Birds & Birding

The Hidden Hazards of Learning to Bird

This scarlet tanager at a birdfeeder is for illustration purposes only. I want to stress that this is not a feeder from any of my neighbors' yards. © Jim Williams


Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of blogs exploring if it’s possible for someone who can’t tell a house finch from a song sparrow to become an expert birder in four months. Read the first post in the series.

I thought the next step in my Zero to Hero Birding adventure would be a big-time field trip – lots of cool species, migrations, and fancy spotting scopes.

That will come. But I have recently discovered that birding is more fraught than I ever imagined.

So today – in the interest of public service — I feel compelled to share the lessons I’ve learned during my last few weeks as a neophyte birder. Most of them belong under the heading, “It would have been nice if someone had bothered to warn me.”

#1: This May Come as a Surprise, but Not Everyone Automatically Assumes You’re Using Those Binoculars for Birding

This will likely be true of all your neighbors. But I can confirm that it is especially true of neighbors who happen to have very nice bird feeders and birdbaths in their backyards.

You might think if when they see you on your deck, binoculars trained on the feeder in their yard, they will assume that, of course, it’s obvious you must be watching birds. You might think that. But you would be wrong.

Trust me on this – the assumption that you are an innocuous birder is NOT the first conclusion they will leap to.

Proof of Birding © Karine Aigner
Proof of Birding © Karine Aigner

To avoid any unpleasantness, inform your neighbors ahead of time if you’re going to be engaging in binocular-assisted backyard birding.

(This goes double if the birdfeeder in your neighbor’s yard turns out to be in front of the windows to their kids’ rooms.)

#2: Squirrels Are Evil, Devious Gluttons

In an effort to stop freaking out my neighbors, I got my own feeder and put it where I could see it out the window of my home office. It was a simple suet block hanging in a green wire cage.

It attracted a nice collection of backyard birds, including cardinals, white-throated sparrows, robins, grackles, and even a Carolina chickadee.

Of course, that was before the squirrels found it.

Squirrel raiding the birdfeeder © Tristan Ferne/flickr
Squirrel raiding the birdfeeder © Tristan Ferne/flickr

I had been warned to be careful of feeders – that they can sometimes attract rats or other vermin – but no one explained that “other vermin” is really code for “devil squirrels.”

Instead of birds, my feeder was soon host to a kind of combination squirrel buffet and wrestling match. The way they hung upside down, climbed over each other, defied gravity, and contorted their bodies to get inside the feeder, it was like watching Cirque de Soleil acrobats in a cage fight.

Lesson learned. If you’re going to have a birdfeeder, get one with advanced squirrel-excluder technology.

For me, there’s a kind of cheap schadenfreude in watching the squirrel-proof feeders thwart the little bushy-tailed marauders. Petty, I know, but also satisfying.

#3: Do Not Ever Say,”Tufted Titmouse” to Your Sons

On the off chance that the reasons for this are not self-explanatory, you can test it yourself. All you need are a couple of boys aged 10 to 16.

While they’re sitting in the kitchen, point to your backyard and utter the phrase, “Look! A tufted titmouse.”

The younger one will say, “A WHAT kind of mouse?” And the older one will snort milk out of his nose. It will then deteriorate — rapidly — from there.

#4: Two Words: “Warbler Neck”

Who knew birding had its own specific over-use injury?

Warbler neck: it’s like tennis elbow, but for birders.

From personal experience, I can attest that you get it by spending hours craning your neck to catch a glimpse of a bird that will undoubtedly be facing the other way when you finally spot it.

This is how you get warbler neck. © Lloyd DeGrane
This is how you get warbler neck. © Lloyd DeGrane

I was advised that buying the lightest binoculars you can afford helps with this. For myself, I’m inclined to self-prescribe regular prophylactic massages during warbler migration. (Come to think of it, since I’ve been getting warbler neck in the course of this assignment, I wonder if workers’ comp applies.)

#5: And Finally, No One will Understand About the Vultures

Titmouse incident aside, my family has been very supportive of my birding project. Except for the part about the vultures. Apparently, they find it hard to understand my growing love for a bird that eats carrion, pees on its own legs, and looks more than a little like Friar Tuck in a black feather boa.

Go figure.

Thank you to everyone who sent me birding tips or left a note in the comments last time.

I’m curious about what others wish they’d known when they first started birding? Or for the other beginners out there, what do you wish someone had told you?


Next time on Zero to Hero: A Field Report from Boucher’s Birding Boot Camp

Birding Life List: 30 species

What I’m reading this week: King Bird Highway: The Biggest Year in the Life of an Extreme Birder by Kenn Kaufman

 

I’m out birding most mornings and you can follow along on Instagram. So far, my best sighting — and the only one I’ve managed to get a (slightly blurry) picture of — has been a barred owl.

 

Cara Byington

Cara Byington is a science writer for The Nature Conservancy covering the work of Conservancy scientists and partners, including the NatureNet Fellows for Cool Green Science. A misplaced Floridian living in Maryland, she is especially fond of any story assignment involving boats and islands, and when not working, can be found hiking, kayaking or traveling with her family and friends. Best birds (so far) in 2016: Burrowing Owl (TX, February) Swallow-Tailed Kite (FL, March), Golden Eagle & White-Tailed Kite (CA, May) More from Cara

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18 comments

  1. I wish I’d thought about making smaller birds a buffet item for Hawks. I know raptors have to make a living too, but I’ve had more up close moments getting buzzed by a Cooper in pursuit than I care for.

  2. Use your ears! It’s breeding season! Now is a good time to get familiar with xeno-canto and dendroica and let them help you learn everyone’s song.

  3. Omg…I can totally relate to every one of these points, exactly as stated; right down to the children (2 boys aged 8 and 11). My neighbour…Yep, same thing happened, only I was taking pictures of a bird on the fence between our yards, but certainly it didn’t look like that to her!
    You dud forget one; the one about driving down the road and having to pull over quickly bc you thought you saw that bald eagle, soaring overhead, spilling your tea in your cup-holder all over the console, and narrowly avoiding a MVA in the process.
    Oh, the hazards of this hobby!

    1. Typo: that should have said, “you DID”, not “dud”!

      1. Every one of these points is so true. I pointed out to my neighborhood association that not every person pulled over on the side of the road was up to no good. They could be birders- like me! I agree with Jennifer’s addition- before chasing bird, and pulling over- make sure no one is going to rear end you. My FYI for new birders is that it will be difficult to impossible to get anywhere on time ever again because you will either have to stop on way for photo of rare bird, go a circuitous route that makes perfect sense to you (see migrating warblers that you read about on fb), and/or forget about appointment/family gathering because you are trying to download, and ID photos taken from yesterday’s outing. A related heads-up is that even chores/activities I used to enjoy are just not getting done: yard work, housework, seeing friends unless they bird… Welcome to the best hobby/ way of life ever!

  4. […] Birds will never vaguely and cruelly disappoint us. Even if birding itself is a selfish activity, they seem to recognize the efforts that people put in (bad weather notwithstanding). Many have written about what these efforts should constitute. Nick Upton makes some great points. Jesse Greenspan opines on safety while birding. Cara Byington’s piece on hidden hazards in birding is a gem of a rib-tickler. […]

  5. Try throwing a good amount of bird seed on the ground under the feeders to keep the squirrels happy. It seems to work well in the three locations where I have had feeders on Long Island, New York.

  6. Beware of terrestrial obstacles. I know rocks and logs aren’t interesting until you study other branches of science, but they can trip up a birder at any level of expertise.
    Ditto, Jennifer, on swerving in traffic, especially at 50 man when the shoulder is a cliff. It was worth it to set my first East Coast bald eagle but only because my power brakes were so unexpectedly efficient.

  7. In addition to getting squirrel-proof feeders (I like the one that flings them across the yard) consider getting squirrels their own feeding platform. They love peanuts (cheap) and whole corn (cheap); put it on a nice flat platform they can access easily and fight over amongst themselves. Squirrels will always take the path of least resistance. Given easy access to the squirrely equivalent of fast food over having to work for something tastier, they’ll opt for the drive-thru lane.

  8. My uncle has free-standing bird feeders on tall poles. He put motor oil on the poles so the squirrels couldn’t get any traction.

  9. Oh what fun your blog is! Just want to say I am a vulture lover from way back. They are amazing. Add “The Big Year” to your reading list. Looking forward to your next post

  10. p.s. I have the “Yankee Flipper” bird feeder. One morning I watched a squirrel go around 100 times before it finally let go!! Poor little fella.

  11. i wish someone had warned me that I would be hearing so many different birds (from my own back porch) that I can neithert see nor identify. I record their beautiful songs but can’t find anyone knowledgeable to listen to the recordings & ID the birds for me.

  12. Reading of your experiences….Whoa! LOL! Deja vu! First of all, I put baffles (tube type) on my feeders …. my seed is way to expensive to feed every squirrel that learns of the smorgasbord AND they eat your feeders! Second, etch your name or identifier on your binocculars where you can easily spot yours….. just in case. Third, don’t get ahead of your trip leader and don’t talk….listen! Fourth, don’t wear a big floppy hat, white shirt or perfume. (The white shirt thing is controversial) Fifth, don’t say Brown Boobies to your husband or any non birder! Lastly, I also pack a lunch….if the birds are good, you don’t want to stop for lunch! Have fun!