In a world turned upside-down, birds can help restore some sanity

Second of two parts

There’s not a lot to be optimistic about during the virus meltdown, but here’s something bird enthusiasts can celebrate: The news is full of suggestions that people take up birdwatching to battle stay-at-home boredom and anxiety.

As birders all know, the more people get interested in birds, the more likely they are to want our state and federal government agencies to protect them.

A Carolina Chickadee among the buds outside our window / Photos by Anders Gyllenhaal

I’m still giddy over the Slate magazine article a few days ago with the headline: “You Have No Choice But to Become a Backyard Birder.”

Slate’s article is a terrific, step-by-step guide on how to morph from a person who sort of likes birds into one who could possibly become a serious birder one day. Click here for the story.

This isn’t the only “Bird Now” headline landing in my Google feed. I’ve seen similar stories from local radio and television stations, newspapers and news websites.

“Riotous Explosion of Life Awaits Birding Newbies in This Stay-at-home Era” proclaims the March 28 headline from NPR station WHYY in Philadelphia.

 “[Birding] is a time-tested way of putting things back in perspective and realizing that life does go on and will go on,” said Jeffrey Gordon, president of the American Birding Association, in the WHYY interview. “It feels like a perfect fit.” Here’s that story. 

It’s nice to have something to celebrate because in April alone, 36 birding festivals across the country have been cancelled. It’s only a matter of time before the May festivals follow suit. Not only does this disappoint thousands and thousands of bird enthusiasts who attend in order to revel in the annual spring migration, the festivals are essential fund-raisers for the sponsoring conservation organizations.

A neighborhood Song Sparrow belts it out.

If times were normal, Anders and I would be driving toward Texas today to witness the arrival of the warblers during “FeatherFest” in Galveston in mid April. At the “Birdiest Festival in America” the following week in Corpus Christi, we would have attended a keynote address by David Sibley, author of the famous birding guides named for him.

Now we’re staying home. And yet, spring has not been cancelled, the songbirds will still migrate, and my beloved warblers are just as exciting to see here as they would be in Texas or anywhere else.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what is sure to become the “Historic and Infamous Spring Migration of 2020.” There is indeed the promise of discovery it holds for beginning birders and the opportunity for adding numbers to our ranks. But this is also going to upend the annual rituals for experienced birders who plan their lives around peering through binoculars between now and the end of May.

A Robin just outside our door with nesting supplies

All of this has made me wonder what other birders are going to do to make the most of the migration when favorite parks and trails are forbidden fruit. You only get so many spring migrations in a birding lifetime. To waste one is unthinkable.

A male Bluebird perches among the bud outside our window

While we’re waiting for the seasonal birds to arrive, Anders and I are spending time every day walking around our apartment complex in Raleigh, N.C., watching the local birds going about the work of spring. And I’m also going to spend time over the next few weeks getting stay-at-home suggestions from fellow birders around the country, and taking notes about my own changing strategies. The plan is to write a few short missives here on Flying Lessons about “How We’re Birding Now.”

I’d be grateful for any ideas you may have that can help us all make the most of the situation. Send your comments to me at, or post them on our Flying Lessons page on Facebook or Instagram, or you can leave them in the comments section below this post.

As for today, I’m taking comfort from National Audubon Society President David Yarnold’s comments in an interview last week with the news website Axios:

“[While birding] you can get the joy of being outside and appreciating the most prolific wildlife on the planet,” he said. “The sense, at this moment, that there’s life out there feels a little bit like hope.”

Amen to that.

Here’s a gallery of some of the birds — mostly residents along with the first migrators — we’ve spotted in short walks around our apartment, proof there’s a lot going on wherever you are:


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