Birdwatching in the Age of Coronavirus

Birdwatching in the Age of Coronavirus

Written by Kristin Wong

Topics: Mental Health

Outside, there is a series of quick, staccato chirps. I run to the window with Theo, my cat and quarantine companion. The bird that hangs out in the tree by our front window is back, and he looks sharp with his highlighter yellow feathers and black cap. I know he’s a he because male hooded orioles are a bright lemon yellow, while females are more of a faint mustard yellow.

Hooded orioles are more common to Mexico and Belize than they are to Southern California, where Theo and I live, but in the spring and summer, you can occasionally find them here. They have a distinct chirp that’s blunt and abrasive, like the click of a gas stove when you’re lighting the pilot. Honestly, it’s not a great sound, but it’s helpful if you’re into bird watching.

I was never into bird watching, but the quarantine has sparked this new hobby. It’s probably sparked something for you, too. Maybe you love puzzles now. Or coloring. Maybe you’ve taken up yoga. The quarantine has taken away the endless stream of possibilities of how to spend my day, forcing me to get creative with my entertainment. And this might be the isolation talking, but birds? They’re kind of entertaining.

For example, we have large, football-sized ravens around here, too. At least I think they’re ravens. They could be crows. Ravens and crows are similar, but I’ve learned that ravens are shaggier, stockier, and have pointier beaks. Either way, both of them are more emotionally intelligent than you might think. I once read a story about a flock of crows that befriended a little girl, regularly bringing her shiny objects. Ravens and crows can remember faces, and I repeat this fact to my husband whenever we pass one during our daily walk. He’s always skeptical, but it’s true. “Ravens are my favorite bird,” I tell him. They’re beautiful, smart, and petty—they can hold a grudge. “Pettiness is a quality you admire?” my husband asks. I suppose it is.

Certain times of the year, we even get flocks of red-crowned parrots in my neighborhood. Parrots! You can hear hordes of them squawking in the trees, especially at dawn, and I can hear a few of them in the distance as I type this. Parrots are not graceful birds. They flap their wings anxiously, and they’re loud, but imagine complaining about the noise, which people in my neighborhood do.

These parrots aren’t native to Southern California, and nobody knows why they’re here. There’s an urban legend that they escaped from a pet store years ago and never left the area. They’re an endangered species, with only 1,000 to 2,000 of them left in the wild. We’re lucky to have them squawking awkwardly in our trees. Of course, it’s easy to say this when they haven’t set up camp in your yard. I respect our endangered animals, but I suppose I wouldn’t want to hear a herd of elephants trumpeting outside my window every morning.

Actually, I take it back—that would be perfect.

The cool thing about bird watching is that you can’t really do it wrong. I haven’t downloaded any bird watching apps or purchased any ornithology books or even looked into this hobby beyond my backyard.

Like any hobby, I’m sure there are enthusiasts who will tell me there’s a right and wrong way to watch birds and that I have a lot to learn as a beginner. But to me, the best part of this particular hobby is that you only need to watch and listen and take in the wilderness around you. It seems counterproductive to force your conventions and systems onto it. You can be an expert in birds, but it seems silly to suggest that you can be an expert in watching them. As a novice bird watcher, maybe I’m being naive, but that’s the beauty of being new at something. Theo is the best bird watcher I know, and she doesn’t have any books or apps on bird watching.

The other day, a friend of mine asked what I was working on “before the quarantine,” and the phrase landed on me like a ton of bricks. I’ve been trying to wrap my head around the fact that we now live in a world that’s “before” and “after” quarantine. I’ve been trying to wrap my head around the fact that there’s a wild, invisible force keeping so much of humanity inside right now. We’re coping with nature the best way we can, and it’s destroying the systems we’ve set up to insulate ourselves from it—yet we’re still drawn to it.

It’s a difficult and complicated time, but it’s also an incredibly simple time. In the after-quarantine world, one of the most philanthropic things you can do is order takeout. “Okay,” I think. “I can do that.” But a few minutes later, I wonder, “Are you sure? What else can I do?” I’m human, and I want this to be about me. But it’s not about me, and it’s not about you. This whole thing is about us—collective humanity. We’re in this together, and the best thing most of us can do to save ourselves is, well, nothing.

We can be patient and hope for the best. We can give back when we can and appreciate those who don’t have the luxury of social distancing. We can look out the window and find something to make this dark time a little bit brighter.

For me, it’s birds.

Your Turn

Readers, what’s your brighter thing? What’s keeping you occupied and entertained during this dark and bizarre time?

neil_2017_2Kristin Wong has written for the New York Times, The Cut, NBC News, and Glamour magazine. She’s the author of Get Money: Live the Life You Want, Not Just the Life You Can Afford. Kristin is a writer, but she’s also an amateur photographer, speaker, podcaster, and recovering workaholic. You can find her on Twitter or Instagram @thewildwong.


  1. Nancy Hann says:

    Thanks for sharing this! My birdwatching stint has evolved slowly over the last year or so. I moved my desk to the sunroom in my house that looks out over our backyard in southeastern Virginia. I recently bought a Bluebird House and installed it within view of my desk. It’s been so exciting to see a sweet pair of Bluebirds set up shop there. They built a nest with the pine needles in our yard and added a few soft downy feathers from our duck, Janice. Now the eggs have been laid (5 at last count). I see Mrs. Bluebird going into the nest each morning for long periods of time now and Mr. Bluebird brings her treats of crickets and worms throughout the day to help her keep up her strength. I can’t wait until the tiny babies emerge and start to explore the world in front of my eyes.

  2. shreen says:

    I’ve been bird watching ever since childhood, but its even better now as without traffic noises their songs are much clearer. I never really took it very seriously. It’s fun just to look, maybe learn a few basics names.

    I agree that you can enjoy something as a novice, plus bird watching is one of those hobbies that asks very little of you. The joy of it is in the wonder and curiosity of watching, not in anything fancy. There’s a great book on this, a very quick read, called Being a Bad Birdwatcher which I highly recommend. I loved the book so much I wrote down some of my favourite bits (paraphrased a little):

    -obsessing over the names of birds isn’t the point, it’s more about embracing the wonder
    -bird watching is simply: looking
    -birds are very similar, but also very different. A whole lot of the meaning of life is caught up is caught up in these two matters
    every bird is another solution to the problem of life
    -once you begin to savour the quiet joys of everyday birds, you have made yourself ready for peak experience (i.e. rarer birds)

    That’s so funny about the parrots! Similar thing in London, we have bright green parakeets. They’re not native and there’s tons of urban legends about their origins (a few escaped from a film studio and bred like crazy…they escaped from someone’s house, a pet shop etc.) My sis has a photo of herself covered in them in a London park.

  3. Paolo says:

    Great article. I never thought much of ravens or crows but you’ve given me pause for thought.

    I’ve been photographing birds as a hobby for a few years but I resist the title of “bird watcher”. I’m more interested in a nice photo and birds are the wildlife I find in the city. I do like to know the species of bird I’ve photographed so I use a free app called Merlin BirdID. It’s from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. I highly recommend if you’re obsessive about knowing trivia like I am.

    We put up a bird feeder recently at the start of our self-isolation. It’s done wonders for moral! Isolation was getting us down so we really celebrated that day when the first feathered friends came to have a bite from the feeder. Since then, “watching feeder” is a new term in the house. It’s like watching TV but, well… we watch the feeder instead! You get it, it’s not weird is it? Not like “watching pizza”. That’s weird. Totally. But I only do that when I’m baking pizza and yes, that’s another term in the house! Neither watching pizza or feeder takes more than 10 minutes but it’s really relaxing. :-)

  4. Maryske says:

    Lovely article! I’m your kind of bird watcher as well, although I prefer to specialize (in the same way) as a rabbit watcher. Or in my present location, that turned into being a hare watcher, since I’ve never seen any rabbits around here – too far north, I guess. But there’s also foxes and badgers here. And, yes, a whole lot of birds. Personally, I have a bit of a preference for magpies and seagulls, but any bird will do.

    I live at the edge of a small town, looking out over some fields, and with the woods at just a few minutes walk away. Ideal location: I’ve seen whole families of hares here. Just yesterday, I noticed my neighbourhood hare (whom I hadn’t seen for a few weeks) has found a mate and they have at least one young! So sweet! But the sightings suggest that there are more than just this one (or this one family). And I just love watching them frolic and play and eat and run around in the fields or on the street. What can I say – I love rabbits, and by lack of rabbits, anything that seriously reminds me of a rabbit. :-)

    My favourite hare sighting I had a few years ago. I was on an early morning train, just leaving the station, when I noticed a large hare in the grass next to the tracks, running for its life. He was running right along the tracks (and the train), until he suddenly stopped dead in his tracks: apparently, he realized that the big huge train-monster wasn’t after *him* – it just passed him without paying him the least attention!

    Another favourite sighting (which I’ve seen multiple times) is a hare trying to cross my street (which is a pretty busy through street, with lots of lorries, too). Just outside my house, there is a zebra crossing. I’ve seen quite a few times that a hare is sitting there at the kerb, watching and listening, until there is absolutely no car within sight or hearing – and *then* he crosses the road: at the zebra crossing! :-)

  5. Kristin says:

    Your neighborhood sounds magical :)

  6. Sarah says:

    This is so lovely. I also enjoy watching birds and any other animals. A group of Canadian Geese take up residence every year near the community college that’s a short walk from my house. Usually there are a couple nests. One is nesting in the same spot she did last year, so I pass by during my walks (from a respectable social distance – geese don’t want you to get too close to their nests!). The best animal sighting I’ve had recently was a red fox running across the parking lot on the opposite side of my condo complex as I was getting my mail.

    My cat April is also the best birdwatcher I know. I never realized how much she likes it until I started working from home.

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