March 08 2017
City Living with Kids/Happiness/Living in Brooklyn

Bird-Watching is God’s Gift to Broke New Yorkers

Did you know that bird-watching is one of the fastest growing hobbies?  It’s not just me, everyone’s doing it.  According to a survey from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Forest Service, bird-watching is the 15th most popular outdoor recreational activity in the United States, ranking just above day hiking and visiting natural areas.

And according to a report by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, about one in five Americans are birders.  Unfortunately, this is not an ethnically diverse group.  93 percent of people who say they like to bird watch are white.  And the percentage of birders in small towns and rural area is much higher than in large metropolitan areas: 22 percent, compared to 12 percent.

I am riveted by these two statistics.

Because I have learned over the last year that bird-watching is God’s gift to broke New Yorkers.  And I’m here to tell all those hard-working, backyard-starved urban warriors, that they really should be bird-watching because it is, surprisingly, the perfect urban hobby.  For, like, a million reasons.

Reason #1: There are a lot of people here who know what they are talking about, and they will get you hooked.

One of the reasons bird-watching is soaring in popularity is the emergence of all the cool apps out there that help you identify birds.  Seeing a cool bird in the sky and wondering what it is… that is pretty much the gateway drug to full blown bird-watching.  Apps can be great, but there is no substitute for an experienced birder who can drop their wisdom on you.

One thing we have in big cities is people.  Lots of people.  So many people, it makes your head spin.  It’s a can’t get a seat on the subway, can’t get your kid a spot in swim class, can’t get a doctor’s appointment for two months kind of situation.

But on the bright side, we have all kinds of people at our disposal who know about all kinds of things, including bird-watching.  And not only are they extremely easy to find, they are usually extremely easy to hook up with.  Walking through the park and looking at birds is a lovely and pleasant enterprise.

But walking through the park with an experienced bird watcher who can point things out to you that you never would have noticed, and who can tell you what you are seeing and give you some background… this is a completely different kind of experience.

Reason #2: Bird watching has an amazing fun-to-frugal ratio.

If you get seriously hooked on bird-watching, there are two slightly expensive things you might eventually wish to have: 1. some decent binoculars and 2. a camera with a zoom lens.  But aside from that, bird-watching is a free hobby.  And most people will not need either of the above.

We went on bird walks all summer and fall in Prospect Park with the Brooklyn Bird Club.  Not only is this free, because people who love birds also love to share their passion, but the BBC actually provides binoculars on their beginner bird-watching walks.

I asked for my own binoculars for Christmas because I knew I was getting in deep and that I would use them often.  Eventually, I would love to take better pictures than I can with my phone.  Perhaps an investment for next year.  But the point is, this is not a hobby that requires any upfront investment.

Reason #3: There are tons of amazing birds here!

Bird-watching in New York City is incredibly fun.  There are so many birds to see, so many more than I ever realized.  Bright red cardinals, and cute little black capped chickadees, redder than red headed woodpeckers, majestic, enormous hawks, slender gorgeous cormorants and so much more.

The spring migration is about to start, which is the best time for bird-watching, and we are fired up and ready, hoping we’ll see some birds pass through that we wouldn’t ordinarily have a chance to see.

Cardinal, basking in his redness…
Hawk, mildly interested in passing pigeon…
Junco, visiting our fire escape…

Now is the time to get on board!  Any New Yorker who watches the local news will remember the pandemonium caused by the painted bunting spotted in Prospect Park last spring.  Seriously, people freaked out. It was a whole thing.

Reason #4: Bird-watching is an amazing activity for families.

This has been the best part of all, over at my house.  My 5 year old son came bird-watching with me all summer and is now fully obsessed with birds.

Pretty pleased with my “Scarlet Tanager” cake.

Bird-watching is perfect for kids.  Birds are even better than Pokeman!  There are just as many, they have names that are just as crazy, and you can learn all their information.  But unlike Pokemon, you can also go out and spot real ones.

My son is constantly drawing birds, he has various bird logs and he is willing himself learn to read and write so that he can log his sightings.  He even asked for a “scarlet tanager” birthday cake, which I, of course, obliged.

Reason #5: No yard? No problem.

I don’t have a yard, but I have a stoop, trees on my block, windows and a fire escape.  Turns out, this is all we need to see lots of cool birds while in our pajamas.

The yard behind my building isn’t mine to use, but I can still see it.  The apartment behind ours has a bird feeder that attracts tons of birds, so it inspired us to get our own.

I spent about $30 on a smallish one that I hung from our fire escape.  It has just been bird-mania outside our window ever since.  It took a few days, but a house finch finally found it, told all his friends and now they are here every day.  The male house finch is a beautiful reddish color… a pure joy to look at.

Some fun bird facts to send you on your way:

The state with the highest percentage of birders?  Vermont, at 39 percent. The lowest: Hawaii, at 7 percent.  Seriously, what the hell is wrong with you, Hawaii?  You guys probably have the best birds!  I guess it’s all  “there goes another great frigatebird, yawn.  Let’s go surfing.”

Resources for Urban Want-to-be Birders:

Apps: I don’t really use apps so much, but the birders that I have gone on walks with really seem to like Merlin, from the Cornell Lab, which helps with identification. Maybe we’ll give it a try this spring.

bird-watching

Binoculars: It’s hard to find a decent pair if binoculars for under $100.  Even for an amateur bird-watcher, I wouldn’t recommend buying a pair for less.  After doing quite a bit of research, I went with the Celestron Nature DX, which is a pretty good pair for the price.  They have worked great for me.  Binoculars are like cameras – you can spend thousands, and there is a difference.  But I don’t have thousands, so these do for me.

Cornell Lab Feederwatch: Want to count your “backyard” birds for science?  Join Cornell Lab Feederwatch and log all the birds you see.  My kids love sitting with me and logging our data, and we can all feel excited that we’re contributing to science.

The FeederWatch season ends in April and begins again in the Fall.  There is a small fee, about $18, to get your ID, but the money is obviously going to understanding the health of bird populations, and how to support them.

I’m on the Cornell Lab website all the time – it is a wonderful resource.  Lately I’ve been reading about which native plants I can keep on my fire escape to attract more birds.  (Don’t worry, I’ll do my best not to break any fire codes!)

Brooklyn Bird Club: For my locals – if you are not going on these Brooklyn Bird Club walks for beginners, you’re missing out.  Free and fun, they have opened my family up to a whole new world.

Heather Wolf: Heather documents all the birds she sees at Brooklyn Bridge Park. I am a huge fan.  Her book, Birding at the Bridge is a must for any Brooklyn bird lover.  She leads walks at Brooklyn Bridge Park, which is definitely on our list to check out this year.

Field Guide: Rather than apps, we mostly use our field guide and the brains of whichever birder we are walking with.  My son flips through our field guide endlessly, as do I.  A useful resource, for sure.

We have a few different ones, but the one we use most is the Field Guide to the Neighborhood Birds of New York City.  The more specific your field guide to your particular location, the better.

Favorite bird book for kids: We borrow millions of bird books from our library – my son can’t get enough.  Our favorite is Look Up! Bird-Watching in Your Own Backyard. It’s perfect for city and suburban kids.  We loved this one so much, we bought it.

squirrel proof bird feeder

Bird Feeder: We have some pretty aggressive squirrels behind our building, so we opted for this “Squirrel Buster” feeder.   It’s great because if anything heavier than a bird jumps on it, the outer metal part comes down and makes the seed inaccessible.  I only wish we got a bigger size since these finches are eating so fast!

In closing…

It’s impossible not to mention the outstanding work done by the National Audubon Society and its many local chapters.  For more than a century it has promoted education and conservation without political controversy.

But of course, in our current dysfunctional climate, conservation, the safeguarding of fragile habitats and protection of bird species and endangered species has, very sadly, become a liberal idea, as far as politicians are concerned.  Even though most Americans support conservation. It was not always this way, and it should not be this way.  If you like birds, support and follow the Audubon Society.  They are fighting the good fight. And tell your Congressperson, too.

What say you? Do you like to bird watch in your park or backyard? Will you speak for the birds?

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  • I love to sit and watch birds… or any wildlife for that matter. It is soooooo soothing and really calms me. When I took a trip to Australia, I was in heaven with all the wildlife including the rock wallabies and several unique species of birds. I could sit silently and watch for forever.

    Unfortunately, there is a problem with the bird population and house cats. I guess bird populations are in decline because there are so many cats. Even though these cats get plenty to eat, they still like to kill for sport and the bells on the collars don’t do enough to prevent this. I used to think cats should be able to roam outside and enjoy themselves, but an unbalanced ecosystem is a problem.

    Another problem with bird populations is our lawn culture. Birds will migrate thousands of miles thinking they will have plenty of food, and then they get to manicured lawns and non-native plant species.

    So, yes, we all need to do our part… thanks for reminding us of that!

    • Just this week my dad, who loves to quiz me on trivia, was asking me if I knew the number one killer of birds. I guessed glass buildings. That was number 2. Cats are the number one killer of birds, which I did not know. But I honestly didn’t realize that this was outside the normal balance of things. Very enlightening and concerning. The glass building thing is a whole other nightmare. The new Vikings stadium is a mass bird grave because planners refused to listen to the simple recommendations from bird experts to discourage birds from flying into the glass and killing themselves. The utter indifference, the sheer arrogance, it enrages me. Thanks so much for commenting! -Linda

  • Living in the burbs we watch birds in our yard all the time. I swear we’ve had the same blue-jay around our yard for the last 10 years. Heard a woodpecker just this week. We have plenty of other wildlife, squirrels, rabbits, chipmunks to keep our dog pretty active. I’ll have to check out the app, there are so many different types of birds it would be fun to identify more of them.

    • Be careful – one you start, it is easy to fall down the bird rabbit hole! Now I even find my husband staring out our kitchen window, monitoring all the action. We are all obsessed!

  • Yes to bird watching! We’ve seen so many different species in our years of camping. We always have a reference guide handy for identification. And when the kids started getting older, they liked to identify birds by their calls (with an app). We have many different species around our house and were thrilled to see our family of Eastern Bluebirds return a couple of weeks ago. And btw, my cats are strictly indoor cats! 🙂

    • Oh my son is obsessed with seeing a bluebird! He has a bunch of the little Audubon plush birds and for his birthday he asked for the bluebird – they are so beautiful. It’s funny, it was our one big disappointment when we went to Acadia – the birds were all gone! I’m excited for spring because we took up bird-watching after the spring migration last year. Hopefully we will get to have some fun sightings. Of course, it was 68 degrees yesterday and snowing now – goodness only knows what effect this has on their travels…

  • We’re lucky enough to get lots of wildlife watching in our yard. (well, sometimes unlucky too. Deer are a nuisance). In addition to squirrels, lizards and birds, we’ve seen deer, foxes, rabbits, snakes, mice, raccoons and possums.

    Unfortunately, I am really bad at identifying species, even with my trusty guidebook in hand.

    • I would die – literally die – to see a fox. Of course, last night my husband and I both shot out of bed hearing a noise outside and looked out the window to see some shadowy figures. I said “I think I saw raccoons.” My husband shined his phone light outside – sure enough, two enormous raccoons climbing on fences. They disappeared and 10 seconds later, we saw them on the roof across the way. Shudder! There are a lot of raccoons in Brooklyn. They are not cute, like foxes.

      Brooklyn Bread recently posted…Bird-Watching is God’s Gift to Broke New YorkersMy Profile

  • I became more fascinated with birds, especially chickens, after reading Birdology by Sy Montgomery. And I’d never even seen a hummingbird before moving to NC. Now I’ve got three feeders full of them in the warmer months. I’m convinced one of them has come back for three years now. He favors a spot on my neighbor’s patio chair where he likes to rest.

    • My older son and I just happened to have the incredible experience of seeing a hummingbird at my in-laws’ house in Rhode Island. We were just stunned – we didn’t even know what it was at first – we thought it was a bug! My mother-in-law promised she’d put the hummingbird feeder early this spring. Hoping we will see more – it was so incredibly exciting.

  • As an experienced birder, I would Suggest the two things you need are binoculars and a field guide. Learn to identify birds in the field before getting a camera.

  • Excellent post! I very much agree (although if one falls down the serious bird photography rabbithole, it can actually get pretty expensive…photography is a dangerous hobby that way).

    Hawaii is an interesting place to bird, but most of the native birds are extinct or hard to find, so after you’ve seen the seabirds and the flashy introduced species it’s not as exciting as, say, Florida or anywhere else in the SE. There just isn’t that much bird diversity there. Florida, though…wow. Someday I want to go there!

    • Hi Melissa – thank you so much for your comment. And for educating me about Hawaii. A few years ago, my family went on a vacation to the west coast of Florida. And every day on the beach we were floored by the birds we saw. So I dragged everyone to the Ding Darling Wildlife Preserve. It was like 100 degrees and we saw one bird. Note to self – don’t try to bird watch in Florida in the summer anyplace but the beach! And yes, you’re right… the sky’s the limit with photography. I would just like to be able to zoom in a bit better than I can with my phone. Thanks again for reading! -Linda

    • Michele – we have come on this walk many times and can’t wait for the next mild day to pick back up. Are you “leader Michele” as my son Gavin refers to you? Lol! He has a picture that he made for you. : ) -Linda

    1. Michele 06:20am 12 March - 2017 - Reply

      Introduction to Bird Watching walks meet Saturday’s at noon in front of the Prospect Park Boathouse

      • Brooklyn Bread 09:14am 12 March - 2017 - Reply

        Michele – we have come on this walk many times and can’t wait for the next mild day to pick back up. Are you “leader Michele” as my son Gavin refers to you? Lol! He has a picture that he made for you. : ) -Linda

    2. Melissa 11:15pm 10 March - 2017 - Reply

      Excellent post! I very much agree (although if one falls down the serious bird photography rabbithole, it can actually get pretty expensive…photography is a dangerous hobby that way).

      Hawaii is an interesting place to bird, but most of the native birds are extinct or hard to find, so after you’ve seen the seabirds and the flashy introduced species it’s not as exciting as, say, Florida or anywhere else in the SE. There just isn’t that much bird diversity there. Florida, though…wow. Someday I want to go there!

      • Brooklyn Bread 08:40am 11 March - 2017 - Reply

        Hi Melissa – thank you so much for your comment. And for educating me about Hawaii. A few years ago, my family went on a vacation to the west coast of Florida. And every day on the beach we were floored by the birds we saw. So I dragged everyone to the Ding Darling Wildlife Preserve. It was like 100 degrees and we saw one bird. Note to self – don’t try to bird watch in Florida in the summer anyplace but the beach! And yes, you’re right… the sky’s the limit with photography. I would just like to be able to zoom in a bit better than I can with my phone. Thanks again for reading! -Linda

    3. Al 07:36pm 10 March - 2017 - Reply

      As an experienced birder, I would Suggest the two things you need are binoculars and a field guide. Learn to identify birds in the field before getting a camera.

    4. Mrs. Groovy 04:47pm 10 March - 2017 - Reply

      I became more fascinated with birds, especially chickens, after reading Birdology by Sy Montgomery. And I’d never even seen a hummingbird before moving to NC. Now I’ve got three feeders full of them in the warmer months. I’m convinced one of them has come back for three years now. He favors a spot on my neighbor’s patio chair where he likes to rest.

      • Brooklyn Bread 05:01pm 10 March - 2017 - Reply

        My older son and I just happened to have the incredible experience of seeing a hummingbird at my in-laws’ house in Rhode Island. We were just stunned – we didn’t even know what it was at first – we thought it was a bug! My mother-in-law promised she’d put the hummingbird feeder early this spring. Hoping we will see more – it was so incredibly exciting.

    5. Emily @ JohnJaneDoe 09:23am 10 March - 2017 - Reply

      We’re lucky enough to get lots of wildlife watching in our yard. (well, sometimes unlucky too. Deer are a nuisance). In addition to squirrels, lizards and birds, we’ve seen deer, foxes, rabbits, snakes, mice, raccoons and possums.

      Unfortunately, I am really bad at identifying species, even with my trusty guidebook in hand.

      • Brooklyn Bread 09:43am 10 March - 2017 - Reply

        I would die – literally die – to see a fox. Of course, last night my husband and I both shot out of bed hearing a noise outside and looked out the window to see some shadowy figures. I said “I think I saw raccoons.” My husband shined his phone light outside – sure enough, two enormous raccoons climbing on fences. They disappeared and 10 seconds later, we saw them on the roof across the way. Shudder! There are a lot of raccoons in Brooklyn. They are not cute, like foxes.

    6. Amanda @ centsiblyrich 10:56pm 09 March - 2017 - Reply

      Yes to bird watching! We’ve seen so many different species in our years of camping. We always have a reference guide handy for identification. And when the kids started getting older, they liked to identify birds by their calls (with an app). We have many different species around our house and were thrilled to see our family of Eastern Bluebirds return a couple of weeks ago. And btw, my cats are strictly indoor cats! 🙂

      • Brooklyn Bread 08:53am 10 March - 2017 - Reply

        Oh my son is obsessed with seeing a bluebird! He has a bunch of the little Audubon plush birds and for his birthday he asked for the bluebird – they are so beautiful. It’s funny, it was our one big disappointment when we went to Acadia – the birds were all gone! I’m excited for spring because we took up bird-watching after the spring migration last year. Hopefully we will get to have some fun sightings. Of course, it was 68 degrees yesterday and snowing now – goodness only knows what effect this has on their travels…

    7. Smart Provisions 03:25am 09 March - 2017 - Reply

      Ooh, this is awesome!

      I like to bird watch as wells, but there aren’t as many birds in LA, so I’ve kinda resorted to people watching and nature exploring.

      • Brooklyn Bread 08:01am 09 March - 2017 - Reply

        How can there be more birds in NY than La?? You need to look by the water!

    8. Mrs. Picky Pincher 06:36pm 08 March - 2017 - Reply

      Awww, this is cute! I never got into bird-watching as a hobby, but I could see the lure of it. You can’t get more affordable than watching nature. 🙂

      • Brooklyn Bread 08:51pm 08 March - 2017 - Reply

        You are right! Even in this debt-bomb of a city, it’s still free!

    9. Brian 03:20pm 08 March - 2017 - Reply

      Living in the burbs we watch birds in our yard all the time. I swear we’ve had the same blue-jay around our yard for the last 10 years. Heard a woodpecker just this week. We have plenty of other wildlife, squirrels, rabbits, chipmunks to keep our dog pretty active. I’ll have to check out the app, there are so many different types of birds it would be fun to identify more of them.

      • Brooklyn Bread 05:51pm 08 March - 2017 - Reply

        Be careful – one you start, it is easy to fall down the bird rabbit hole! Now I even find my husband staring out our kitchen window, monitoring all the action. We are all obsessed!

    10. Primal Prosperity 02:53pm 08 March - 2017 - Reply

      I love to sit and watch birds… or any wildlife for that matter. It is soooooo soothing and really calms me. When I took a trip to Australia, I was in heaven with all the wildlife including the rock wallabies and several unique species of birds. I could sit silently and watch for forever.

      Unfortunately, there is a problem with the bird population and house cats. I guess bird populations are in decline because there are so many cats. Even though these cats get plenty to eat, they still like to kill for sport and the bells on the collars don’t do enough to prevent this. I used to think cats should be able to roam outside and enjoy themselves, but an unbalanced ecosystem is a problem.

      Another problem with bird populations is our lawn culture. Birds will migrate thousands of miles thinking they will have plenty of food, and then they get to manicured lawns and non-native plant species.

      So, yes, we all need to do our part… thanks for reminding us of that!

      • Brooklyn Bread 05:56pm 08 March - 2017 - Reply

        Just this week my dad, who loves to quiz me on trivia, was asking me if I knew the number one killer of birds. I guessed glass buildings. That was number 2. Cats are the number one killer of birds, which I did not know. But I honestly didn’t realize that this was outside the normal balance of things. Very enlightening and concerning. The glass building thing is a whole other nightmare. The new Vikings stadium is a mass bird grave because planners refused to listen to the simple recommendations from bird experts to discourage birds from flying into the glass and killing themselves. The utter indifference, the sheer arrogance, it enrages me. Thanks so much for commenting! -Linda

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