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Birding In Place: Your Starter Kit For Bird Watching From Home

Erik Johnson
Audubon Louisiana
A cerulean warbler sits in a tree, looks really nice today, thanks for noticing.

Many of us are cooped up in our homes, looking for things to do — and maybe taking more notice of the birds.

Turns out, whether you live in the city or the country, this is the perfect time to do some bird watching.

For a beginner’s guide to birding from the comfort of your home, we spoke with Erik Johnson, director of Bird Conservation with Audubon Louisiana.

Travis Lux: I’ve read that Louisiana is a hotspot for birds. Right now there are all these birds that are migrating from across the world and are passing through here. Can you tell us about the journey that those birds make?

Erik Johnson: Yeah, so birds right now are coming back from Central and South America. They’re flying up through the Yucatan Peninsula, and then many of them actually cross the Gulf of Mexico in a single flight. That’s a 600-mile flight, nonstop. It can take them anywhere from 15-25 hours to make that journey, depending on the headwinds.

When they get here, they’re exhausted. They land wherever they can find shelter and food and will try to refuel and drink water so that they can continue the journey northward.

I’m wondering if you can name two birds that people can expect to hear this time of year. Maybe you could start with a bird that lives in Louisiana year-round?

A bird that lives in Louisiana year-round that people are likely hearing right now are the Carolina wrens.

Credit Erik Johnson / Audubon Louisiana
Audubon Louisiana
A Carolina wren calls from a branch, probably pretty loudly.

They’re little brown birds that often hang around our homes. They’ll nest in our planters, in our gardens, in our trees, in our shrubs. And they sing really, really loud. They’re one of the first birds to sing every morning, and they’re just a pleasant awakening to the day.

Listen: Carolina wren. Credit: Terry Davis, XC323734. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/323734 (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

What about a bird that might just be passing through, migrating through Louisiana?

One of my favorites is the prothonotary warbler. It’s a bird that we’ve done work on at Audubon Louisiana — tracking them all the way to Colombia, where they spend the winter. They’re coming back right now and filling up our bottomland hardwood forest and swamps.

Credit Erik Johnson / Audubon Louisiana
Audubon Louisiana
A prothonotary warbler, otherwise known to your caption writer as a golden round-boi, rests on a thin tree branch.

So if you go out into the woods, particularly wet forests, you’ll probably hear that this time of year.

Listen: prothonotary warbler. Credit: Gregory Askew, XC523689. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/523689 (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

I want to talk about tips and tricks for getting started. If you’re just a beginner or you’ve never birded before, should I be using my ears first or my eyes first? What do I do?

Use all your senses! Especially your ears and your eyes. If you have binoculars that’s obviously really helpful. I find that it’s really helpful to bring a notepad and a piece of paper and a pencil. That way you can write down what you’re hearing and what you’re seeing, and try to describe in your own words what you’re seeing and hearing, so you can look it up later.

Having a field guide can be very helpful. You can purchase those as a book or as a smartphone app. There are several apps that are free. The Audubon app is free. Cornell has an app called Merlin. If you’re taking pictures of birds, you can submit them to the Merlin app. It has software that will provide suggestions for what kind of bird you’ve taken a picture of.

What about feeding them? Is that cheating? Can I feed birds? And, if so, what do I feed them?

It is definitely not cheating! The good thing is birds aren’t actually dependent on the food that we put out for them, but it gives us an opportunity to get better looks at the birds that are in our communities.

Credit Erik Johnson / Audubon Louisiana
Audubon Louisiana
A rose-breasted grosbeak surrounded by snacks, highly relatable in these times.

Two of my favorite bird foods to put [in feeders] would be white millet and black oil sunflower seeds. Those will attract a real nice variety of birds. They’re easy to maintain, they’re not super expensive. Those will draw in birds like cardinals, chipping sparrows (in the winter), goldfinches (in the winter). This time of year you might see indigo buntings or rose-breasted grosbeaks, two beautiful migratory birds that are passing through that will visit your feeders.

You can also put out suet. That’ll attract woodpeckers and chickadees. You can build from there, and it’s definitely an enjoyable way to get to know the birds that are in your area.

Credit Ella Clem
An indigo bunting rests atop a sunflower, just asking to be featured on a 1,000-piece puzzle.

What about kitchen scraps? If I finish making some food and I’ve some leftover scraps, can I throw that outside for birds?

Probably not. You’re more likely to attract undesirables like rodents and racoons and those kinds of things, so definitely stick to the bird foods and bird seeds.

So you’re saying we can do some pretty good birding in the city?

It depends on what you’re interested in, but you can really go birding anywhere. There are parks — whether you live in New Orleans or Baton Rouge or Lafayette or Lake Charles or you live in an apartment. You can find a little patch of habitat in your neighborhood.

I lived in a yard that was a quarter of an acre and attracted 174 species of birds to that yard over several years. So, it’s a really accessible passtime, and it doesn’t have to be something super intense. Just a way to kind of reset, get out and enjoy nature.

So what can people do at home to help make their homes and yards better environments for birds?

One of the challenges that migratory birds face is window collisions. I’m sure many people have experienced a bird crashing into their window before — particularly migratory birds because they don’t know the area. They’re especially vulnerable to that. Windows can appear transparent to a bird, or the reflection can appear like habitat. They don’t know that the window is a solid barrier.

One way you can address that is by breaking up the reflection or the transparency using these specialized bird tapes. If you were to Google “bird tape, window collisions” you will find lots of examples to purchase over the internet. They’re relatively inexpensive. The idea is to break up your window into four-inch by four-inch squares. You can also hang up string in front of your windows. Even simply just putting a screen on a window that doesn’t have one can make a big difference.

Right now we’re getting into peak window-strike season, unfortunately. Now that we’re all stuck at home, unfortunately, this is a good time to assess your windows and see if you can do things to minimize the impact to birds.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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As Coastal Reporter, Travis Lux covers flood protection, coastal restoration, infrastructure, the energy and seafood industries, and the environment. In this role he's reported on everything from pipeline protests in the Atchafalaya swamp, to how shrimpers cope with low prices. He had a big hand in producing the series, New Orleans: Ready Or Not?, which examined how prepared New Orleans is for a future with more extreme weather. In 2017, Travis co-produced two episodes of TriPod: New Orleans at 300 examining New Orleans' historic efforts at flood protection. One episode, NOLA vs Nature: The Other Biggest Flood in New Orleans History, was recognized with awards from the Public Radio News Directors and the New Orleans Press Club. His stories often find a wider audience on national programs, too, like NPR's Morning Edition, WBUR's Here and Now, and WHYY's The Pulse.

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