It’s hard to fight the feeling that, right now, everything is horrible. The world is battling a pandemic. Communities of color are still fighting police brutality and systemic racism. Millions are struggling to stay afloat during an economic meltdown. Protests are happening in all 50 states. Society is hanging by a thread—we can’t even agree that we should all be wearing masks, a scientifically proven defense against the coronavirus.
Seeking respite from this vortex of madness, I’ve found myself relying heavily on an oasis of happiness for me: birds. But even that has been infected by the world’s ugliness. While writing this, a video came out showing a white woman calling the police on a black man bird-watching in Central Park simply because he asked her to put her dog on a leash (Central Park’s rule, not his). Turning to birding, a peaceful hobby, is not the end-all answer, I know. It won’t change the world, stop the pandemic, or abolish racism, but it can still bring some joy. Since I’m mostly stuck in my second-floor apartment in a complex that, while it has trees, is lacking on outdoor relaxation space, my bird feeder allows me, even for just a few minutes a day, to forget what’s happening out there besides what’s right in front of my window.
While cleaning out my bedroom post-college, I found a diary entry from my childhood that described whistling at the birds outside my window. As I read it many years later, I could remember how magical it felt when they whistled back to me, like I was, just for a moment, connected to them and not something they feared. I’m an animal lover through and through, but that moment set me up for a lifetime fascination with avians.
It was several years later that I finally got my own bird feeder. I had gone through a series of life changes with jobs, cities, and relationships, and I craved the bliss I got that day from the simple act of watching birds.
Owning a bird feeder as an adult has been incredible. While there are tons of options to choose from, a clear window feeder opens you up to another world of bird voyeurism. “Once you get a bird feeder, your life will change forever,” Lauren D. Pharr, a graduate research assistant of fisheries, wildlife, and conservation biology at North Carolina State University, told me. I agree.
Birds are beautiful, mysterious creatures that can fly in unison, sing exquisite songs, and dance to attract prospective mates. New Yorkers love to hate pigeons, but I think they’re stunning little weirdos who, despite possessing the gift of flight, sometimes choose to walk down the sidewalk like us neanderthals. For me, their cooing is an aural embodiment of peace.
I have yet to go on a bird-watching excursion, but Pharr (whose Instagram and Twitter are full of amazing bird content) assured me that watching from anywhere, even from inside my house, is considered birding. So if you, like me, are more of a homebody even when there aren’t stay-at-home orders in place, you can still be a part of this quite beautiful community.
One great thing about a window feeder is that you can own one even if you live in an apartment with no outdoor space. Fifth-floor walkup? Stick them to windows you can’t reach from outside, as long as you can safely remove the screen and stick the suction cups to the glass without leaning too far out several stories above ground.
Window feeders come in a few designs. There is the triangle, which mirrors that classic birdhouse feel, or arched double feeders. You can opt for a simple rectangle similar to the one that I own, though it may be time to upgrade, perhaps to one with wood pillars. Feeders that use suction cups are more reliable that you’d think and typically won’t come down unless you pick at it with a fingernail. Just dampen the cups slightly before attaching and push them in place for at least 30 seconds to ensure they’re stuck.
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Fill It Up
You can attract your favorite birds based on the seeds you choose. I consider cardinals specifically to be my familiar (whenever I see one it’s as if they’ve just shared a secret with me), so I chose a mixed option that appeals to them as well as a number of other year-round birds. Pharr says that mixed seeds will also attract chickadees and tufted titmice, while suet cakes will bring woodpeckers.
Hummingbird feeders will give you a front-row seat to those enchanted creatures flapping their tiny wings and chasing each other. Red attracts them, so opt for a feeder that has red parts, but do not buy nectar that has been dyed red. “Although it has not been scientifically proven, red dyes are associated with causing harm to them,” Pharr says. Many bird information sites agree. Pharr’s blog post on hummingbirds offers helpful information, including how to easily make your own nectar with one part sugar and four parts water.
No matter the design or seeds used, be sure to keep the feeders clean. You don’t want to increase the spread of avian diseases. Hummingbird feeders need to be cleaned frequently, as much as every two to three days. As Pharr explained, nectar attracts ants and other bugs, and feeders sitting in the sun will allow bacteria to grow, which can be lethal for hummingbirds. That’s the opposite of what you’re trying to do here. Use warm water and soap to scrub it, let it sit for a bit, then rinse it thoroughly with warm water. You should be periodically cleaning all feeders with a bleach-and-water solution to prevent bacterial growth, Pharr says. Be sure to thoroughly rinse the bleach away before refilling.
Listen and Learn
“Write down the birds that you see, and remember to be quiet and listen. Not only can you identify birds by sight, but with practice you can identify them by their song as well,” Pharr says. You can also go the virtual route and keep track with the eBird app (available on iOS and Android), and use apps like Audubon Bird Guide (on iOS and Android) or Merlin Bird ID (on iOS and Android) to help identify your new feathered friends.
Give birding a try. You might even soar above your worries for a while.
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