (once I learned how to shoot them properly).
For Lynette, her exposure to birding started young, and it was the beauty of birdsong that got her into a life of birding.
Lynette W. “I guess I actually had two. As the second to the last child in a family of four children, I found myself vying for parental attention. My father was a birder, as his mother before him, so I started paying attention when my Dad talked birds. The other kids had no interest so this actual got me personal attention time from my Dad. I was quite young, probably 5 or 6, but I remember him saying “Hear that? That’s the voice of the Rufous-sided towhee. (Now known as Eastern Towhee). “It sings drink your tea.” The second bird was the White-throated Sparrow. According to Dad it sang “Oh sweet Canada, Canada, Canada.” (Rather than the American version of Oh Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody – because his dear departed mother hailed from Canada). The idea that we could know birds through our language fascinated me. Even when they are not to be seen, birdsong is a great comfort to me to this day.”
As you can see, the spark story is different for everyone! Some have several sparks, some have one single inspirational encounter with a bird, and some first have a spark for nature with a non-bird creature, and then have a spark bird encounter. It could be the beautiful plumage of a bird, its captivating song, or fascinating behaviors that creates the spark. Whatever the reason, birders all over the world are inspired and captivated by birds to degrees that non-birders may find weird or obsessive.
I’ll admit, when I tell my friends I am waking up at 4 o’clock in the morning to find a Black-throated blue warbler, it does sound a bit crazy. However, it brings us closer and more connected to nature and with that connection, it fosters a care for conservation and preservation of the natural world. If you felt inspired by reading the stories of birders and their sparks, I invite you to watch this compilation video below with birders speaking about their spark birds and how their avian encounters started their love for birds. If anyone has had a special encounter with birds, please feel free to share it below in the comments! Birders love hearing bird stories just as much as telling them!
Well, I couldn’t help myself any longer! I’ve been excited to share with you all one of my favorite parts about birding and that is photography. Don’t worry though; I won’t be going too in-depth regarding camera gear as I could make several posts about that topic. Afterall, it’s not always the equipment you have, but what you do with it.
Instead, I want to go over some of the tips for bird photography that relate to techniques and mindsets leading to successful ETHICAL bird photography. The ethics of photographing wildlife, especially birds, is becoming a more and more prevalent part of this branch of photography and that is great news for birds.
To get started, I want to go over some general rules that are standard practices for bird photographers in order to be successful. After that we’ll go over important practices specifically for ethical bird photography.
One guiding mantra that I think 100% sums up bird photography is the 4 Ps… Passion, Perseverance, Practice, and most importantly, Patience! Without these four elements, bird photography is dang near impossible.
Tips for successful bird photography
Practice, Practice, Practice! – Spend time photographing more common and friendly bird species that may be around your home such as Black-capped Chickadees, Sparrows, gulls, or mallard ducks that will give you more opportunities to practice techniques and ways to interact with wild birds respectfully.
The Early bird gets the Worm – Even though you can go outside any part of the day and most likely encounter some species of bird, there are times of day that are more desirable to bird photographers. The early morning and late afternoon/early evening light is ideal as the light is the softest and the birds are usually very active foraging or singing. The soft light avoids harsh shadows on the avian subject, brings out the natural colors and beauty of the bird’s plumage, and allows for the camera to pick up a catch light in the bird’s eye that just makes the photo feel that more alive in the end.
Dress for success – While camo clothing is a great addition to your wardrobe for bird photography, wearing dull Earthy colors will work too. Avoid bright colors, especially white, as this will provide you with better opportunities to get closer to the birds.
Don’t focus too much on the weather forecast – It may seem odd, but don’t be afraid to get outside in “bad” weather! – Sometimes, photographing birds in the rain, snow, wind, hail, etc. can yield the most captivating images! It tells a story, and can create a dramatic and moody image that makes more of an impact than a photo depicting a sunny day might.
Move slowly – Once you spot a bird, take an initial shot because you never know how long they will stick around! Afterall, it could be a rare bird and you’d much rather have a low-quality shot than no shot at all! If the bird is stationary and seems comfortable and calm, take a few steps and fire a few shots. Continue to take small sets of steps ending with taking a few shots. Be mindful of the bird’s behavior and if their comfort level changes. Make sure to leave enough down time between each small advancement forward to show the bird that you’re not a threat. If they start to give off warning or alarm calls or shift their body to a more erect and tense position, back down and give the bird it’s space.
Focus on the Eyes – As humans we tend to focus on the eyes of a living creature in photos and birds are no exception. After all, the windows are the eyes to the soul. I know, it seems cheesy, but its true! If a photo is composed in a way that a bird’s eyes are not easily visible in the photo or isn’t lit well resulting in dull black eyes, it makes the subject look lifeless and dull and will cause the photo to be unsuccessful.
Get down to the bird’s level – Bending down or laying on the ground gives you more intimate photos of birds resulting from the eye contact with the individual and the creation of pleasing blur in the foreground and background. This technique gives you the ability to transport the viewer into the bird’s world.
Follow the Rule of Thirds – The rule of thirds is a standard in most branches of photography, but in bird photography it is especially important in order to capture the moment and really take your audience into the bird’s world. By placing the subject bird in the bottom left, bottom right, upper right, upper left, or some variation, you are able to showcase part of the bird’s habitat. However, this rule isn’t always applicable. Sometimes, filling the entire frame of the photo with your avian subject is ideal, such as close head shots for example.
Ethical bird photography tips
Don’t bait birds – I’m not saying bird feeders stocked with seeds and worms is a bad thing, it’s the live bait such as rodents, snakes, or fish used to bait birds of prey such as hawks, owls, and ospreys that can be disruptive to their natural predatory behaviors and cause them to be reliant on human handouts.
Habituation – Visit a location for several days in a row so that the birds will become more comfortable with your presence or you will learn more about the local’s daily routines and behaviors.
Be aware of the species behaviors and know the bird’s limit – It is important to observe the bird’s posture and look for changes such as freezing, or hunching over into a protective, aggressive, or pre-flight stance. However, you would ideally know the species behavior and calls well enough to stop advancing before these posture changes.
Do not intentionally altar a bird’s natural behavior to get the shot you’re after. For example, if you see a majestic Bald eagle sitting in a tree, do not make screeching noises, advance too close, or throw a rock at the tree trunk to get the bird to take-off, giving you an opportunity for a flight shot. Yes, I know that was a very specific, but that’s because I witnessed a “photographer” doing these things with my own eyes.
No flash photography – Avoid the use of flash with nocturnal birds such as owls as it can actually temporarily affect their ability to avoid danger or hunt for food.
DO NOT use drones to photograph birds in flight, birds in a nest, etc! They are sometimes used for research purposes, but they are very disruptive to bird behavior and should be avoided by photographers not using them for official research.
Keep a distance to photograph a nest – If you come across a bird nest, take a few photos from a distance and move on. Do not scare off the parents from the nest, or cause stress to the fledglings. Also, if you continue to visit a nest, you can actually leave a scent trail for potential predators. Furthermore, do not alter the structure of a nest in order to get a more pleasing photo. This can damage the protection from the elements and camouflage that the pair of birds designed the nest with.
I encourage anyone with a digital camera to try their hand at photographing birds, especially while we are all at home with free time on our hands. Even if you don’t have a long telephoto zoom lens, you can still practice with an entry level camera studying and photographing the common birds that frequent your property, especially if you have stocked bird feeders. Stay tuned for next week’s blog where I will be sharing stories of inspiration from birders about their spark bird – the encounter that started their lifelong love of the avian world and birding!
Have you grown up in an urban home where you see birds daily? Did you grow up in a city where the birds you saw were pigeons or gulls? Do you get annoyed when the dawn chorus wakes you early in the morning? Do you know how to tell bird species apart or are you a conspiracist who thinks all birds are government spies – I know, ridiculous, right?
My background with birds started when I was around three years old. My mother took me to a bird walk she saw advertised in our local town in Ohio. She showed up with me and got the nastiest looks from the birders (most birders are not this stuck up regarding youth getting involved with birdwatching). They figured a child would be loud and scare away all the birds. However, by the end of the two-hour bird walk, most of them were coming up to my mom and praising her for bringing me as I was very well behaved, made no loud noises, and was very engaged in trying to spot birds! I think this single event in my life started my fascination with birds and when I started learning from local birding legends in my small Vermont community, I was hooked!
No matter what your background or experience with birds is, my goal through this blog is to convince you that birds are worth caring about and conserving! I’d like to start off early on giving you some tips and tricks regarding identifying birds. Personally, I think the challenge and puzzle of identifying an unknown species is part of the fun of birding. However, it definitely can be overwhelming to beginners, but ends up being worth the struggle in the long run. Once you are able to identify birds, then you can recognize species and learn their behaviors!
For this overview of IDing birds, we will examine 6 different categories birders consider when trying to identify a bird. Also, an important note – these tips and tricks came not only from my own personal knowledge and experience, but also from one of my favorite birding books – The Beginners Guide to Birding: The Easiest Way for Anyone to Explore the Incredible World of Birds written by Nate Swick. I highly recommend the book for anyone who is interested in what they are learning through my blog and want to learn even more!
Now for the list!
Size is one of the first thing a birder pays attention to. Once a general size is established, they can go through their brain’s field guide and filter birds that fit that general size. However, size can be tricky when you don’t have anything to compare it to. Birders have established several “common” species of birds to use as size comparisons, and they are the American Robin, American Crow and Red-tailed Hawk.
Similar to size is the shape or silhouette of a bird. Paying attention to parts of the bird such as length of the tail, length and shape of the bill, and feet structure are important factors that can narrow down the search for the correct species. This tip is helpful at the broad end of the ID process, as species of sparrows for example, have very similar silhouettes and very few birders can ID a sparrow just from shape. That is why we have more ID tips to follow!
Next is color. Color can be very helpful for ID’ing a bird, but it also can make things even more complicated. Depending on the lighting or the angle the birder is looking at the bird from for example, a bird’s color can look different from reality. Another factor at play is the differences between males and females and even just individuals of the same sex. Oftentimes, juvenile birds look completely different than their adult counterparts if one is solely focusing on color.
Just to keep adding on layers, birds can also lack pigment or have the pressence of pigment that actually changes the lightness or darkness of their plumage. In fact, birds show as much if not more variation in this regard than us humans. Sometimes it is better to focus on patterning of the individual, and not just the overall color. Patterning such as an eye ring, a swatch of color on the chest/neck or crown of the head, or barring on the wing can help narrow down the ID.
Below is a great example when color isn’t always the most helpful, and other tips need to be referenced to reach a successful ID. The first photo is a Summer Tanager and the second image is a Northern Cardinal. As you can see, they are both red. There is one clear difference in color with the black “face mask” present on the Cardinal and not the Tanager, but that may not be enough depending on the location of the sighting and what kind of view you have of the bird.
Most people who aren’t birders wouldn’t be able to tell them apart if they came across them in the wild, however, there are key differences that experienced birders can pick up on. The first thing is the beak size and color. The Summer Tanager has a slightly thinner and longer bill that is a pale tan in color compared to the Northern Cardinal’s wider and shorter bill that is orangish red in color. Next is the head crest of the Cardinal. This can get tricky as the Cardinal can flatten this crest to it’s head which makes it appear to have a Tanager shaped head. Finally, the ends of their tails are essentially the same shape, although it is hard to tell from this photo. However, the Cardinal does have a longer tail than the Tanager.
Next on our list is the habitat. Birds are often very predictable in this sense and can be a help to birders when attempting to ID an individual. For example, if you have a small mottled grey and brown bird with long legs and a long beak scurrying along a shoreline in Maine, you most likely have a shorebird like a Sanderling or a Semi-palmated Plover or Sandpiper. You wouldn’t see this bird at your backyard feeder, just like you wouldn’t see a Mourning dove scurrying along a beach in Maine. This is a tip that is most helpful once you have researched specific species and their habitats, but it’s an important one nonetheless.
Almost there! Our second to last tip is behavior. As a bird photographer this is one of my favorite parts of birding. Behaviors can help narrow down what type of bird one is looking at. For example, you might look at how a bird is perching. If you saw a bird parallel to a tree shimmying up with its feet gripping the bark, you very likely have a woodpecker such as a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker or a Hairy or Downy Woodpecker. However, if you saw a small yellow and black bird flitting around rapidly from branch to branch way up high in the top of a tree, it is most likely one of the many species of Warblers that fits that simple description of yellow and black.
Behavior can come in handy when some of the other tips such as color may not be as helpful. Shorebirds are a great example of this as certain species prefer to wade in shallow water and rapidly jab their long bills into the sand to forage, some prefer to forage on exposed barnacle and seaweed covered rocks at low tide, while more still run to the water’s edge to collect small creatures when the waves retreat and rapidly run back up to the safety of the dry beach when the waves crash back towards the beach.
Finally, we come to Range. This is one tip that often requires a field guide unless the birder in question is extremely well versed in bird species distributions off the top of their head! Most field guides these days have a handy map on each species page that is color coded with their normal range based on time of year and the reason they are where they are (breeding range, migration/winter range, etc).
Phew, I hope you are all still with me! I know I just threw a lot of tips at you, but if you start slow and put these guidelines into practice around your home territory with birds you are used to seeing, you will get the hang of it quicker than you might think!
If you are looking for something to do during quarantine, birdwatching from your home or at nearby hiking/nature trails is a great way to get outside as well as hone your birding skills and become a human being more connected to the natural world. Stay tuned for the next installment of Bird Blog where we will examine the beautiful world of bird photography!
Well, here we go! You are now entering the mind of a Bird Nerd. Many may think this title would be used in a negative way to poke fun at someone who enjoys observing birds and learning about bird behavior, however, I wear this title as a badge of honor.
Through this blog, I am excited to share with you my passion for birds. I will share birding stories that I experienced, and those of fellow birders. I will also try and advocate for anyone and everyone (especially kiddos!) to fall in love with birds as I have. I will explain why birding is so important for not only us humans, but especially for the birds.
However, in this first blogpost, I’d like to introduce you to the world of birding/birdwatching with a brief overview of the community and some important lingo that I will be using from here on out!
Birders vs. Birdwatchers – What’s the difference?
Before we go over some important terminology, let’s establish an important distinction… Birders vs. Birdwatchers. This is a concept I had no idea about when I first got interested in birds. Using the wrong term for an individual can be taken as an insult by some, so this was an important thing I learned pretty early on.
These folks tend to linger and contemplate the birds they come across, while let the scene unfold in front of them with no specific agenda.
Usually content with whatever gear they have and do not need the latest and greatest binoculars, cameras, and guides.
These individuals are very actively seeking out birds and will think nothing of driving several hours at the news of a specific bird being spotted.
Numbers matter much more to a birder than a birdwatcher. Birders often keep lists and the most dedicated list taking birders, called “listers”, will record all their sightings and section their lists out by year, season, country, state, county, etc.
Some birders are even competitive and the ultimate bird obsessed birders will take part in a cross country competition called the “Big Year” where participants try to hold the highest list of bird species seen by the end of the year. The American Birding association Big Year record is a whopping 839 species!
I find it tough to stand squarely on one side. I would say I lean more towards calling myself a Birder, but I am not nearly as hardcore as most. I do keep a yearly list of species I see, but that is more for me than anything else.
The birdwatcher in me appreciates taking in bird behavior as it unfolds in front of me, and just seeing where a day of birding takes me; with no set agenda. Sure, I have days where I am looking for a specific species, but I take my time and enjoy the beauty of nature while still snapping photos and writing down a list of observed species as I go.
Alright, now that we’ve gone over Birders vs. Birdwatchers, here comes the birdy lingo!
Mega:A very rare bird that often attracts birders from across the country or even from other countries!
LBJ: This term stands fro Little Brown Job and this is used while identifying a bird that falls into the category of small, brown, and drab which many songbirds are (especially sparrows)! Oftentimes birders will refer to female or immature birds as LBJ’s as they are very tough to identify accurately.
Lifer: Now this is an important term that will definitely come up in future installments of the Bird Blog. A lifer is a personal first-ever sighting for a birder, and thus warrants addition of that species name to their personal “life list”.
Vagrant: A bird that strays outside of its normal range/migration route. This is an exciting sighting for birders!
Twitcher: A really hard-core birder that will go to great lengths to add a bird to their life list!
Spark bird: A species that triggers a birders lifelong passion for birds!
Nemesis Bird: A bird that constantly eludes a birder despite great efforts.
IBA: Important Birding Area (Location that is considered important in regards to protection of wild bird populations)
Pish/Pishing: A sound a birder makes to try and draw songbirds out for a better look.
Bins: short for Binoculars
BOP: Bird of Prey
Usual suspects: Birds you expect to see in an area each time you go birding there
There are many more terms I could throw at you, but I have shared the terms I feel are most important to help newcomers to this hobby understand us birders.
For anyone who is looking for more insight into birders, here is a fun video poking fun at different birder stereotypes.
I look forward to sharing more birdy knowledge with you for my next blog post. In the meantime, try and tune your senses into the birds around you; nature in general for that matter. You’ll never know what you can see/hear/smell until you really open yourself up to explore! Besides, what better time than now?