By Alex Israel
For those of us able to work remotely, each day can feel monotonous and draining—hunched over our computers, staring at screens, and stuck on endless streams of back-to-back Zoom meetings. Even for those on pause for the moment, it can be nerve-wracking to make the decision to stay outside for longer than a quick walk. Confined to our homes for the foreseeable future, I humbly recommend a new hobby: birding from home.
By some definitions, ‘bird-watching’ is the passive act of noticing birds, while ‘birding’ is a more active behavior, where one gets up early or travels to seek them out. But since birding is not an essential activity, I’m willing to give anyone actively looking for birds out their window a pass, and welcome you into the birding community. There’s no better time to pick up the hobby, since all it requires is your eyes and ears. Sure, a fancy pair of binoculars or a camera with a zoom lens will certainly make some birds easier to spot and identify; but even without them, you can still start with the basics.
Whether your ‘backyard’ is the interior of your apartment complex, a busy city avenue, or a tree-filled sidewalk, you might be surprised at how much you can find out your window. Between the rarer species that touch down only during a 6-8 week migration window each spring and fall, and the species who reside here year-round, more than 200 different birds frequent the New York City metropolitan area in a given year. And if you know what to look—and listen—for, you can become a pro at identifying them from the comfort of your home.
Get down and birdy with the guide below.
These birding ABCs will help get you started.
The most exciting birds I’ve ever found (inside and outside) were prompted by a call or chirp. Keep your window cracked, and if you hear something, start by pinpointing where it’s coming from. Then think about who it might be so you know what type of behavior to look for.
If you’re excited to have spotted something out of the corner of your eye, don’t rush to your window. Birds can be easily spooked, especially if they’re super close. Calmly make your way over, position yourself in a comfortable spot with the best view, and keep any motion slow and steady.
Confirm Your ID
Check external resources to shore up your identification skills. I recommend the Sibley Guide to Birds (available via print, ebook, or app) which features in-depth illustrations, as well as Merlin Bird ID, an app from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology that lets you explore photos and sounds from 5,000+ species.
MEET THE LOCALS
These are some of the most common birds that I’ve been able to spot—14 floors up—during the last several weeks of quarantine. Included are photos of the birds up close, as well as how they appear from my window.
Arguably the most vibrant of our regular city birds (matched only by the northern cardinal and the American goldfinch), surprisingly, blue jays are typically heard before seen. While its namesake jay! jay! can often be heard, don’t be fooled by its frequent mimicry. It’s not uncommon to hear what you might expect is a hawk, only to look outside and find a blue jay, screaming at the top of its lungs. When in doubt, look out for its beautiful speckled tail, black beard, and bright blue tuft.
A cousin of our unofficial city mascot, the rock dove (AKA pigeon), mourning doves are known for their calls, which I like to refer to as ‘sad cooing’: a soft coo-OO, followed by by 2-3 louder coos. Another common city sound comes from their wings, which make a loud whistling when they take off or land. Look for their disproportionately small head, plump brown body, and long, pointed tail sitting overhead on thin perches like wires and fences.
These objectively adorable birds tend to hang out higher up than some of the other local songbirds. You can’t miss the male, with his a rosy-red breast and face (though no one will fault you for confusing the all-brown female with a house sparrow). Listen for their cheep cheeps undercut with some low warbling, which—when you take into account that they mate for life—can sound a lot like the bickering of an old married couple. Losing resolve several weeks into lockdown, a male paid me a spirit-boosting visit, so don’t discount how high up they’ll fly.
Mockingbirds are exactly what you’d expect: master mimickers, specializing in the sounds they hear most frequently. If you think you hear several different birds trilling, or even an ambulance wailing—think twice, and take a peek outside to see if this bird is the culprit. It often takes the high ground, perching atop chimneys and water towers while bobbing its tail. Once you spot it, you can watch it sing—sometimes for 20 seconds or more, cycling through different ‘phrases’ that will sound familiar. During quarantine, the mockingbird across the street has become a reliable friend, brightening my day with its car alarm impression.
Don’t forget to look up! If you look toward the skies, aside from the more common local gull species and Canada geese, you might also catch a glimpse of this black aquatic bird taking flight—usually headed toward the nearest body of water for some fresh fish. While gulls glide with the wind and geese flap steadily (and honk), cormorants will combine both, flapping a bit before gliding in short bursts. When not in flight, you can find them sunning themselves alongside Central Park’s bodies of water, like Turtle Pond and the Lake, throughout most of the year.
Congratulations—you’re all set to start birding from home. If you spot (or need help identifying) any of the above species, or have other locals keeping you company that you want to share, let us know in the comments or tag @westsiderag (and me!) on Twitter. Good luck!
This is the fifth installation of ‘The Bird Bulletin,’ a recurring series featuring topics about birds and the people who love, chase, and help them on the Upper West Side.