It’s not yet lunchtime, and I’ve already seen or heard 33 different species of birds from my backyard, a new personal record. I’ve kept a running tally most days since the pandemic shuttered our office and sent me working from home. I’m an extrovert in a house of introverts, but the birds have inexplicably made up for my former bustling workspace full of music and conversation. I never would have guessed that my small, urban yard could match the chaotic energy of the Paste Studio in downtown Atlanta.
Of course, I’ve taken steps to encourage my local avifauna that this little patch of Belvedere Park, just east of the city, is the place to be. The first move was installing a feeder pole that looks like some steam-punk contraption out of a Jean-Pierre Jeunet film. Eight different tubes, cages and trays hang from its wrought-iron arms, and a large cylindrical baffle keeps the squirrels from eating all its goodies. A big circular tray full of water sits on the ground at the edge of a wall of bushes and trees 20 feet from my window, providing for a cold drink or a splash in the bath. And a layer of leaves covers my yard, thanks to the tolerance of my wife for my newfound obsession for the birds and also thanks to my newfound hatred of the leaf blowers roaring elsewhere in my neighborhood. The Eastern Towhees, Hermit Thrushes and Brown Thrashers love to pick through the messy layers covering the grass, looking for insects and hidden seeds.
Blue Jay and Northern Cardinal sharing a bath
My bedroom is also my office, so the first thing I see when I wake up in the morning is often birds landing on the feeder, and this morning seemed particularly busy. Each season of backyard birdwatching has its charms (the awkward young fledglings in the summer, the variety of migrants in the spring and fall), but winter is simply the best. As food becomes scarce, the seeds, nuts, mealworms and suet become an attractive source of needed fats and protein. The Pine Warblers and Eastern Bluebirds that are year-round residents in Atlanta don’t bother with my feeders the rest of the year, but are daily visitors during our coldest months.
I keep track of my winged friends on an app called eBird run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology which monitors sightings and collects data for biologists all over the world. I can use it and the eBird website to learn that I’ve seen 319 different kinds of birds so far in my travels and 83 right here in my yard. Today’s list started with the Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Chickadee, Northern Cardinal and Brown-headed Cowbirds on the feeder when I first sat down at my desk. When I headed outside to refill the seeds, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet swooped right down, three feet from my face. One of our tiniest birds, it only flashes its bright-red head feathers when it’s agitated, and this one showed no sign of fear or frustration with my presence as it nibbled calmly on the suet an arm’s length away.
Pine Warbler at the feeder
As I sat outside with my coffee and binoculars checking email, a small flock of Red-winged blackbirds descended into the trees and continued to hang out, occasionally foraging at the seed feeder, drinking from the water dish or picking through the leaves. I’ve seen close to a thousand of these birds flocking around the city in the last week, but I know that one particular bird I’ve named Spot has stopped by my feeder each day thanks to a distinct patch of white feathers on its head. I keeping checking blackbirds for that patch, but I’m still waiting for Spot to drop by today.
Some of the birds on today’s yard list aren’t interested in my food and are only here for a fly-by. I saw both of our resident vultures, Turkey and Black, soaring high overhead, scouting for a carcass on which its brethren can feed. An enormous Red-tailed Hawk flew directly above me, even giving that magnificent shriek that gets used whenever you see a Bald Eagle on TV (the eagle’s call is actually pretty pitiful), and coming to rest in the top of my birch. Two pairs of European Starlings zoomed past, dark shadows identifiable only by their wedge shape. And my most unusual sighting today was of 219 Ring-billed Gulls flying in a giant V thousands of feet above me. I know there were 219 because I took a photo on my phone and just counted the blurry dots.
Other less frequent visitors to my backyard who have helped grow the list today include an Orange-crowned Warbler hopping around my bushes, a Dark-eyed Junco who’s been here all week and a Chipping Sparrow, a bird I see frequently around town but seldom at home. I saw Red-bellied and Downy Woodpeckers foraging in the trees, Yellow-rumped Warblers busily gleaning tiny insects from the leaves, and a shy Blue Jay, who never ventures too close when I’m outside.
Three of the birds on my list I haven’t laid eyes on yet, but I’ve distinctly heard— the croaky caw of an American Crow in the distance, the high pitched hum of Cedar Waxwings nearby and the harsh call of a Northern Flicker high in the canopy next door. The eBird app asks you to track all the birds you can detect, and the more I’ve been birding, the more I realize that your ears can be as important as your eyes in knowing what’s around you. I’m not there yet with all the sparrow chirps and warbler chips, but I can pick up on most of the sounds of my backyard birds, like the squeaky toy noises of the Brown-headed Nuthatches, who always seem to visit in a pack of four, or the haunting coos of the ubiquitous Mourning Doves, two of whom were working on making little squabs in my tree this morning—doves, like my horny neighborhood squirrels, have no shame.
The Merlin app is a huge help for identifying both what you’re seeing and hearing. The Sound ID feature lets me know there are birds nearby that haven’t yet made today’s list, like a the Hermit Thrush, Brown Creeper and Field Sparrow that it heard this morning, but I didn’t. Of course, it’s not always accurate, especially when it’s getting fooled by my local Northern Mockingbirds imitating all their feathered friends (actually mockingbirds don’t seem to have friends; they’re kind of the neighborhood bullies).
Still, this gives me every reason to hope today’s record list will grow, because, yes, there is a gamification element to this new passion of mine, even if I tell myself it’s all about communing with nature. The truth is that both the fun of tracking what I’ve seen, like some nature-nerd version of Pokémon, and the zen of my newfound connection to my immediate environment have kept me entertained and sane in equal measure during these Troubling Times. My office right now is my back patio and my colleagues are a diverse, colorful and wonderfully noisy bunch. Of course, even working from home you can’t always get away from office strife. My 34th bird of the day just showed up, a Cooper’s Hawk looking regal and powerful, but hugely unpopular among the staff. My yard has gone completely quiet. Where I see little creatures to be cataloged and appreciated, she just sees her next meal.
Spot, the Red-winged Blackbird
Josh Jackson is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @joshjackson or @atl_birds and on Instagram @atl_birds. He’s pleased to report that Spot returned later in the day.