The COVID-19 pandemic and its consequent shelter-in-place orders, work-at-home directives, and social distancing rules have inarguably complicated many people’s lives worldwide. But something we here at Bird Watcher’s Digest observed, amidst all the strife and heartache, was an influx of people becoming interested in birding. Folks restricted to the confines of their apartments and houses have become more aware of what goes on outside their windows. They’ve had to find different ways to amuse themselves that don’t require being in enclosed public spaces or around other humans. And they’ve needed new outlets for alchemizing their anxiety (existential and otherwise) into something more peaceful. Hello, backyard bird watching and socially distanced jaunts in nature!
Of course, we’re overjoyed that these newbies have joined the birding ranks and are excited to see what they’ll contribute to the community, both in the coming months and when COVID-19 is finally behind us. But because nearly all of BWD‘s staffers began birding long before coronavirus shifted our collective lifestyles and rendered us homebound, we were curious about exactly how and why non-birders adopted the pastime during this period of quarantines and lockdowns.
I had the honor of interviewing my friend Tammy Morrow to learn about her personal pandemic birding journey. I’ve known her for several years now as a busy professional and avid fiber artist who spends so much of her free time assembling care packages (which often contain blankets, hats, and other items she has knitted, crocheted, or sewn) for refugee organizations. In recent months, though, I started noticing that she was posting photos of her birdfeeders to her newsfeed and asking birdy questions in our local knitting coven’s group texts. And considering that she had just won, purely by the luck of the draw, a brand-new binocular that would replace an older loaner model, I thought she would be the perfect candidate to receive a barrage of questions via email about how 2020 turned her into a bird watcher.
Were you bird watching before 2020?
TM: From about 2000 to 2012, I fed backyard birds, but wouldn’t be what I would consider a “birder” because as a single, working mom, my time to actually “watch” was limited. The derecho in 2012 took out the tree from which my single feeder hung, so a brief summer of a Nyjer feeder in my front landscaped area and the resultant thistle field in front of my house were all that remained. However, in 2012, I did discover some of the nest cams from Cornell University, and this sparked in me my true love of birds.
In light of the pandemic and how stressful this year has been, do you think that watching the birds in your backyard has helped? How?
TM: Bird feeding/watching has undoubtedly made my life richer, and my stay-at-home time more tolerable! Watching the various birds individually and collectively has helped me be more “present” and mindful. The act of filling the feeders has forced me into the natural world through the changes of seasons and has helped me be more aware of nature, and this has had a powerful impact on my mental health.
What first got you into bird watching?
TM: I moved to Marietta, Ohio, in 1984 and shortly afterward learned that it was home to a publication called Bird Watcher’s Digest. When I bought my first home in 1989, I was gifted a simple bird feeder and a subscription to the print publication. At the time, my actual bird watching was minimal, but the embers of interest waxed and waned for me since.
Do you have a spark bird (i.e., one species/individual bird that caught your attention and made you want to learn more about birds and birding)?
TM: YES – Red-tailed hawk!!
What sort of birds have you spotted in your yard? Do you keep a list or running total of species?
TM: My favorites are tufted titmouse, chickadee, downy woodpeckers, red-bellied woodpecker, and nuthatches. I am learning to differentiate between all the “brown” birds and am excited to now recognize a Carolina wren. I originally planned on participating in a Backyard Bird Count, but find myself just enjoying the organic watching without the need to “track,” so have put any sort of list making onto my personal back burner.
Do you see yourself continuing to be a bird watcher when social distancing and staying at home are less necessary?
TM: Absolutely plan on continuing to become a lifelong birder.
Do you use a binocular? Tell us about it!
TM: Squee! This is exciting! I WON a Steiner HX 8×42 binocular from Redstart Birding as a result of entering their Green Friday promo on Facebook! I was thrilled to have won, but that pales in comparison to the experience of using these awesome optics! Previously, “how” I saw the birds wasn’t as important as what birds I saw. Since winning, I have learned that quality magnification makes identification easier and enriches my whole birding experience. The Steiner optics and my Audubon Field Guide have raised what had been a nice hobby to a new level of learning and enjoyment for me. I have pretty significant hearing loss, so my ability to locate and identify birds is more dependent on visual identification, and I am really enjoying becoming comfortable with my binoculars and subsequently becoming a more experienced birder.
What are some highlights of your backyard birding sessions in 2020? See anything cool?
TM: I don’t know if serenity counts as a highlight, but I will say that the joy and serenity of connecting with nature right outside my door during a pandemic has been amazing. When the world around us has at times seemed uncertain, the constancy of nature has been an anchor. I’ve begun following several Facebook groups for birders, and the craziness that seemed to characterize 2020 does not infiltrate the discussions or photography of the wonderful birds that are available right outside our windows. That has been a gift.
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Personally, I’m so thrilled that birding has provided Tammy with some solace in these turbulent times. Even if I wasn’t already a birder, I’m happy that the pastime makes her happy. What has birding done for you and your loved ones lately?