The Birds Are Not on Lockdown, and More People Are Watching Them

The adult male scarlet tanager is a medium-size songbird with glaring crimson feathers and jet-black wings.

It can be hard to spot, because the species tends to forage among the upper branches of tall trees. But it does come down to earth, and sometimes can be caught hanging out with pigeons outside of the Freeport Wild Bird Supply store in Maine.

It is the kind of sighting that can spark a lifelong interest in bird-watching, said Derek Lovitch, 42, a birder and biologist who runs the store with his wife, Jeannette.

“The scarlet tanager is one that gets a lot of people into it, because you’ve got to know: What is that thing?” Mr. Lovitch said.

Business is booming at his supply store, and he’s seeing younger customers than usual. But it’s not the scarlet tanager that has gotten so many people interested in birds in recent months. It’s the coronavirus pandemic.

“There is definitely a craving for engagement with nature, especially considering how limited our ability to move is right now,” Mr. Lovitch said.

Bird-watching has surged in popularity this year. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, birders set a world record on May 9 for Global Big Day, an annual bird-spotting event. Participants using the lab’s eBird platform reported more than two million observations — the most bird sightings documented in a single day — and recorded 6,479 species.

Credit…Michael Kopack III, via Associated Press

Spring is always a busy season for bird-watching, said Marshall Iliff, a project leader at the Cornell lab. “But this year is sort of off the charts,” he said.

For Layla Adanero, who was working as a business analyst in Manhattan until she was furloughed in April, bird-watching has been a respite from the faster-paced life she left behind when she moved back home to London.

Now the chirps and coos in her backyard, once ignored as background noise, have become clues to understanding an entire ecosystem.

“It’s quite meditative to watch another life form go about its day,” said Ms. Adanero, 23. “It’s like another way of practicing mindfulness.”

Her recent sightings include an adult long-tailed tit, a fluffy little bird with a white head and dramatic black tail feathers; and a great spotted woodpecker in a busy pattern of black and white, with spots of red.

There’s something symbolic about watching the birds fly while she is in lockdown, Ms. Adanero said: “They represent the ultimate freedom of movement.”

Credit…Nathalie Couzon
Credit…Nathalie Couzon

Corina Newsome, 27, an avian expert and graduate student of biology at Georgia Southern University, said the coronavirus lockdowns coincided with spring migration — the perfect time for new birders to look to the sky.

“I think it will end up making us better stewards of our natural space, as well as give us peace and calm to see that even though our rhythm is interrupted, there is a larger rhythm that continues to go on,” Ms. Newsome said.

Ms. Newsome noted that the birding community was not particularly diverse and might not seem welcoming to everyone. “Birding groups are typically white and older people,” she said. “It can feel uncomfortable as a young black person.”

But anyone can take up birding, she said, adding that it was incumbent on white birders to condemn racism in the community, and helpful for bird watchers of color to encourage each other.

During the lockdowns, she has been fielding more birding questions on social media from newbies, amateurs and parents introducing the pastime to their children.

In New Orleans, Rebekah Bradshaw, 41, started bird-watching as a way to keep her three children active after schools closed. Her son Liam, 11, said he had used a phone app to log about 150 species, including ruddy turnstones and yellow-crowned night herons.

“He’s at that age now where he can really get sucked into the screen,” Ms. Bradshaw said. “So I was like, ‘Let’s go bird-watching.’ Both of my big kids really got into it, and even the baby now walks around outside looking at the sky saying: ‘Bird! Bird!’”

Some birds are drawn to the Bradshaws’ area because they live close to the Bayou St. John and Lake Pontchartrain. But birding is a hobby that city dwellers, rural residents or suburbanites anywhere can try.

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Nathalie Couzon, 31, has been largely confined to her third-floor apartment in Bangkok because of the coronavirus. She usually makes YouTube videos about her travels, but lately she has been turning her camera on the birds that gather in treetops outside.

“I transferred my hobby from the national parks to my balcony,” she said.

Her sightings there have included yellow-vented bulbuls, Asian koels and the coppersmith barbet — her favorite — so named because its metronomic calls ring out like a hammer hitting metal. “You can hear it everywhere,” Ms. Couzon said. “It’s pretty small, but so colorful. If you see it, you will love it from the very first glance.”

Credit…Nathalie Couzon

“It’s been used by researchers all over the world in ways that we never predicted,” said Mr. Iliff, the project leader from the lab.

Ms. Newsome uses the program, and the data entered by her and other birders helps contextualize sightings for people who use the lab’s free Merlin app. That’s the one Liam uses in New Orleans.

In London, Ms. Adanero uses an app called Smart Bird ID to identify species, and she has nudged her 10-year-old sister to do the same.

It will require patience. But she has cultivated a lot of that in lockdown, with bird-watching as one of her favorite ways to pass the time.

“If you’re staying at home, especially in confinement, and you want to see some nature,” she said, “you can just open your window.”

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